Teaching ESL Students Using Humor & Jokes

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Using humor to teach students can be a challenge, and it adds complexity when you use humor with English as a Second Language (ESL) learners. This lesson provides teachers with practical guidance on how to use humor to teach ESL students.

A Room Full of Laughter

Those teachers who were overly strict or judgmental might still give you nightmares, but don't you look back fondly on those caring teachers who helped you enjoy learning? Maybe they were even a little crazy, but they had something special that made learning fun. Those are the teachers who inspire visits or letters years later.

Students often relate to teachers based on how they deliver content and behave in the classroom. One great way to develop a lasting rapport between teacher and student is with the use of humor. This is difficult enough when everyone uses English as a first language, so how can a teacher effectively use humor in a classroom full of ESL learners? It can be tricky, but it's not impossible.

Use Humor to Put Students at Ease

Humor can be a great way to break up monotony, put students at ease and establish a bond. When ESL teachers use humor appropriately, it can allow students to observe a different aspect of the language they are working so hard to understand.

Many ESL students, especially beginners, are nervous about making mistakes or looking foolish in front of their peers. One effective use of humor is to take attention away from a student's mistakes. For instance, if a student is unable to answer a question and seems to be starting to feel panicked, deflect the student's silence with a joke like, 'I don't even think I could answer that question.'

It's important to note that forced jokes and obscure humor can cause more distraction than good results. If you feel a joke is borderline unintelligible to your learners, it may be wise to avoid saying it. Students are often already confused by English vocabulary and grammar patterns, so telling them a joke that will further increase their confusion can be counterproductive. There is no point in making a joke in an ESL classroom unless the students will understand it.

Avoid Inappropriate Humor

ESL teachers can sometimes make jokes unintentionally. For instance, the word 'shabby' sounds strikingly similar to a Chinese curse word, so describing an object as shabby to a class of Chinese ESL learners is likely to elicit a big laugh. However, if the teacher intentionally made this joke it would be highly inappropriate because the corresponding Chinese word is extremely rude. A good rule of thumb when deciding whether to use phonetically based jokes is to ask whether the word would get a teacher speaking the students' native tongue into trouble. If it would, it's probably best to avoid.

While it might be obvious, it's important to be aware of cultural, religious and political sensitivities when making jokes. If you're teaching English in a foreign country these types of jokes, particularly political jokes, can get you in trouble with the school administration. If you're teaching in the US, you risk alienating students who may be offended by jokes targeting their native countries or religious traditions.

Additionally, don't assume that jokes containing sexual innuendos will go over your students' heads. Even though their language skills are still developing, ESL students are surprisingly adept at detecting inappropriate or suggestive language. The best advice is to keep it clean and don't joke with your learners the same way you would with peers. It can be surprising how often well-meaning teachers ignore this common sense advice and find themselves in hot water.

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