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Review of  Humor in the Classroom

Reviewer: Hilal Ergul
Book Title: Humor in the Classroom
Book Author: Nancy Bell Anne Pomerantz
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 27.5067

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This monograph entitled “Humor in the Classroom: A Guide for Language Teachers and Educational Researchers” by Nancy D. Bell and Anne Pomerantz consists of nine chapters. In Chapter 1, “Language, Communication, and Education”, authors Bell & Pomerantz present the acknowledgment and purposeful inclusion of humor and language play as a key to teaching language as a complex sociocognitive system. They argue that the current view of second or foreign language (L2) teaching overlooks the complexity of language beyond its structural components. This view conceptualizes language as a means to an end, usually a professional or academic one, with little regard of the interplay between language, creativity, and identity. The authors show how this perception of language represents the learner as a mere consumer with limited agency or creative capability over the L2. They advocate for a dynamic view of language instead, which challenges the idea of an unchanging set of rules and words that every learner will process and use in a uniform manner. Language is dialogic, as no utterance exists without reference to another. It is multi-layered because in communication, there are different levels of meaning making involved at all times. Language is also situated; that is, context is an inseparable component rather than a factor affecting it.

Chapter 2, “Humor and Language Play”, further elucidates the need to make humor and play a part of language classrooms. The research on L2 speakers and humor that the authors synthesize in this chapter supports the argument that language educators should not ignore humor. Bell & Pomerantz clarify the distinction between humor and language play before establishing them as essential social practices that are also cognitively complex. To that end, they first summarize the linguistic underpinnings that create humor through the six parameters proposed in the General Theory of Verbal Humor (Attardo & Raskin 1991; Attardo 2001), namely “Script Opposition”, “Logical Mechanism”, “Situation, “Target”, “Narrative Strategy”, and “Language” . Next, they call attention to the various emotional and social functions of humor that previous research has revealed. With respect to the functions, they underline the fact that an act of humor can, and usually does, serve more than one purpose at the same time. In addition to its interactional nature, the authors draw special attention to the inherent incongruity and multiple meanings involved in humor. Consequently, humor and play can both act as facilitators of linguistic creativity and promote a deeper understanding of the target language and culture.

“Understanding Classroom Talk”, Chapter 3, focuses on humor in studies of classroom discourse, and how research frameworks have been treating it tangentially, if at all. Classroom discourse refers to the language used in the classroom, which is studied as its own microcosm. In order to present the various aspects of classroom discourse, and point out the areas for improvement in the traditional view, Bell & Pomerantz introduce an excerpt from Sedaris (2001) where he humorously describes his experience learning a foreign language. They then turn to the two main approaches to classroom research; positivist and interpretive. In positivist perspectives, they explain, the lack of attention to humor in the discourse likely derives from a focus on teacher talk in search of the best teaching methods. The second approach to classroom research discussed by the authors is interpretive, which consists of ethnographic or discourse analytic methods. Interpretive studies have also largely treated humor as though it was extraneous to classroom discourse. They argue that this may have resulted from the serious sociopolitical events such as desegregation that preoccupied classroom discourse researchers over the years.

In Chapter 4, “Playing it Safe”, the authors delve deeper into the functions that humor serves in language classrooms. They illustrate each function with excerpts from naturally occurring data. Humor and language play, the authors explain, help manage the power imbalance between the teacher and the students by acting as mitigating strategies where there is face threat. They also highlight the retractability feature of the humorous key; any statement made “jokingly” can be withdrawn, making it a valuable conversational strategy in socially risky situations. In a similar vein, the freedom to play with language can also alleviate some of the tension for language learners with insecurities, i.e. students who may intentionally refrain from participating in class lest they make mistakes and lose face. Another aspect that the authors draw attention to is “mock language”. Notwithstanding the negative connotations of “mocking”, the authors demonstrate that the humor in it may serve a number of positive goals in the L2 classroom. It can defuse a potential offense, mask an actual offense, or help learners claim ownership of a language even if they are not fully proficient in it. Bell and Pomerantz therefore argue that everything that happens in the classroom should be analyzed in classroom research studies rather than a prescribed set of teacher-focused features, accepting at the onset that humor is a multifaceted construct that cannot be explained by a single motive.

Chapter 5 is titled “Humor, Learning, and Additional Language Development”. Additional language development does not refer to extra learning that takes place in addition to the learning that is expected from students. The “addition” is to learners’ cognition, identity, and social abilities. Bell and Pomerantz thus propose a sociocognitive approach to teaching that is in line with the concept of language that they outline in the first chapter; i.e. dynamic, dialogic, multi-layered, and situated. The approach they outline is not strictly for the implementation of humor in language classrooms; rather, it is a holistic theory of language teaching that is especially conducive to humor and language play. While explaining the six principles of this approach, the authors emphasize the role of learners as agents rather than empty vessels to be filled by the teacher. They urge teachers to prepare their students for language as it is used in the real world: variable, unpredictable, and inseparable from context.

