What is missing from ELT coursebooks? Open any coursebook you like. Chances are you will find a Unit on sports, the environment, food, celebrities – the one Unit you will not find is one on Humour (well, in 95% of coursebooks anyway…). But watch this clip for instance (see below). Is it not far superior to any ordinary ELT audio track? It is funny isn’t it, that in a field dominated by British publishing houses, you may find numerous texts on British food (!) and not a single one on the one thing British people should really be proud of: British comedy.

[NB: The examples I use all come from the ‘Comedy for ELT’ channel on YouTube. The reason is that most of the clips there are accompanied by ready-to-use handouts, which means that if you like one of the videos, you can use it with your students immediately! Here is what you do: you go on YouTube and you type ‘Comedy for ELT’. Under most of the clips, you will see a link (see the picture). You simply click on the link and you can download a handout (+ the Key, + the script). The handout typically contains a short paragraph which sets the context, a first, global task (focusing on general comprehension) and a second task which draws the students’ attention on language. Sometimes ideas are given for follow-up activities.]

What can I use this material for? Well, the fact that most of the sketches are quite short suggests that they can be used as ‘fillers’ – a fun break during the lesson and a way of recharging the students’ ‘motivational batteries’. Alternatively you may choose to structure a whole lesson around some of them.  For the most part however, I see them as one of the ingredients of a good lesson. For instance, you may choose to use such clips to…

  • … introduce some topic (‘Comedy for ELT – Mistakes’ [click here])
  • … practise topic vocabulary (‘Comedy for ELT – Technology’ [click here])
  • … demonstrate activities (‘Comedy for ELT – The ‘Yes-No’ Game’ [click here]) or
  • … practise situational / functional language (‘Comedy for ELT – Small Talk’ [see below])

How can I use comedy clips? Although this material is somewhat different than the ordinary audio tracks we use in class, there is no reason why our methodology should differ. As a rough guide, we can follow these steps:

Step 1: Set the context: This is particularly important if we want to help the students understand what is going on. We want to say a few things about the setting (time and place), we may need to explain the relationship between the speakers, explain 1-2 culturally-specific details if necessary and maybe give students an idea of what is funny about the sketch, without giving away the ‘punch-line’ which would detract from the students’ satisfaction (see this clip for instance).

Step 2: Pre-teach key vocabulary: Sometimes much of the fun of the dialogues lie in puns and double-entendres; we need to make sure that students can actually ‘get’ most of the jokes. At the same time we need to strike the right balance; if the teacher is to spend 15 min in preparing students for a clip which lasts 90 seconds, then this is clearly not cost-effective.

Step 3: Give students a global task: the normal sequence in listening tasks is first of all to get students to listen for gist. In the case of these sketches the first task is normally easier than one would expect as focusing too much on it would detract from the students’ enjoyment.  Typical activities are T/F Qs, Complete the sentence, Ordering, or Straightforward open-ended Qs.

Step 4: Get students to focus on bottom-up skills: Global listening is usually followed by listening for detail. In my experience students want to be able to understand the dialogues as fully as possible, which is why it makes sense to get them working with the script (e.g. typically filling-in gaps combined with adding, deleting or changing words). *

[A note on repetition: For the students to both enjoy the extracts and derive the maximum benefit from them, I believe it is a good idea to listen to them more than once.  In fact (unlike other material) the less challenging their task becomes through repeated listening, the more students enjoy the dialogues as they can appreciate the humour more – their increased confidence enables them to catch things they had previously missed!]

Step 5: Get students to focus on language: The language in such sketches is often extremely rich (sometimes deliberately, in order to produce a funny effect). As with most texts, I have found that it is best to get students to highlight useful language; that means  i) phrases or collocations – not words in isolation;  ii) phrases they can understand but which they would not use.

How can I follow this up? As the main aim of the listening activities is to help students to appreciate and enjoy the dialogues, you may not want to include any follow-up language or skills work so as not to spoil the whole experience for them.  However, there are a number of things teachers can do after these listening sessions.  Here are some ideas:

Role play:  students may like a particular extract so much, they may want to act it out, or, better still, record their dialogue on audio or even video tape (‘Constable Savage’ [click here]).

Parallel writing:  students may write a similar dialogue on the same or a related theme (‘Greatest Invention Yet’ [see the clilp below]).

Extension:  where a dialogue is part of a story, students may want to continue it, or simply write a paragraph ‘predicting’ what is going to happen next (‘Letters H – Miss P.’ [click here]) They can then listen to the rest of the sketch/episode to check their predictions.

What are the key ‘DOs’ and ‘DON’Ts’?

DO: …set the context; help the students understand what is going on before they start listening.
DO: …support students with unknown vocabulary / background knowledge / cultural elements etc. (see the clip below **)

DO: …‘sell’ the idea to the students; otherwise some of them might think it is just a waste of time.
DO: …link the sketches to the rest of the lesson, so that there is a sense of purpose and continuity.

DON’T: …give students the punch-line; it spoils the sketch for them as it deprives them of the pleasure of understanding it themselves.
DON’T: …play extracts which require too much explanation.
DON’T: …take unnecessary risks with ‘dangerous / taboo’ topics (e.g. sex, politics, religion) – unless you know your class really well.
DON’T: …treat comedy clips like ordinary listening material; students should see it as a ‘treat’!

Last words: This is the main idea: You ‘sacrifice’ some of your precious contact time in the hope that the motivational effect will more than make up for it. In a sense, it is a calculated ‘gamble’; If it works, you may find that the students who spent 3 minutes in class watching a Rowan Atkinson clip (like the one below!), will then go on to spend another 5 hours at home watching every similar clip they can find!  🙂

* NB: In the ‘Comedy for ELT’ series, the words which are blanked out are not random; in most cases words are deleted so that students have to understand the missing words to ‘get the joke’ or in order to focus their attention on some important preposition, collocation etc. Similarly, when a word is substituted for another, in the vast majority it is a near synonym, so that students will not have to look up the meaning of the original word.

** For instance, in order to fully appreciate the humour in this particular clip, students need to be familiar with Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ AND with the fact that builders / electricians / plumbers etc. etc. have a reputation for being unreliable (see how this is done in the handout [click here]).