Research Bites: Knock, Knock. Who’s There? TESOL.


Bell, N. D. (2011). Humor scholarship and TESOL: Applying findings and establishing a research agenda. TESOL Quarterly, 45, 134–159.

Twitter Summary

Bell shows why humor is an important skill that should be analyzed, discussed (and maybe taught) in class.


Have you ever told a knock knock joke in an ESL class? Have you ever taught a class about puns? Have you showed a group of students a hilarious YouTube clip, but you became nervous when they only laughed at physical humor and not the clever jokes you previous identified?

Humor, though universal, is far from simple. Yet, its a consistent trait that students say teachers should have. And, it’s also a linguistic reality for language learners: learning a language involved not only learning about its culture, but also its humor.

What makes humor difficult?

Beyond the physical, humor doesn’t always translate well across cultures. This may be because of a concept called “script oppositions”. “Scripts” are a kind of schemata or background knowledge associated with each word, phrase, and concept. For example, the word “dog” may represent barking, fleas, puppies, biting, fond memories of childhood, or wet-dog smell. In order for something to be funny, you need to know the script behind the words. In fact, you need to know two scripts that end up opposed to each other in the joke. Basically, this means a derivation from the expected to the unexpected. This is what is likely to be most problematic for language learners trying to understand humor.

If it’s so hard, why learn it?

Humor serves an important human function. It creates and maintains bonds, it sets up an atmosphere of formality or informality, it allows us to inflict and deflect negative messages, it allows us to soften requests or demands, and it is a form of stress relief. Going back to the first reason, not being able to form and strengthen important bonds (i.e. friendship) can leave a language learner feeling isolated or as not belonging. Learning how to understand and create humor can do more to help the learner become a part of the larger society, which will in turn do worlds more for their language skills, social life, and general well-being.

So, how can they learn it?

Canned jokes are not the best way to approach humor, and are rarely used in humor research. Throughout her article, Bell suggests the following:

  • Analyze the scripts of the first language to determine what is or isn’t funny
  • Discuss situations in which students had success or failure with humor in the second language
  • Practice identifying scripts in the second language
    • This may include looking at specific cues such as laughter, exaggerated prosody, discourse markers (e.g. “It was so funny” before an anecdote), code/register switching, and recognizing when a “play frame” has been started
  • Look at films to analyze humorous interactions, including play frames and script oppositions.
  • Look at different forms of humor such as puns, parodies, ironies, riddles, teases, pranks, etc.


The author calls for numerous areas of research needed in order to better understand humor’s role in TESOL. What’s important is to first understand that there is in fact a role for humor. In the meantime, here are some resources for humor and TESOL. If you had more, let me know in the comments!