Teaching Sarcasm to ESL Students

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.

Teaching sarcasm can be challenging, but it's not impossible. This lesson details methods and tips teachers can use to teach sarcasm to English as a second language (ESL) students.

Teaching Sarcasm: Techniques

The concept of sarcasm, or irony, is fairly universal, although the ways in which it is delivered can vary greatly among languages and cultures. Teaching sarcasm to English as a second language (ESL) students is difficult, but it can be accomplished with a combination of techniques, including:

  • Examples
  • Demonstrations
  • Exercises
  • Discussions

One of the best ways to begin the process is to simply ask students to define sarcasm. If your question is met with blank stares, try reading the dictionary definition of sarcasm in order to get the conversation started.

Examples of Sarcasm

Many ESL learners benefit from specific demonstrations and examples, largely because a major part of language acquisition is based on hearing and seeing the concepts being taught. When you speak, be sure to overemphasize which words should be stressed in order to convey sarcasm. To avoid insulting your students while using them as guinea pigs, find and show stock photographs of anonymous people and then demonstrate how a sarcastic comment can be made. For instance:

  • Show a picture of someone with a really bad haircut and make a sarcastic comment about it.
    • That haircut was a great idea.
    • With a haircut like that, he must be a genius.
  • Show a picture of a person doing something dangerously stupid and again follow up with a sarcastic comment.
    • He's going to have a long career.
    • In high school this guy was voted most likely to have a short life.

You can also have students rewrite normal dialogue in a sarcastic tone by having them take random lines of dialogue from a book and revise them. If you have all of your students rewrite the same lines, you can ask different students to share their exercises with the class and discuss some of their different interpretations of sarcasm. Also, feel free to share other appropriate examples of sarcasm from films, television shows, or podcasts.

Recognizing Sarcasm

Teaching your ESL students how to deliver sarcasm should be coupled with instructions and advice on how to recognize it as well. Provide your students with the following tips to improve their ability to identify sarcastic comments:

  • If the speaker is saying the opposite of what he or she means.
    • I'm really enjoying the weather today. (if the weather outside is horrible)
    • Oh great, it's raining again. Goody! (if it's been raining for several days in a row)
  • If the speaker's tone of voice rises or when certain words are stressed.
    • Oh, that's a really nice haircut.
    • I can't wait to get started on this homework.
  • In writing, sarcasm can be recognized by the addition of extra letters.
    • This movie is soooooo interesting.

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