Chapter 6, “Teachers and Humor: Weighing the Risks and Benefits”, addresses the concerns that teachers may have about using humor in their classrooms. The authors start by acknowledging the potential perils of teachers’ humor use. The subjective nature of humor is prone to misinterpretations, which the authors illustrate through news stories and personal anecdotes. While these tales may cause even the most mirthful teacher to abandon humor altogether in their lessons, especially because the doomed teachers in the stories had no malicious intentions, they prompt teaching professionals to be mindful of how they incorporate humor in their classes. Bell & Pomerantz then share research studies from around the world that depict teachers using humor in their lessons successfully, hence neatly creating a thorough view of the advantages and disadvantages. The studies provide helpful tips for consideration and the authors discuss further benefits of L2 classroom humor and language play, such as serving students’ needs, by, for instance, educating them on the proper uses and limits of such discourse.

Based on the foundations delineated in the previous chapters, the authors turn to “Teaching with Humor” in Chapter 7. In this chapter, their focus is on utilizing humor and language play in curricula that language instructors at all levels of education already devise and/or use. In this chapter, humor is not the end goal but a means to achieving it. The suggested method for creating lesson plans that incorporate humor is “backward design”, a tool used by educators that do not wish to lose sight of the overall learning outcomes of a course. As the name suggests, lesson planning with backwards design starts with identifying these overall outcomes, and then moves down (or “back”) in the curriculum to monthly, weekly, etc. objectives. The authors describe the two stages of backwards design at length, and provide specific examples of using humor and language as learning tools. In this approach, the use of humor and play is strictly professional, as it enables the students rather than the teacher to play in the language. A final section addresses teachers that may want to use humor themselves in the form of funny stories. The authors’ main advice is to distinguish education from entertainment by always bearing in mind in what way the humor will facilitate students’ learning with respect to the specific objectives of a lesson or the overall goals of the class.

Chapter 8 moves from teaching “with” humor to “Teaching about Humor”. Teaching “about” humor has humor and language play as the subject of the lesson(s). In other words, it promotes “metapragmatic instruction”, which, in this case, means teaching students the linguistic mechanisms that underlie humor so that they can recognize, comprehend, and produce it more efficiently in the target language. The authors aim to help language educators protect L2 learners, insofar as humor use is concerned, from “pragmatic failure”; i.e., a specific form of pragmatic divergence that occurs when students’ knowledge of the target language and the host culture is not advanced enough to act or speak within the expectations of their native speaker interlocutors (Ishihara & Cohen 2010:81). Using the backward design method introduced in the previous chapter, and offering the humor and play concepts explained in Chapter 2 as reference, Bell & Pomerantz provide teachers with a thorough resource to create entire lesson plans; complete with examples and further suggestions.

The last chapter, “Researching Humor and Language Play”, is a guide in which readers can find information on how to design studies of humor in L2 learning contexts, followed by suggestions for potential research topics, and hypotheses that await further empirical investigation. Bell & Pomerantz systematically explain the stages of doing scientific research; such as choosing the right topic, reading previously published studies on the matter, forming research questions, choosing a fitting method of analysis, etc. The authors first present a general overview of the essential steps, and clarify their significance. In each of these sections, they also provide information specific to humor studies. Background research, for instance, includes a list of publications in the field, such as the Primer of Humor Research (Raskin 2008) and the Encyclopedia of Humor Studies (Attardo 2014). In the conclusion of the chapter –and the book, the authors call language teachers, researchers, and policymakers to action so that non-serious talk can be seriously incorporated into L2 classrooms, L2 research, and teacher training curricula.


The authors, two leading experts at the intersection of humor studies and SLA, present an innovative teaching approach while skillfully bridging the notorious gap between academic scholarship and the praxis of language teaching. Previously, investigations into the use of humor in the classroom (e.g. Ahn 2016) has not been easily accessible to language teachers. The results of such studies are published for an academic audience, which entails the use of scientific terminology that may be challenging for non-academics. Moreover, most academic periodicals that publish these studies require paid subscriptions. Even though some books that provide humor-focused lesson plans, ideas, or activities for classroom use in general are available for the perusal of teachers, those that focus specifically on language classrooms (such as Medgyes 2002) have been few, and they do not include the theory or science behind their suggestions. In this book, however, Bell and Pomerantz go beyond providing ways of implementing humor as a means and an end into the classroom; they introduce readers to the theoretical and scientific foundations that warrant their proposal. By making cutting-edge as well as seminal works of humor and SLA scholarship available in easily understood language, the authors enable teachers to join the conversation.

