J is for … Jokes

The ability to make students laugh may not seem like the main priority for educational content, but humour can be a powerful tool in the classroom .

  • Subject:ELT/ESL

  • Reading Time:5 minutes

The ability to make students laugh may not seem like the main priority for educational content, but humour can be a powerful tool in the classroom – a hook to catch students’ attention. A sense of fun goes a long way towards staving off boredom and can have other positive effects too. As author and former UK children’s laureate Michael Rosen put it, writing about the power of making children laugh: “Comedy can act like a lightning rod to channel the anxiety away.” When students are feeling self-conscious or overwhelmed, humour can relieve the tension and help them to put things in perspective.

A humorous approach can help to make difficult topics more accessible. The RSA has achieved millions of views on YouTube with their light-hearted animations explaining complex topics in philosophy and economics. The simple illustrations that accompany the lectures are often comic, incorporating puns and caricatures. They help to make what could seem like a dry lecture into something much more memorable.

CGP is an educational publisher that has built its brand around an informal style that uses jokes and puns to cajole students into revising for their exams. CGP’s revision guides, with comic summaries at the bottom of each page, have a devoted following. Their jokes even have Twitter pages dedicated to them. However, not everyone is amused by some of CGP’s offerings, including a sex education guide that some parents felt trivialised the topic, as reported here. This is perhaps one danger of using humour in educational publishing – the line between good and bad taste can be a difficult one to tread, and there will always be disagreement on what constitutes ‘going too far’. This is particularly true for coursebooks that are intended for a variety of different markets.

As well as the potential to cause offense – for example, by reinforcing stereotypes – jokes can be culturally specific. The humour may be lost in translation, especially in language learning textbooks. This is not necessarily an argument for steering clear of jokes in ELT and MFL materials. After all, understanding cultural differences is an important part of learning a language. A joke can be a kind of puzzle that language students will enjoy deciphering. Jokes often require lateral thinking and reward creativity. In addition, being able to detect stylistic devices like irony and hyperbole in written texts is an important skill for more advanced students. This might explain the popularity of authors like Roald Dahl and Bill Bryson in language classrooms.

When students are feeling self-conscious or overwhelmed, humour can relieve the tension and help them to put things in perspective.

Research into the use of humour in ELT coursebooks suggests that the inclusion of humorous sentences and examples has a positive impact on retention abilities and improves students’ performance on vocabulary tests. Among the benefits mentioned by the authors of this study (see link above) are a reduction in tension, a better classroom atmosphere, improved student-teacher rapport, increased concentration and a boost in students’ self-confidence.

It can be difficult for teachers to balance the positive effects of humour with the need to maintain an orderly learning environment. This article points out some of the pitfalls of ill-judged classroom ‘humour’, including offensive, rude or sarcastic jokes, trying too hard to be funny and comedy that is out of date. However, if it is used sparingly and in the context of clear learning goals and solid pedagogy, a comic twist to a lesson can help rather than hinder learning.

Humour is a rich cultural field and exploring it is rewarding for students of all ages. In the classroom it can motivate learners, help them deal with stress and overcome boredom, and provide a ‘way in’ to difficult topics. Learning may be a serious business, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun along the way.

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