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The Value of the Laugh and Learn Method

ESL student engagement laughter

“Laugh and the world laughs with you” or in the case of the ESL tutor, the online classroom. Occasionally the ability to laugh and learn appears to be a complex magic trick where we become lost as the magician’s hand moves quickly from one act to another. We are left curiously wondering at the mechanics of the act. ESL student engagement, at least for me, can at times seem like a magic act. Tutors, who struggle with laugh and learn methods and lack a sense of humor, may feel inadequate. How can ESL tutors who teach English online wield their sense of humor to capture the attention of their students? It is our job to engage with our students and help create a learning environment in which they feel safe to make mistakes without being punished or ridiculed.

A sense of humor is the most valuable tool in creating a positive learning environment where students learn to take risks and laugh at (while learning from) failure. For those tutors who teach English online, your facial expressions, voice, and hands are your most humorous items. Your sense of humor may lie in being able to laugh at yourself, imitate a chicken or talk with a Danish accent. As you teach English online, you must persistently meditate on this question: “where is my sense of humor?” Now let us examine the value of using laugh and learn in the online classroom as a tool for ESL student engagement, management, and socialization.

Using Your Sense of Humor as a Stimulus for ESL Student Engagement

Teaching English online, at times, presents a more significant challenge to laugh and learn methods. How can we teach English online and at the same time use the laugh and learn method to reach our students? Not helping matters, I am one of those unfortunate persons who self-identifies as being “humor challenged.” Even so, there are tools and materials available to encourage the laugh and learn approach and create an environment of engagement by developing a sense of humor. The laugh and learn method for ESL student engagement establishes a positive atmosphere that promotes learning via humor. Laugh and learn also opens the classroom to risk-taking and embracing failures as valuable learning opportunities.

According to Kaywin Cottle, a Speech Communications teacher, “because I know that a good laugh eases tension, increases creativity, … I will do almost anything to get the class rolling with laughter—voice inflections, exaggerated facial expressions and movements…I encourage my students to do the same.”¹ As a tutor, using laugh and learn will encourage students to ask questions, make mistakes and take risks while facilitating a positive learning experience. When a student feels safe to take risks, make mistakes and express their sense of humor, they will engage more with the material. I had a young student who was very nervous and shy when I first began to teach English online. During a lesson about appearance, I drew some very badly drawn stick figures and gave them bizarre clothes and multi-colored hair. The little girl began to laugh and learn, and by the end of the lesson she was engaging with the material and retaining it. Risk taking is as equally important to the tutor as the student when you teach English online. We must take risks by using our sense of humor, even to the point of embarrassing ourselves, to help engage our students. The laugh and learn method not only reduces tension and anxiety within the classroom but also, according to Maurice J. Elias, “…improves retention of information, and promotes creative understanding.”² As you teach English online, you must remember that you can use your sense of humor to connect laugh and learn lessons with the student’s own experiences which will increase their retention and focus. Moreover, the laugh and learn method grabs the attention of the students and helps them maintain their focus on learning. This type of learning is known as character and social, emotional learning (SEL). SEL and the laugh and learn approach are both critical to those who teach English online as both methods may be easily implemented into the online environment. I may teach English online, but I can still employ SEL techniques along with my own sense of humor to encourage laugh and learn in the online classroom.

Laugh and Learn as a Tool for Classroom Management

When you teach English online, you must be especially cautious where classroom management is concerned. The laugh and learn method or SEL are particularly helpful tools for managing a classroom and maintaining stability while fostering creativity, sense of humor and self-expression. It is critical, however, to ensure that your sense of humor is therapeutic or constructive and not offensive or hurtful. As you teach English online, you will find that you can wield your sense of humor to control the classroom environment and the behavior of the students. According to PLAY, “teachers can facilitate discussions and establish guidelines to teach students appropriate behavior and boundaries.”³ Investing in the laugh and learn method can help those who teach English online to channel student energy towards learning while teaching them how to behave and interact with their classmates. I have found that the best way to improve the behavior of a disruptive student is to get their mind busy. Laugh and learn situations and related discussions that prod at a student’s interests and sense of humor build connections between the tutor and student. You will find that even poorly behaved students have a unique sense of humor wherein lies their own sense of motivation. The laugh and learn method is a great way to discuss class rules and appropriate behavior without hurting the student’s feelings. As we teach English online, we must be mindful to consider the individual student, their tone, intent, and the situation when using the laugh and learn method for managing the classroom environment.

When I first began to teach English online, I had a very disruptive student who lacked a sense of humor. He talked over the other students and made rude remarks. I tapped into his unique sense of humor by using funny word games and questions that reinforced classroom rules. I have noticed that he now respects the “talking time” of other students and retains the material better. Channeling a student’s sense of humor can transform that raw, disruptive energy that some students express into a positive laugh and learn experience. Moreover, the laugh and learn method can increase the focus and attention of high-energy or disruptive students which helps the tutor maintain control over classroom behavior and encourage positive learning.

