John Wilson

Playing to the gallery

Successful class-management and learner success is dependant on having fun

One of the main things lacking in my MA Applied Linguistics course was a good discussion of the social psychology of individual language classes and the peculiar group dynamics that shapes a particular learning environment. 

For years I have been wanting to discover a good ‘social psychology of language teaching' on the bookshelves, but without any luck. One topic would be the role of fooling around and teaching through humour. What particular influences might that have on the n+1 ?

We are all familiar with the fact that every class has its own special chemistry. For obscure reasons some classes are friendly, others not; some bright and perky, others lackluster and heavy going. Each class has its own particular atmosphere - but how is this created? 

For created it must be-from the base ingredients of the preformed personalities of the participants plus the manner in which they subsequently interact with each other. Often two or three characters set the tone. The sub-text for this article is that you as the teacher are the main player who influences power-relations, distancing, bonding and the forming of roles, and that you too are a major player for the chemistry. One method of doing this is through the use of humour.

Creating positive atmosphere

Humour, as we all discover, promotes a positive atmosphere in the classroom and brings people together. It motivates learners to contribute orally and produces spontaneity - on-the-fly discourse far more genuine than the ‘showcase discourse' of textbook dialogues. 

The use of humour is stimulating but too much during teacher-talking-time can get you the reputation of not being serious about your job. Two or three humoristic asides in a one-hour period should be enough - and this may require circumspection (one should avoid politically sensitive topics such as royalty or gay rights).

I once had a class in hysterics through my impersonations of a Thai soap opera (jilted teenage lover starts a crying jag and will not stop). My impressions of shampoo adverts, politicians, Thai policemen and even other teachers in the institution have all enlivened the classroom and made me friends and acquaintances eager to share my table at breaktime.

One becomes part of an ‘in crowd'-one becomes ‘cool'. Yet the trick is not to manipulate and bask in performer's ego, but to bring the others into the interaction and get them exploring the language that the group has been studying. 

Getting your students to make their own comments on a humourous situation is a great way to stimulate further discussion where language errors are ‘de-criminalised' and communicative competence presides. 

It diminishes learner shyness when everyone in the room is laughing and having a good time; impromptu spin offs engender a variety of semantic fields and grammatical errors no longer threaten ‘face' when linguistic stumbling becomes a part of the act.

Using humour

So, the use of humour is a stimulus for enlivening the social dynamics in your language class and channeling mood towards expanded linguistic performance: social suspicions are assuaged, friendships are encouraged, risks are taken. 

From that basis we can return to the more sober aspects of language instruction - the language forms under consideration that week that have spin offs, ad lib, in a temporary jocular sideline - and later approach them analytically as a group with camaraderie and cohesion.

Humour, then, belongs to the mood of a class and disposes the participants towards other attitudes and behaviours that promote both group cohesion and didactic process. 

Along with timidity, social distance, boredom, alienation, hostility, aloofness ... or, contrariwise, boldness, social engagement, interest, association, equanimity - all positive qualities that can describe the personality of a class, humour will have its sway. 

The main point here is that teaching is not just a didactic activity - for the language classroom is also a social occasion. Students not only go along to learn English but also to have fun, make friends and enjoy each other's company. 

Your contribution as a humorous performer will stimulate much towards those ends and earn you popularity, as well as adding impetus to a language topic.


I was captivated as you began to talk about the two or three characters in a class that set the tone, and the main role that the teacher plays is that of the person in the group who sets the standards for bonding, distancing, power relations and the forming of roles. More so as you expanded into the teacher being the major player in the class chemistry.

Then, ... you seemed to offer up an excuse for not being allowed to perform in this way, and I was dismayed!

I was totally engrossed in your text, but I felt you chickened out just at the moment you were giving me vital information!

Please don't think I'm being over-critical. Your article was great, but it was like reading halfway through a book, only to have it burst into flames.

At this point, I will try to read between the lines, and suggest that you feel you could possibly be sitting on the paper's-edge of your new contract, and fear you are being watched too much?

Why worry? I now have four years of teaching in Thailand, (which I know is small in comparison to many on ajarn) but I already know the mind-set of Thai administration.

You know as well as I do that your performance as a teacher of English in Thailand does not matter a jot to Thai people.

I have just left a beautiful school in southern Thailand after two years of teaching Prathom. The manager wants a contract from a new agent because it is less money. I don't want to leave this school, or these kids, and the kids are crying because I am not going to be their teacher in May.
Why are they crying?
I feel I made chemistry in every one of my classes, and I could feel the feedback from the students, and that is why I was waiting to read about YOUR experiences with class chemistry!

By Philip Bennison, Thailand (28th March 2010)

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