The Usage of Humor in the Language Classroom

Seminar Paper, 2014

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theory – classroom interaction
2.1. Motivation
2.2. The discursive classroom
2.3. Reducing TTT
2.4. Increasing STT
2.5 Balanced teaching

3. Practice – using humor in the classroom
3.1. Humorous tasks/activities and its advantages
3.2. Dangers of using humor in the classroom

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In consequence of the predominant language learning concept of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) the overarching goal of language teaching became communicative competence (Hymes 1971) - "the ability of individuals to act in different situations linguistically appropriate" (qtd. in Widdowson, language teaching 1978). Suddenly though, communicative competence and meaning became the primary goals. For teachers, that fundamental communicative change in language learning meant that they could have helped leaners from then on in any way that motivates them to work with the language itself. Moreover, the course of action of the teacher expanded enormously, while amongst students an extension of interaction and social forms took place (Hymes 1971). Instead of the rather conservative, grammar focussed approaches and direct teaching the methodology of "creative writings" - the use of authentic texts, creativity-based learning, problem-solving and student-activating activity based grammar work succeeded (Thaler, MAFF 2008). Accordingly, the enhancement of communication, pair and group activities in the classroom, the reduction of the teacher´s guidance on favor of the student´s activation are other crucial goals of the CLT. The overall approach allows the teacher to adjust more opportunities, values, contents, goals and procedures to the interest of his learners and to keep his methods of teaching open (Apelt 1981).

I want to show in the following how the CLT approach is realized theoretically and practically in the environment of an EFL classroom; especially the factors of motivation and in the final part of my paper, the use of humor are outstanding.

2. Theory – classroom interaction

Looking on, amongst others, Stephen Krashen´s affective filter hypothesis, you can easily detect at least four factors that influence the classroom interaction in a positive way: The reduction of stress factors, motivation, the teacher-student relation and finally the the methods of intercultural teaching. Defining this perspective on language and learning, classrooms – and more particularly the activities taking place in them – are considered as important sites of development. This is because many classroom activities are created through classroom discourse – the oral interaction that occurs between teachers and students as well as amongst students – countering the teachers’ role as the only consequent creator of a learning environment and individual learner´s development. Findings from a reasearch of Baker 1992 and Bowers & Flinders 1990 showed that the classroom activities are crucial in terms of learning opportunities and individual students development. As classroom experts, teachers are responsible to structure and manage this practical and intellectual context. Through their communicative actions and preferably interactional activities teachers shape the learners´ development. They mediate both, quantity and quality of learning opportunities through their own attitudes to students involvement and through their interaction; above all, the teacher´s personality sets the standards for performance measurement. So the final question remains: which kind of practices simplify the classroom discourse (Hall, Joan Kelly 2000)?

When it comes to the mentioned different teaching roles, the teacher has to choose from a variety of classroom interaction patterns, depending on the situation, the task and of course his teaching style. Basically, all those possible patterns advance his style, but they range from the most teacher-centered (teacher talk) to the most student-centered (self-access) ones (Ur, language teaching 2012: 18). As I explained previously, I want to focus on those interaction patterns, which involve the students as much as possible and reduce the teacher’s involvement at the same time. Although there are plenty of new teaching patterns, the IRF (Initiation-Response-Feedback) is still common in EFL classrooms and a classic way of classroom interaction. However, there are more effective ways of „full-class interaction“, where the class debates on a certain topic and the teacher functions as the discussion leader. Another creative way to open up the typical IRF pattern is to turn around the roles in the classroom, meaning that the student initiates and the teacher answers; understandably, this sort of student-teaching is very popular amongst students. Collaboration between two or more students, the more classical group work (which requires interaction in contrast to the collaboration) are further ways to detache the class from too much teacher involvement.

Across any conventionally classroom rules, “self access” leaves the learning process to the students completely, letting themselves choose their topics and materials. In my opinion a very interesting way and definitely the most liberate one, but you have to consider thereby the risks of an maybe failing or uncoordinated learning process (Ur, language teaching 2012: 19).

