“I hear students roaring with laughter in other ESL classrooms as I walk down the hall. I’d love to make my students laugh like that, but I’m not good at making jokes or clowning around. Any tips for effective ways to add humor to my ESL classroom?”
Our role as ESL teachers is to help our students gain the language and tools they need to communicate better in English. True, we’re not entertainers; it’s not our responsibility to “put on a show” and make them happy. But it’s also true that humor helps students relax. Laughter is indeed the best medicine, and rather than creating a distraction it creates an environment that is conducive to learning. An ESL classroom full of happy, smiling faces is a gift that I would bestow on any ESL teacher if I could. But I can’t. What I can do is suggest some ways to inject a good dose of humor into your class. And here’s how!
7 Easy Ways to Inject Humor into Your ESL Classroom
You don’t have to be a professional actor to make a funny face. Once you get past the “OMG, I look ridiculous phase” you’ll see it’s quite easy and highly effective when it comes to not only conveying feelings, like sad, happy, worried, etc… but also giving feedback. For example, when students make a mistake while speaking, instead of interrupting and correcting, I often simply make a funny face (like exaggerated shock for big mistakes like using the wrong verb tense), which helps them see their mistake but takes the edge off the “correction”.
Cartoons or comic strips are superb sources of humor for intermediate to advanced students. They help make a “serious” topic less cut and dried, and more interesting and friendly. Consider this cartoon, for example, a classic from the Far Side cartoon series by Gary Larson. As the cartoon indicates the expression to go bad has two different meanings. Because they often include a play on words, cartoons are a great way to learn new vocabulary and the nuances of the English language. If your students have never heard the expression “Curiosity killed the cat”, this would be a great way to teach it!
Wordplay can provide tons of laughs, as long as students get the joke. Puns rely on the use of words that have different meanings, or that are written differently but sound the same (as in homophones). There are plenty of sites where you can find puns that are appropriate for the ESL classroom, like this very funny list. But never underestimate the effect a spontaneous pun may have on your class!
Jokes have a similar effect in your classroom, but unlike puns (which can be unintentional and spontaneous) jokes must be learned and prepared beforehand. A joke that is told like a little story is great way to either introduce a topic or close the lesson.
I love introducing the element of randomness in my ESL classroom. Suddenly bringing out things your students are not expecting can make for very funny moments. About to teach the Future Perfect? Bring out a “crystal ball”, and you’ll get some laughs. There are any number of props you can use in class, and if a clown nose is a little too much for you, maybe you’ll feel more comfortable with a hat or tiara?
I learned to use slapstick in the classroom by accident. Literally, by accident. As a person who is terribly clumsy by nature, I discovered early on, I was prone to embarrassing myself in the classroom by tripping, falling down the stairs, or spilling an assortment of liquids on myself or my books. At first, I was mortified, of course, but then I decided to make an embarrassing situation into an opportunity for comedy. So every time I spilled something, I made exaggerated moves to clean it up. Every time I fell, I would bounce back up and start jumping around saying, “I’m ok. Honestly! See no broken bones! But you might want to check the chair. I think it broke a leg” – pun intended! And instead of being concerned or worried, students would laugh. The terrible accident became slapstick comedy. It's called laughing at yourself, and I highly recommend it.
I never ever not even once in my life dreamed of becoming an actress. But the more I taught ESL, the more these strange little voices started popping out of my mouth. It began with very young learners when I tried different voices for different characters. But then I became bold enough (some might say crazy enough) to do different accents with adult learners. Try faking a British (or American) accent. Impersonate a famous celebrity. Students get a kick out of it every time. If you don’t feel you can, start small, like doing voices for a story.
No, you don’t have to be a stand up comedian. No one’s expecting you to. You don’t have to be off-the-wall wacky or go full-on clown for your class. Simply add the level of humor you’re comfortable with. Sometimes, a simple light-hearted remark will do the trick, enough to get you an ear-splitting grin from a student. But I guarantee you, that’s all it takes and that’s how it begins. The more smiles you get from your students, the more you’ll want!
* This question was sent in from a real ESL teacher, just like you! If you need any advice on a particular topic, share your question in the comments below. Or tweet your question to @busyteacher_org with the hashtag #ESLTeachersAsk. Your question might get picked and featured in an article!