Learning English is undoubtedly tough. Universally hailed as one of the more difficult languages to grasp, let alone master, practicing English inevitably fosters frustrations, anxieties, and stressors in our students. It is very easy for ESL pupils to become dejected and resentful of the learning process required to learn English to the standards of their schools, families, or even themselves. The cultural, familial, and academic pressures in learning English can taint the overall experience and, instead, make it quite unpleasant. Until we can understand the perspective of the challenged student, we then discover the importance you, the English tutor, have in providing a space entirely conducive to the learning experience. Introducing… the importance of laughter! With years of neurological research on the effects of laughter on the brain, and clinical studies of students’ learning capacities when laughter is ever-present in the classroom (versus when it’s not), it is no wonder the teachers and tutors of ESL depend on lightheartedness when delivering lessons. Aside from the ability to make material all the more memorable, laughter is scientifically proven to release dopamine in the brain, AKA the neurotransmission of happiness, which, in turn, naturally relaxes and soothes. Laughter is a critical tool in the psycho/neurological absorption of knowledge and memory retention, hence its importance in our field.

ESL student smiling

According to Kaitlin McLean, in her Yale Scientific published article, “Can Laughter be Therapeutic?” she states that the act of smiling releases “dopamine, a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of happiness. Interestingly enough, this effect works both ways: the release of dopamine when we feel happy causes us to smile, and the mere act of smiling causes the brain to release dopamine, which in turn makes us feel happy.”1

Dopamine and laughter are synchronous in making us relax, which is a massive asset in our classrooms. Being that we teach online, we have an arsenal of tools at our disposal to enhance the joyousness of our students’ experiences. From drawing funny faces to typing out riddles or jokes (which is a disguised way of practicing reading and speaking English!), these actions of silliness contribute to what William Strean calls, “the Somatic Perspective.”

In a theoretical nutshell, the Somatic Perspective, also known as Somatic Awareness, is a mental and physical fusion that determines an individual’s emotional state. “The term ‘somatics,’ comes from soma—the body in its wholeness. From a somatic perspective, we cannot distinguish the self from the body. The characteristics that constitute the self (emotions, actions, beliefs, interactions, perception…) all emerge from the physical form.”2 To capitalize on the effectiveness of learning, the physical form of the student must be in a relaxed, somatic state. In this form, one can objectively recognize the centrality of all emotion, therefore, increasing the ability to cognitively absorb the lesson at hand. Basically, the student must be comfortable, self-aware, and without distraction for optimal memory retention. As adults, we can easily lose our Somatic Perspective through stresses, work pressures, anxieties, and other worries that distract us from thinking clearly and effectively. It is imperative that we strive to create and maintain a full somatic awareness in our students, regardless of the goings on in their personal lives, in order to maximize learning potential while in class. This can easily be done through dopamine release— laughing and relaxing. This is much easier done than said!

What’s more, humor can be a positive tool to help students grow attached to their English tutor, despite the distance, cultural differences, and division by screen. Stean gives a great example of how to universally incorporate humor despite any language or cultural barriers- poke fun at yourself! By using yourself as a means to get laughs, either through body language, funny faces, or singing (purposefully poorly), you can successfully eliminate the distance between yourself and the students. They will see you not as an English tutor, but as a human being with the same silly quirks they recognize. By doing this, students are more inclined to “relax and take risks,” which, as we now know, is due to the release of dopamine through smiling. This inspiration to take risks is imperative for students when having to chalk up the confidence in speaking a foreign language out loud.3

Let’s be honest, my fellow English tutor, we are by no means professional comedians. For example, have you ever heard the gag about the online English tutor? No? Well, it’s virtually impossible to forget! Point proven… But, I must admit, the tutors, teachers, and professors that attempted using humor definitely made a deeper impression on my own learning experiences than the dry, stuffy ones who were always all work and no play.