2.1. Motivation

The only sure way to enhance classroom interaction is to enhance motivation: In the following, I am going to examine different kinds of motivation and ways how teachers can help to advance their motivation level. According to Lambert and Gardner (Lambert, Gardner 1991) four different terms are related to “motivation”: Integrative motivation, or the desire of the learner to integrate into a community of speakers of an language, instrumental motivation, seeking for the educational benefit of the language learning – e.g. to get a better job, university degree, etc. - and further there is the distinction between extrinsic (perceived benefits or penalties/failure of learning) and intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is probably the most decisive one, because it is associated with the activity of language learning itself – whether it is perceived as interesting, boring, fulfilling or frustrating. Instrumental motivation would be extrinsic accordingly. In conclusion, all four aspects of motivation are closely linked to the concepts of self and personal identity (Dörnyei, Ushioda 2009), more precisely the identities of the students, which shape the teaching environment.

2.2. The discursive classroom

Those multi-layered character of students’ identities establish an impressive new potential for the EFL teacher. But instead to adapt teaching to these new framework conditions, traditional foreign language classes have focused too greatly on grammar than on the actual usage of English in day-to-day situations and on formal correctness (usage) at the expense of use (successful communication). To solve this discrepancy, Widdowson suggests an extension of the classical EFL teaching practice through a more discursive and communicative use of the language in class. He explains how to teach reading and writing by considering the process: How to select and adapt reading passages, design and form of reading comprehension questions, the rhetorical structure of true-false and multiple-choice questions and above all, the importance of information transfer within the process.

But nevertheless, critical points in his approach are the lack of teacher control on the input, which is rather selected by the students than by the teacher and his proposed exercises focus too much on his proclaimed goal, the communicative use of language, than on form (Widdowson, Teaching Language 1978). So, is it rather the discursive void in the classroom or the lack of motivation amongst students which prevents successful EFL learning and teaching?

2.3. Reducing TTT

After highlighting the students site, EFL teachers eagerly have a range of duties from assisting thier students, to conversation leader, to being the sole teacher in charge of an English language classroom and at the same time various options to fulfill those duties. The amount of training needed to secure one of these jobs can vary widely, but certain points can be reckoned as necessary for it. Such as good preperation: A small step that automatically reduces TTT. Back in my own school days the well prepared lessons had the highest learning outcome and effect on me.

Such preparation means that you should particularly be aware of the factors that influence your lesson, such as tempo, the mixture of fast-moving and slow-moving elements and reflective activities as well as the specific topic or the difficulty. It can mean as well to create lesson plans, sharing your systematization with your class, for example in form of agendas or shortened lesson plans.

As soon as the students are challenging you additionally, the mode of your activities becomes crucial: Are your students asked to produce or just to receive (listening, reading). Light, fun based exercises should rotate with serious or relaxed contents. Lesson plans can have another positive effect; again, structuring your teaching with active and passive sections, giving you the choice of active encouraging of your students or simple instruction. As the common feedback by the teacher is less communicative, you should change to inter-student feedback or guided feedback regarding your students. While “personal presentation”, meaning the use of anecdotes and real-life communications (shopping, party) in combination with simply less talking time and the tolerance of silence can shift your lessons to another level. And prepare a reserve! An exercise your class is very likely to succeed in and leaves it in a good mood (Ur 2012: 22).

2.4. Increasing STT

However, the students themselves are the most interesting matter to work on. Simultaneously, they bring in their experiences and thoughts. They can be activated to talk or write about that information; an effective way to explain and practice meaning (Harmer 2001: 176). This implies communicative activities such as group, pair-works, dialogues, or referential questions: “What have you done in your vacations?” or “Oh, I actually expected some smiles on your faces!”. In that way you will encourage even shy students (small steps), try to avoid boredom → use provoking news, headlines, etc. to get the students´ expressing their opinions; realias (funny realias). That processes have to be surrounded by a safe and relaxed speaking atmosphere.

Still, you should be able to react flexible on new situations,ask the students whether they would like to approach the topic in another way. Don´t forget to repeat contents, adapt to students’ interests and let them influence your methodology. In the course of that, you certainly get feedback from your students. At the same time, it is important to lay down guidelines and to express what you expect of them, which is extremely important to students (Harmer 2001: 125).

