Saturday, August 1, 2009

Jokes in Teaching English

By Gordana Pecnik

It is of extreme importance that a joke a teacher uses in teaching English as a foreign language is in some connection with the new material the teacher is about to introduce. The above statement can be supported with two arguments. The first argument can be presented in the form of the following joke:

Teacher: John. Give me a sentence beginning with 'I'.
John: I is the...
Teacher: No, John. You must say "I am" not "I is."
John: All right. I am the ninth letter of the alphabet.
(Hutchinson 1985, 86)

This joke is presented in the coursebook Project English 1 which has been used in Slovenian primary schools for some years. That particular page introduces ordinal numerals. The joke is completely relevant to the given situation and therefore appropriate to this context. It shows a practical usage of the ordinal numeral 'ninth'. The students can use it as a guiding activity to the game which follows and at the same time they can relax and laugh for a while. In this way their attention becomes stronger. However, some jokes do not seem to be relevant in any way to the situation in which they are introduced. Here is an example which supports my argument:

Customer: This restaurant must have a very clean kitchen.
Waitress: Thank you, sir. How do you know?
Customer: Everything tastes like soap.
(Hutchinson 1987, 52)

This joke is on the page which deals with family relationships. There is also an introduction to non-defining relative clauses, and adjectives expressing feelings. But none of these seem to be connected in any way to the joke. When students read this joke they cannot find any relevant connection with the context. Their attention is then shifted to a completely different situation and their thoughts can easily wander elsewhere. As a consequence the students can lose their concentration and therefore a teacher has her work cut out for her for the remaining part of the lesson.

As I see it, a foreign language teacher can take two possible approaches to introducing a joke in language teaching:

  1. The first approach concentrates on a more profound purpose and that is to teach students how the English sense of humour works.
  2. The second approach deals with a rather straightforward use of jokes in the teaching of vocabulary and grammar.

a) Teaching how the English sense of humour works

The basis for every nation's humour lies in its historical, socio-cultural and linguistic background. In order to get to know a nation's sense of humour one is forced to search much deeper.

It is a world-wide belief that the English people have a strange sense of humour. I strongly oppose this statement. Further on, I would like to add that such a statement is used only by the people who know very little about the English language.

In contrast to the Slovenian language which is an inflectional language, English is an analytical language. In other words inflections are scarce, grammatical meanings must be expressed by alternative means like periphrastic constructions, word order etc. As a result of this the English language is abundant in idioms, phrases, homonyms and homophones. Most of the English jokes are based on such play on words.

So what can a teacher do to improve the students' understanding of the English sense of humour? As a starting point a teacher can try to introduce jokes which are closely related to the Slovene cultural and historical background, giving emphasis on the words her students are already familiar with. Once this stage is reached she can gradually proceed to improving their understanding by various activities. The most appropriate ones would, in my opinion, be multiple choice exercises and exercises involving mixed lines of a joke. The former can be based on the principle that a joke would lack a punch line and the students' task would be to choose among three possibilities: the right punch line, a straightforward ending and a completely unsuitable ending. The latter could, on the other hand, be based on the concept that a three-lined joke would have the mixed order of its lines so the students would need to put them in the right order. These activities can make the students more aware of the role of the humour in ambiguous words and in this way they can enrich their vocabularies and simultaneously participate in an active language practice.

b) Teaching of vocabulary and grammar

A joke is a suitable educational device. In this concrete situation it can be used in various ways. Here I present just a few suggestions:

  • to introduce a new topic or theme, tense, vocabulary or any other grammatical structure
  • to unburden the students of tension which appears during such lessons that involve a great amount of concentration
  • to prepare the students for more serious work involving various mental processes
  • to conclude a lesson in a pleasant way and at the same time remind them of the newly gained knowledge etc.

Most of the teaching aids can be used to realise the above possibilities such as blackboard, cassette player, overhead projector, posters, photocopies etc.

After a great deal of thinking I am of the opinion that jokes can be used in various ways. They can be modified into compositions, essays, translations, poems, pictures, dramas, role-plays, games, questions and answers etc. A teacher can suggest students to find possible equivalents in the Slovene language, challenge them with such tasks as organising a joke competition, or even facing them with a more demanding preposition and that is to collect all the jokes they know and publish them in the school paper. If these suggestions do not offer enough possibilities for teachers then they could organise a didactic activity for getting more ideas from their own students called 6x6 (six people give six ideas in six minutes). I am sure that students would be more than willing to co-operate.

However, the best effect of introducing a joke in teaching of vocabulary or grammar is, in my opinion, reached when it is simply told. Every explanation or expansion spoils it. A joke should stay a joke otherwise its purpose may be questionable.
And one last warning. A teacher should be extremely careful about telling jokes. Not every teacher is a good joke-teller so it is of high importance to extensively prepare oneself for such an activity. Even the most amusing and entertaining joke loses its significance if it is told at an inconvenient time and place. A good teacher, however, always distinguishes between an appropriate and inappropriate moment.


Humour is said to be the best physical exercise - laughter relaxes all facial muscles, unwrinkles the forehead, the body receives more oxygen, and the breathing deepens automatically.

The next few paragraphs are based on the translation of the introduction to Seliskar's Bits and Bobs (1992):

One of the aims of foreign language learning is to get to know the nation's culture and to learn to respect it. Humour reveals the most hidden parts of a nation's culture. Only few teachers include humour systematically into the educational process. Most of them are certain that students can learn less if they are laughing. The truth is quite the opposite. Laughter brings people closer together and therefore effects in the same way teachers and students.

These humorous activities introduced in this seminar paper which last just a few minutes can easily change the educational process. They can be used as an introduction to a lesson; a starting point for a discussion, creative activity or project work; a means of help to relax the students and prepare them for more serious work; a device which enables students to concentrate their attention to one topic and a pleasant conclusion of a lesson.

And what is more rewarding for a teacher than to see the students leaving the classroom with a smile on their faces and at the same time knowing they learned new vocabulary, structure and function?

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Collection of SPM English Language Question Papers

Terengganu Trial [Paper 1]

Johor Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Terengganu Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Pahang Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2] [Answers], Melaka Trial 2007 [Paper 1] [Paper 2], TIMES [Paper 1] [Paper 2] SPB [Paper 1] [Paper 2]


Terengganu Mid Year [Paper 1] [Paper 2],
MRSM Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], SBP Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Kelantan Trial [Paper 1 & 2], Terengganu Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Kedah Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Pahang Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Johor Trial [Paper 1 & 2], Perlis Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Sabah Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Sarawak Trial [Paper 1 & 2], Melaka Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2]


Terengganu TOV [Paper 1] [Paper 2] Terengganu Mid Year [Paper 1] [Paper 2]
Melaka Trial , Johor Trial , Sabah Trial , Kedah Trial , Perlis Trial , Times , SBP , Pahang Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2]

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