One of the biggest problems Teachers face in the classroom is to build rapport with their students.
This is even harder when you are an ESL Teacher, because, on one side, you want them to talk, and from the other, you have a language barrier.

When we deal with ESL students, there are always three generic problems we have to overcome:

  • Difficulty in communicating due to a different language.
  • Difficulty in communicating due to an age gap.
  • Difficulty in communicating because we might be in a culture we don’t fully understand.

One way to keep students engaged in the learning process is through humour.
Making your students laugh will keep their attention on you.

Good idea, but – you might say – But what if I’m not the joking Teacher type?

Using humour in your class is not really about pulling out a stand up comedy show for your students.

It is an educational tool to help you to grab their attention and deliver your message, and although it takes practice and the right mindset, there are a few tricks that are easy to integrate in your classes.

Here are a few tips that will help you in learning the basics.

Be ready to joke about yourself

Emphasize your mistakes.
We talk a lot during our classes, and sometimes we make mistakes (for example, mispronouncing words).

If we keep being serious know-it-alls when that happens, we subconsciously communicate the idea to our students that making mistakes is wrong.

As a consequence, our students will be inclined to do the same, they will be shy and careful during talk time.
They will participate less in our classes, and that is exactly the opposite of what we want.

If we start joking about our mistakes, it will be easier to build a rapport with our students and encourage them to be brave when it’s their turn to talk.

Careful with fun anecdotes

One of the beauties of English is that it’s very easy to make mistakes that become jokes.
Telling a funny story about one of these embarrassing situations is a good way to laugh all together and at the same time fix in our students’ minds a concept that otherwise would be hard to remember.

This is for example how I teach the difference between PULLING and PUSHING a door, or the difference between TUESDAY and THURSDAY: the day you can drink, because THURSDAY is THIRST-DAY.

Be careful though about telling a funny story involving other students, especially the ones that your students might know.
Subconsciously, you are communicating that if they do or say something funny, they will become the subject of a joke in future classes, and this could lead participation in your class to an abrupt stop.

If you are a non-native speaker, a good way to do that is telling the story pretending that you were the one who did the mistake.
Starting with “When I was a student”, and joking about yourself, will have a positive effect on your students, because you started as a student, making mistake like them, and now you are an expert, as they will be.

Stay on the Subject

Using humor in the classroom is most effective when you apply it to the subject you are teaching.
Finding the fun side of your content helps students to engage more and understand it in a new light.
Adding little jokes and sarcasm here and there can go a long way.

Of course, small tangents are ok every now and then, but with ESL students, the more you can stay on topic, the better.

Use Memes

Not being a funny person is fine for a teacher, as long as you are inclined to use humour in your classes.

That being said, when you are dealing with students with very limited knowledge of English, telling a joke might become something difficult.

If you are not ready to make jokes on your own, or you don’t have the kind of students that will get you, the easiest way is to collect a bunch of memes and use them during your class every now and then to add some sparkles.

This is a fun activity to do with your students, as they will be engaged to understand what is funny about that.

Show the right Videos

Videos are a great way to inject some comedy into your teaching throughout the day.

Native speakers tend to over estimate the English of their students.
Bare in mind that when we talk about humour, there are two layers to consider to understand the joke:

  • Understanding the language.
  • Understanding what is funny about that.

Without these two factors, the joke will not be funny.

Putting on a Friends episode (or a portion of it) might be a great success in some classes, and a total disaster in some others.
Keep in mind your public and select the right videos, or an activity you prepared to boost their confidence will have the opposite result.

If you are in doubt, my suggestion is to keep the videos as short as possible, so you can play them again and again until your students will understand what is funny about them.

Videos are perfect for splitting your lessons into more appetizing chunks, which will help your students stay focused for longer.

Use Physical Comedy

Physical comedy is an amazing option, especially when teaching ESL students.
There is no language barrier to how we move and act, and sprinkling physical comedy throughout your day should be very entertaining.

Obviously, to use your body language to engage with your students you have to be already a funny (and maybe goofy) person, otherwise it will just be awkward.
So this is advanced comedy.

Consider taking acting and improv classes if you are interested in using body language to engage with your ESL students.

You could use props or silly movements, modulate your voice or use puppets, depending on the age of your students.

While physical comedy may be great in small doses, too much of it can easily become repetitive, so don’t overdo it.
After all, this should be a fun English class where you are seen as a respectable professional, not a clown.

Never Use Hurtful or Offensive Humor

Jokes can be a sensitive matter. What is funny for someone could be offensive for someone else.

As TEFL teachers, we sometimes go and teach in areas with a very different culture compared to ours, and we know very little about our students.
In other circumstances, the students are coming into our country, and what we find funny might be offensive for them.

We could for example make a comment about their hats (that make them look like Smurfs), while for them, that is a religious sign and something to be very serious about.

Picture: Pinterest

Even if you’re feeling at your funniest, you are a teacher first, and a comedian later.
Part of your job is to protect everyone’s sensitivities.

To be good, a joke has to be somewhat offensive, but we need to be always careful with finding the line we don’t want to cross, especially when we are dealing with another culture.

Making jokes might lead to problems we didn’t expect, and this is why many teachers just decide to avoid jokes and anything remotely funny during classes.

Personally, I think this is not the solution, but I get their point.
My advice for you to avoid most of the misunderstandings, is to joke about yourself, and let the students do the same on themselves.

When teaching in an ESL classroom, some students who do not have a strong grasp of the English language might find an offense where there was none.

There are students that are more prone to be the subject of jokes, and it’s actually a good idea to target them, because they will help you to keep the spirit high during your class.

Just don’t overdo it.
Involve several jokers, and allow them to joke about you as well, or it will look like you are bullying them.

Be Yourself

If in your life you are not a funny person and a joker, chances are that when you will attempt to be comedic in your class you will sound offensive.

If comedy is not for you, there are other great ways to grab the attention of your students.
Just be yourself, get comfortable with your class, and let your inner entertainer flourish.


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