An Approach to Teaching Humour

An Approach to Teaching Humour

by Kirstie Jackson Wilms

Humour is under-explored in language learning, probably because of the great cultural differences in the understanding of both what makes something funny, and how humour can be used appropriately. The potential for something to go badly wrong in a lesson aiming to ‘teach (English) humour’ is therefore great, and for this reason many feel the topic is best avoided.

However, understanding and responding to humour can be taken as fundamental to sociolinguistic and communicative competence (i.e. appropriateness in terms of situation and context, as well as use of communication strategies such as tone of voice) [Canale and Swain, 1980]. In addition, as Skehan notes (in his discussion of the definition of a Task) [1998; cited in Nunan, 2004: 3], individuals learn best when allowed to express their own meanings and not “regurgitate the meanings of others.” If we accept then, that the expression of humour is something fundamental to communication and that learners have the right and need to do this on their own terms, then there exists the need to address humour as a topic in the classroom.

In terms of pragmatics, humour can be understood as the speaker exploiting the interpretative capacities of an interlocutor engaging with a particular utterance in a given context [Lepore and Stone, 2015: 180]. It “involves, in part, taking a perspective whose affective import confounds our expectations” [ibid.: 181]; the perlocutionary effect is at apparent odds with the illocutionary force implied by the words uttered. This can be seen as a flouting of Grice’s Maxim of Quality, that a speaker should not say something which they do not believe to be true [Grice, 1989]. Humour therefore relies on a set of shared schemata between interlocutors: if, for example, in the following (an exchange which took place on a US talk show) the audience were not aware of the internal structure of a car, the joke, as it is, would fail:

C: But don’t we live our own lives so we don’t have to know what other people’s lives are like? I mean, that’s why I’ve got power windows, so I can roll up the window when I go through the neighbourhoods I don’t live in.

S: I think we need one in between the seats too, so you can’t see the person next to you.

[Lepore and Stone, ibid.: 183; citing Stephen Colbert and Morgan Spurlock on The Colbert Report]

Miscommunications can also arise through interlocutors each assigning different functions to speech acts; that is, the speaker’s own meaning and their intended effect may be very different from the perceived meaning for the listener and the de facto perlocutionary effect of the utterance. For example, an attempt at self-deprecating humour, intended to reassure a conversation partner, could be (mis)interpreted as an insult:

A: When I cook, I always think, well, if it’s awful, I only have to eat it the once.

B: I don’t know why you say that! People love my pastry!

As Peter Franklin points out in his article The German Dentist and the English Doctor (2021), cross-culturally such misunderstandings come about in part when interlocutors use humour for different purposes: for example, while in German business contexts interactional (relationship-building) humour is rare, this plays a major part in French business culture. Similarly, the range of transactional goals (e.g. icebreaking, softening criticism) of humour can be different from culture to culture. In addition, a lack of shared schemata can lead to misunderstandings or miscommunications: for example, if one party believes the primary purpose of the interaction is to build rapport while the other believes it to be to make a decision, sign a contract, etc, then the interlocutors may find themselves literally talking at cross purposes throughout.

In the classroom, humour can act to reduce the learners’ affective filter and so make acquisition easier. In particular, this can be effective for learners who over-monitor and are afraid of making mistakes. However, this only works if learners laugh about the mistake and not at the individual responsible for it [Peachey, n.d.]. As mentioned above, the risk of the classroom atmosphere tipping into something more negative is great. For learners, both of these factors mean not only acquiring the building blocks (vocabulary and lexis) of English humour but also the means to manipulate these in an appropriate interpersonal setting which is understood by all interlocutors involved.

A Possible Methodology

To return to the question of “teaching humour,” I feel that this may be better approached as a listening/speaking skill rather than as part of a lexical or phonological system. Students can learn about humour and explore their level of comfort in recognising and responding to it instead of (for example) simply exploring homophones/homographs or acquiring functional phrases for telling a joke, which itself may fall flat due to lack of shared cultural or schematic knowledge. I nevertheless agree that lexical and phonological awareness forms part of the knowledge needed to deal with humour in a foreign language; however, this should not form the starting point of the lesson in question.

Task Based Learning (TBL) is rooted in the premise that learners are capable of performing the linguistic task in hand but need support in doing this more fluently or professionally. In carrying out the task, learners “[mobilise] their grammatical knowledge in order to express meaning”, whilst having “the intention … to convey meaning rather than manipulate form.” [Nunan, 2004: 4]. The lesson outcome is process driven rather than explicitly product focused, with learners reflecting on and refining their output with the help of teacher-led input. To this end, the task (e.g. break the ice in a meeting; decline an invitation) is performed at least twice, once before input from the teacher (given either directly or through mediated peer-teaching) and again afterwards, usually with an added challenge in the form of time pressure or the introduction of a problem (latecomers to the event; an argumentative friend). Learners then reflect on their success in carrying out the task and any teaching points arising can form the basis (in an ideal classroom) of the next lesson.

I believe that using a TBL framework to allow learners to practice using humour in English has the following advantages:

  • The tasks can be structured in such a way as to incorporate the need to use transactional and/or interactional humour
  • Learners can ‘de-brief’ after the task and reflect on any different uses of humour and the perceived meanings and effects these uses had on the interlocutors
  • Teachers can monitor for successful/unsuccessful interactions and help learners analyse why these went well or badly
  • Should learners need to work with interlocutors from a particular culture, role cards could be used with prompts to guide responses in the task

Possible Classroom Approaches

Metacognitively, to allow learners to analyse their own abilities to recognise humour, one approach would be to build a pre-task stage into the class (or series of classes) where learners state/estimate their level of comfort with detecting use of humour in various contexts (and, where appropriate, gauging their level of comfort in responding). The task cycle is then performed, followed by a post-task stage allowing learners the chance to reflect on the techniques they have acquired during the class/course for dealing with humour.

Asking learners to (self-)reflect and discuss when and how humour is used in their L1 cultures and contexts can springboard into the use of humour in the L2 context: establishing and accepting the cultural differences around humour can again build rapport between learners themselves as well as between learners and teacher, thus lowering students’ affective filter and so facilitating learning.

Having established when and how humour can be used in the L2, learners could then undertake more targeted skills work, such as recognising stress patterns or intonation in humorous exchanges, or exploring (level-appropriate) techniques for dealing with humour, for example wordplay (use of homonyms, homophones or puns): here, the primary goal would not be to initiate a humorous exchange itself but rather to formulate an appropriate response.

Allowing learners the opportunity to reflect on their own experience and usage of humour as well as equipping them with strategies to deal with L2 humour in appropriate contexts could therefore build confidence both in and out of the classroom.


Canale, M. & M. Swain, 1980: Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing; Applied Linguistics 1; 1-47
Franklin, P., The German Dentist and the English Doctor; Business Spotlight 7/2021; [accessed 13.05.2023]

Grice, H. P. 1989. Logic and conversation. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 22–40

Lepore, E., and M. Stone, 2015: Imagination and Convention: Distinguishing Grammar and Inference in Language; Oxford University Press

Nunan, D., 2004: Task Based Language Teaching; Cambridge University Press

Peachey, N., Sense of Humour; [accessed 05.05.2023]

Author Biography

Kirstie Jackson Wilms qualified as a teacher of EFL (CELTA) in 2007 and has recently finished DELTA certification with IH London. She taught (mostly) General and Academic English in Oxford, UK before moving to Germany in 2010 to work first as an online teacher of Business English and more recently in the Publishing department of an online training provider.

When not teaching or trying to blog, Kirstie enjoys hiking, reading crime fiction, and watching cricket.