This open language teaching does not mean that experiments and aimless respondings to every little note of the student take over. Nor does it exclude classic teaching methods. The learning environment simply must be made more engaging and consistent, while structure still rules the classroom (Thaler, MAFF 2008: 308). An enquiry by E.C. Wragg (1981) confirms former studies in the result, that it is the ability to explain what students appreciate the most. Statements in second, third and fifth place seem to stress good sympathetic personal relationships. (Wragg 1984). Shuy (1986) points out an alternative to the quite structured recitation teaching called "responsive teaching." He argues that responsive teaching resembles everyday dialogues more than typical classroom conversations. Recitation teaching, on the other hand, emphasizes standard, proper use of language, seeking to reinforce the acquisition of cultural knowledge. In classroom interactions that resemble everyday conversations, nonstandard, informal language use is legitimate (Alpert 1991: 350-366). No matter what theory you are bound to, use any kind of situation for dialogues and meaningful, authentic talks: Students questioning other students; guessing or whispering games or summarizing tasks can be altered and combined with exemplary activities like the “living clocks” where some students demonstrate the time with their arms and others have to say what the time is. Or the “class robot”, where one student reacts to the commands of his or her fellow students (Ur, Five Minute Activities 1992).

2.5 Balanced teaching

Older approaches such as the closed class is thus not inevitably doomed to failure: “There is good teaching and there is bad teaching. Good teaching is characterized by a variety of styles“ (O´Neill 1991: 303). A balanced school lesson including teaching methods, techniques and procedures which are partly open as well as closed is the probably best funded attempt (Thaler, MAFF 2008: 307).

To define “balanced teaching” you have to take a closer look on Thaler´s concepts of “Fertigkeitsorientierte Lernarrangements”, which means creative writing, discussions and improvisations, along with “Phasenorientierte Lernarrangements”, counting on surprises, breaks and closures (Thaler, 15 Lernarrangements 2011). Further I want to mention his “Cooperative Language Learning” here - the method which makes the greatest use of cooperative learning methods such as partner work or group work. This approach can also be interpreted as a variant of CLT (Richards,Rodgers 1986: 193-195). And supplemental, the “Community Language Learning”, in German “Lernen durch Lehren” - stressing the collaborative nature of learning along with a rejection of competing ideas and excessive cognitive goals. Emotional aspects of learning are rather taken into account (Thaler, 15 Lernarrangements 2011).

In my opinion, a modern EFL teacher should stick to “A healthy balance of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic classroom structures to prepare students for the full range of social situation“ (qtd. in Kagan 1994: 1) Still, the student-centered activation has an essential place and and the wrong choice may even lead to ineffective learning. So are Grammar and vocabulary tasks more teacher focussed whereas comprehensions and reading exercises are chances to use the student-led interaction patterns. (Ur, language teaching 2012: 19)

3. Practice – using humor in the classroom

Humor is all around us! All we have to do is to stop, to look and to listen. And humor is certainly ever present in the classroom on every level. If you have the ability to combine it with own ideas and a wide example background, it becomes “a phenomena of which you can make use” (Willis 1981). Humor can be distinguished according to its form. And there is plenty to mention, such as figural humor, appearing in comic books, cartoons or caricatures. The category of verbal jokes, irony, anecdotes, riddles and others. Further visual humor (mime, pantomime, slapstick, sight gags, etc.) and finally auditorial forms of humor, like in noises or sounds.

Coming back to the EFL classroom and a scientific point of view, humor is the core mediating element in the relationship between student perceptions of instructor humor and student's reports of learning - the use of humor in the classroom has been investigated using a variety of humor operationalizations and methodologies with mixed results. In those studies the role of teacher humor orientation was rather examined than specific humorous behaviors. The relationship between perceived teacher humor orientation and learning was the focus of this studies. Results indicated that a high humor orientation (HO) was associated with increased student perceptions of learning. Perceived teacher humor orientation was also examined in relation to nonverbal immediacy and socio-communicative style. Additionally, it was found that more humorous students reported to have learned more with a highly humorous teacher (Wanzer, Frymier 1999: 48-62).


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Usage of Humor in the Language Classroom
University of Augsburg
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ISBN (Book)
usage, humor, language, classroom
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Christian Rickauer (Author), 2014, The Usage of Humor in the Language Classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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