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Using Humor to Teach Vocabulary Words

Updated on January 14, 2013

Vocab Isn't Very Funny

Often, the teaching of vocabulary is a dry, dreary pursuit. Students memorize lists of prescribed words; teachers review and test on those lists. Once this process is complete, it begins again. It's pretty clear why students feel unenthusiastic about vocabulary instruction, given its typically uninspired sequence. So many teachers compound the problem by scheduling vocabulary on an unmovable calendar: every Friday, for example, Mr. Smith's class receives a new list of twenty words. This is confining.  No one enjoys being so regimented, not even Mr. Smith.

So, where to begin? Well, you can sprinkle in some ill-advised puns; this, however, won't earn you any funny points. You can make like Patch Adams and dress like a clown or an equally troubling character for others' enjoyment, but you really should want to retain some level of pride. Adding humor to the teaching of vocabulary words can be a daunting task, but it's not an impossible one. Humor works best when it's student-centered. This takes the pressure off of you, so there's no need to watch old episodes of The Three Stooges to try to brush up on your comedic timing.

Student-Centered Humor

In an ideal world, this is what you'd be doing all the time: basing your lessons on a student-centered paradigm. We know this isn't always practical, but it certainly goes a long way towards keeping the material relevant (see Weird Ways to Teach Vocabulary for more on relevance).  Humor is a shortcut towards engagement, as is relevance, and every teacher wants a higher level of engagement for his/her students.

You must always remember that humor isn't universal and that students can't generally be taught to have a sense of humor. I've actually seen teachers try to teach funny, commonly in the context of a genre-based course, and the result, well, is actually inadvertently funny. Lessons on the nature of comedy are usually delivered in a deadpan style to utterly disinterested students, often at 8:00 AM on a Tuesday (now that's funny).  Since humor is so subjective, the quickest route towards using humor to teach vocabulary is through each student.  Here are some ideas.

Do you try to use humor while teaching?

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A Brainstormed List

Self-deprecation : Assign students the task of describing themselves using at least three of the vocabulary words. Tell them they are not allowed to self-compliment. The results can be awkward, yes, but equally funny. You might have students write a paragraph-length profile of themselves, using the perspective of someone who doesn't like them (naturally, including a set number of vocabulary words). If they have brothers or sisters, this might be a good place for them to start.

Self-aggrandizing : The flip side of this is to have students purposely exaggerate their positive qualities. You might have students write a fake job resume, using vocabulary words to sway a potential employer. The resulting hyperbole may be more comfortable for an insecure group to share than the fake criticism mentioned above, and students are sure to get a kick out of each other's inflated self-perceptions.

Mad-Libs : Many of us remember doing these when we were kids. The old Mad-Libs required authors to fill in blanks with words of different parts of speech in an otherwise complete section of text. Have students write paragraph-length "mad-libs" in which at least five blanks are included. The best Mad-Libs are those that could potentially use multiple vocabulary words in each blank; setting blanks in spots reserved for adjectives helps, too. Topics such as "Celebrities" or "High School" or "My Teachers" make this activity fun and/or funny; otherwise, this could turn out to be unfortunately dull.

Captioning : Show pictures of various faculty members on the overhead/Smartboard. Students must write captions for each picture, using vocabulary words. If you feel your class is too mean-spirited, don't do this, obviously. An alternative is to use pictures of celebrities. As I mentioned above, kids love to poke at celebrities. Having random pictures of multiple people works well, too. You could have students write fictional dialogues, based on what they see in each picture. The possibilities are endless.

Punch Line : Students must write one sentence using a vocabulary word from the list. This sentence should be a "real-world" application (for example, Jim walked across the street with great verve ." Other students face the task of writing the joke that led up to that punchline. This requires knowledge of the definition of the word, and the jokes will be funny most of the time because of how unfunny they are.

Hallmark Cards : Students must use a set number of vocabulary words to write fictional greeting cards. You might revolve these around an actual holiday, or students could make up holidays. The funniest cards would be those that convey the opposite of well-wishes. For example, an older student might write a greeting card to the woman who tailgated him this morning on the way to school.

Rap : Need I say more? Pretty much any rap involving the use of vocabulary words is bound to be horrible and funny.

Mission Statement : Don't advertise this one around the school. Most schools these days have mission statements posted in classrooms, hallways, etc.. These statements are notoriously serious and are steeped with generalizations. Students would enjoy the opportunity to write a new mission statement for your school, using a set number of vocabulary words from the list. Even having students write a new mission statement in a serious tone could be a funny activity. Along the lines of celebrities, few things tickle students more than taking jabs at school.

Letter of Resignation : Have students write a fake letter of resignation to anyone for anything, using a set number of vocabulary words. While students could target a job, these letters become funnier when they are unconventional, such as quitting chores, homework, or family holidays. This activity has a tremendous range of possibilities. There seems to be something inherently funny about getting fed up.

Fundraiser : Have students write a short brochure for a clearly selfish fundraiser (for example, Raising Money for My Ingrown Toenail ). Naturally, students need to include vocabulary words to make this educationally sound, but students will surprise you when it comes to how creatively they can discuss themselves and money.

Top Ten Lists : Generating lists is another opportunity for humor (think David Letterman). Have students write top ten lists in response to random prompts, using a set number of vocabulary words for each entry or in total. Possible list-starters include Top Ten Ways to Stay Awake in School or Top Ten Excuses to Sleep One Minute Longer in the Morning. You might allow students to make up their own prompts, too.


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    • shogan profile image

      shogan 6 years ago from New England

      Good to hear it! :)

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      OK. I thought there was a prescribed list. I'm all right now. All is in order.

    • shogan profile image

      shogan 6 years ago from New England

      I'm not sure I understand you, TW. All I meant by the "list" is the pool of words a teacher happens to be using at any time. Is this how you took it?

    • shogan profile image

      shogan 6 years ago from New England

      Thanks, ImChemist...I appreciate it!

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      From one ex-teacher to a teacher. Interesting and useful hub, but as far as I know, unless the dreaded National Curriculum has taken it on board, we do not "teach vocabulary lists". I wonder about this.

    • ImChemist profile image

      ImChemist 6 years ago

      Very useful hub , i rated it useful.

    • shogan profile image

      shogan 6 years ago from New England

      Thanks, Husky1970. From one teacher to another, that's great to hear!

    • profile image

      Husky1970 6 years ago

      Some great tips for teaching a very important topic. Increasing one's vocabulary is so important and enhances one's writing skills significantly.