27.5067, Review: Applied ling; Cognitive Sci; Pragmatics; Socioling: Bell, Pomerantz (2015)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-27-5067. Mon Dec 12 2016. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 27.5067, Review: Applied ling; Cognitive Sci; Pragmatics; Socioling: Bell, Pomerantz (2015)

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Date: Mon, 12 Dec 2016 10:40:08
From: Hilal Ergul [hergul at leomail.tamuc.edu]
Subject: Humor in the Classroom

Discuss this message:

Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/26/26-3584.html

AUTHOR: Nancy D Bell
AUTHOR: Anne  Pomerantz
TITLE: Humor in the Classroom
SUBTITLE: A Guide for Language Teachers and Educational Researchers
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Hilal Ergul, Texas A&M University-Commerce

Reviews Editor: Robert A. Cote


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

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

“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.

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

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.

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


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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