The implications of this thought-provoking book expand beyond L2 pedagogy. Teachers of any subject in secondary or higher education would gain a deeper understanding of the numerous psychological and sociological dynamics at play in their classrooms. Those who think episodes of unsolicited humor are indications of “communicatively incompetent” or “behaviorally disruptive” students (Bell & Pomerantz 2016:61), for instance, might be pleasantly surprised to discover otherwise. Similarly, those who teach in multilingual or multi-ethnic classrooms or those who may be hesitant about using humor in their lessons would gain useful insights. Last, but not least, this book can serve to reinstate agency and ownership to learners in their L2. The current view of language teaching the authors discuss in the first chapter can be likened to the “banking concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” (Freire 2000:72), which serves “education as the exercise of domination” (78). Consequently, critical pedagogues, or educators that aspire to be critical pedagogues, should also find this monograph a valuable read.

This book is recommended for researchers, pre- and in-service teachers, as well as teacher trainers. Researchers interested in classroom discourse, SLA, identity work, and of course, humor, can find valuable research syntheses in different chapters. The final chapter, focused solely on designing research studies, is certain to inspire new empirical investigations into humor and language play in L2 classrooms. Explicit pragmatics instruction remains a limited practice in L2 classrooms even though numerous studies and papers argue that it can be effective in the language classroom (Bardovi-Harlig 2001; 2012; 2013; Cruz 2015; Kasper 2001; Kasper & Rose 2003; Rose 2005). Humor, as Bell (2011) had previously pointed out, has been no exception. As Bell & Pomerantz note, further research in different L2 levels and contexts is needed, especially intervention studies to contribute to our understanding of the effectiveness of instruction with or about humor.


Ahn, So-Yeon. 2016. Exploring language awareness through students’ engagement in language play. Language Awareness 25(1-2). 40–54. doi:10.1080/09658416.2015.1122020.

Attardo, Salvatore. 2001. Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.

Attardo, Salvatore. (ed.). 2014. Encyclopedia of Humor Studies. 2 vols. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Attardo, Salvatore & Victor Raskin. 1991. Script theory revis (it) ed: Joke similarity and joke representation model. HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research 4(3-4). 293–348. doi:10.1515/humr.1991.4.3-4.293.

Bardovi-Harlig, Kathleen. 2001. Evaluating the empirical evidence: Grounds for instruction in pragmatics? In Kenneth R. Rose & Gabriele Kasper (eds.), Pragmatics in Language Teaching, 13–32. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Bardovi-Harlig, Kathleen. 2012. Pragmatics in second language acquisition. In Susan M. Gass & Alison Mackey (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, 147–162. New York, NY: Routledge.

Bardovi-Harlig, Kathleen. 2013. Developing L2 pragmatics. Language Learning 63(s1). 68–86. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9922.2012.00738.x.

Bell, Nancy D. 2011. Humor scholarship and TESOL: Applying findings and establishing a research agenda. TESOL Quarterly 45(1). 134–159. doi:10.5054/tq.2011.240857.

Bell, Nancy D. & Anne Pomerantz. 2016. Humor in the Classroom: A Guide for Language Teachers and Educational Researchers. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cruz, Manuel Padilla. 2015. Fostering EF/SL learners’ meta-pragmatic awareness of complaints and their interactive effects. Language Awareness 24(2). 123–137. doi:10.1080/09658416.2014.996159.

Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition. (Trans.) Myra Bergman Ramos. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ishihara, Noriko & Andrew D. Cohen. 2010. Teaching and Learning Pragmatics: Where Language and Culture Meet. New York, NY: Pearson International.

Kasper, Gabriele. 2001. Four perspectives on L2 pragmatic development. Applied Linguistics 22(4). 502–530. doi:10.1093/applin/22.4.502.

Kasper, Gabriele & Kenneth R. Rose. 2003. Pragmatic Development in a Second Language. (Language Learning Monograph Series). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Medgyes, Peter. 2002. Laughing Matters: Humour in the Language Classroom. (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Raskin, Victor (ed.). 2008. The Primer of Humor Research. New York, NY: Walter de Gruyter.

Rose, Kenneth R. 2005. On the effects of instruction in second language pragmatics. System 33(3). 385–399. doi:10.1016/j.system.2005.06.003.

Sedaris, David. 2001. Me Talk Pretty One Day. Reprint. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.
Hilal Ergul is a PhD student in applied linguistics at Texas A&M University - Commerce. Her research interests include pragmatics, L2 phonology, and adult SLA. She has worked as a language instructor in multiple states in Europe and the US, and is currently teaching written argument and research at the university level. After receiving her PhD, she hopes to continue academic research in SLA and college teaching.

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