According to William Strean, “humor is not about telling jokes and not necessarily about getting laughs. Humor is fundamentally about a mood of lightness that facilitates learning. In virtually any learning environment, students enter with some level of tension, anxiety, and/or resistance. If the stress response is activated, it can decrease the brain’s capabilities to learn and remember. An atmosphere of humor helps to dissipate negative emotions that can impede learning.”4

William B. Strean, “Creating Student Engagement? HMM: Teaching and Learning with Humor, Music, and Movement,” Creative Education 2, no. 3 (2011)

So, have no fear! We need not be comedy club ready with our stage material, simple efforts go way longer than we think. Students psychologically recognize that even the attempt at using humor in the classroom proves our willingness to create a fun space for them, and they, in return, are typically grateful.

ESL student smiling

I must admit, I am no Adam Sandler, but I make it a habit to draw a smiley face on any sun I see on our courseware. Nine times out of ten, my students point and laugh, and I feel good in knowing that I am creating a space where my students can have fun.

Of course, there are different extents to the levels on which humor has an effect. Older, high school aged students may not respond as well to a smiley sun face than our elementary students would—just as an elementary student will not comprehend a knock-knock joke intended for a teenager. This is why it is essential to tailor your approaches depending on the age demographic of your students.

There are many ways that humor can be organically added in the online classroom, particularly “through the use of jokes, cartoons, memes, riddles, quotes, or anything else that feels comfortable to the instructor, is appropriate for the audience, and is content-based to enhance and not take away. Humor can help to lighten the intensity and keep the students engaged.”5 One particular college seminar stands out in my mind as the perfect example of utilizing relatable humor to enhance the material. My professor assigned us to create home-made memes based upon the literary text we were reading. We used standard stock photos and applied our own sarcastic, witty, nonsensical phrases that were inspired by the passages. The class was in stitches when they were presented, and the rest of the seminar proceeded on an incredibly high note.

I offer this reminisce in the hopes to inspire you to use it in your own classroom! Depending on the level of your students, making memes based on your lessons is a creative way for your class to engage with the courseware in new ways, thus making the experience more memorable, all while challenging them to think creatively and subjectively in coming up with their own unique responses.

Simply put- learning should be fun.

The ability to teach through humor deconstructs a student’s mental and emotional barriers built up by anxiety, cultural differences, and the usual frustrations that accompany learning anything new, let alone a challenging foreign language. By making your students laugh, whether it be through drawings, funny faces, wit, or corny jokes, it naturally alleviates the stresses and insecurities surrounding learning a new language that can keep our students from reaching their full somatic awareness. Remember, “Relaxing is key to learning. Learning is key to leadership. Laughter unlocks both.”6

Citations for “LOL: The Effects of Dopamine Release on ESL Students and the English Tutor”:
1 Kaitlin McLean, “Can Laughter be Therapeutic?” Yale Scientific, 12 May, 2011. http://www.yalescientific.org/2011/05/can-laughter-be-therapeutic/ 
2 IBID
3 William B. Strean, “Creating Student Engagement? HMM: Teaching and Learning ith Humor, Music, and Movement,” Creative Education 2, no. 3 (2011) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259290981_Creating_Student_Engagement_HMM_Teaching_and_Learning_with_Humor_Music_and_Movement
4 IBID
5 Crystal McCabe, Katie Sprute and Kimber Underdown, “Laughter to Learning: How Humor Can Build Relationships and Increase Learning in the Online Classroom,” Journal of Instructional Research 6 (2017), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1152964.pdf.
6 Dana Bilsky Asher, “The Surprising Link Between Laughter and Learning,” Fast Company, 10 May, 2016, https://www.fastcompany.com/3059651/the-surprising-link-between-laughter-and-learning

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Brandi G

What a refreshing article! I told someone just the other day one of the things I love most about this job is the freedom to have fun while teaching. Being able to start my day off with laughing, and smiling really does set the tone for the rest of my day. Also, setting the tone for the children to go to bed after a lesson happy from a pleasurable learning experience with me makes my heart smile big!

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