ESL Student Engagement Through Socialization

The laugh and learn method, by fostering a sense of humor, can increase socialization in the classroom and ESL student engagement. Using your sense of humor as a teacher can help new or shy students become better socialized in class and interact positively with their classmates. I found that I sometimes have difficulty socializing my students with laugh and learn methods when I teach English online. The SEL (Sequenced, Active, Focused, and Explicit) technique embraces laugh and learn environments and individuality to ensure classroom socialization. SEL is an excellent socialization tool for those who teach English online. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL helps students connect with their instructors and peers through “self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness.”4 The laugh and learn method can utilize SEL skill sets to help students uncover their own sense of humor and develop empathy and character skills. Using laugh and learn can foster socialization skills such as having students interact with each other in humorous situations. A classroom culture that values sense of humor will also reward risk-taking while encouraging an environment that treats failure in a positive, rather than shunning, manner. I have found that a listening and supportive class atmosphere will help students to break out of their shell and participate. Warm-ups or improv games are excellent SEL tools that utilize sense of humor to foster socialization in the classroom. I have found that as I teach English online, warm-ups improve my sense of humor. This includes games that reward risk-taking, help students laugh at one another and the teacher, encourage listening, and group support.

I find that a “natural” sense of humor is one of the most valuable tools available to tutors who teach English online. I have one student who supplies his own sense of humor for the class, and this has encouraged socialization between himself and the other student. When I first began to teach English online, the other student was shy and did not want to interact with him. He drew in his classmate by creating funny situations such as pretending he was flying, acting out vocabulary, and answering questions with a comical answer. By the next class, the other student was actively engaging with him and anticipating his humorous antics. Encouraging a student’s raw sense of humor can facilitate the laugh and learn experience while creating an environment of social interaction. Moreover, SEL skills along with laugh and learn ought to encourage students (and tutors) to develop a sense of humor that values positive decision making, social interaction, empathy, listening, and exercising compassion and tolerance.

ESL student engagement laughter

Teacher Jonah uses a chicken costume to discuss Halloween and to get some giggles.

How can I use Humor in the Classroom when I Teach English Online?

This is all very fine, and well you might say, but how can I teach English online and use my own sense of humor in the classroom to foster laugh and learn situations? According to PLAY, “humor can be planned or impromptu.”5 Planned humor may come in the form of cartoons, spelling or grammar errors, props, etc. I have found impromptu humor the most hilarious when I teach English online. This can occur purely by accident when you teach English online. When I first began to teach English online, there was an exercise where you had to match a picture with the corresponding sentence. I became confused with the task, and the students had a fantastic laugh and learn experience. Because they repeatedly told me I was doing the exercise wrong, they retained the material better and connected their own sense of humor with a positive learning environment. It is not necessary that you have an indelible sense of humor as humor comes in many forms: jokes, costumes, accents, spelling mistakes, hand puppets, etc. As you teach English online, you will find that your students have their own unique sense of humor. You can use your sense of humor when you teach English online to tap into the motivations of your students. I have one student who thinks that my Kentucky accent is hilarious. I encourage him to imitate my accent during vocabulary exercises, and this seems to motivate him to participate in class. It is our job, as tutors, to uncover that sense of humor and direct it toward learning and retention.

In playing with using humor to improve ESL student engagement, I have found that laughing at myself encourages students to express their own sense of humor. I take advantage of my location while I teach English online. My students love Kentucky Fried Chicken jokes and exaggerating my southern drawl. These situations help foster conversations about diversity and culture. A broad sense of humor can adapt to diverse situations and students. I think it is easier to uncover your raw sense of humor when trying to increase ESL student engagement online because there is distance between yourself and your students. I find that it is easier for me to laugh at my own mistakes while I teach English online. Joke Friday, funny hat days or dress up days, and puppet stories are good options for those who teach English online. As you teach English online, you must ensure that your sense of humor promotes an environment of emotional and physical safety. We must regularly ask ourselves “what motivates and engages my students and how can I use laugh and learn to enhance their learning experience?”


Laugh & Learn: Humor and ESL Student Engagement

¹ McNeely, Robert. “Using Humor in the Classroom.” NEA. Accessed March 07, 2019.

² Elias, Maurice J. “Using Humor in the Classroom.” Edutopia. March 30, 2015. Accessed March 07, 2019.

³ “Using Humor to Increase ESL Student Engagement.” PLAY Technology in Education. April 1, 2015. Accessed March 07, 2019.

4 Gulbrandson, Kim. “Character Education and SEL: What You Should Know.” Committee for Children. July 31, 2018. Accessed March 07, 2019.

5 “Using Humor to Increase Student Engagement.” PLAY Technology in Education. April 1, 2015. Accessed March 07, 2019.

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