As teachers, we are often exhorted to liven up instruction and “make it fun.” However, I’ve read very few articles in serious professional journals about just how, exactly, we are supposed to do that. But let’s not let that stop us. Making vocabulary instruction fun is often simply a matter of finding the right material. “What’s ‘fun’ about learning new words?” you ask. Well, for starters, words are the basis for humor: jokes, puns, wordplay, banter, and witty repartee all rely heavily on the use (and sometimes, misuse) of language. Not only that, but jokes and other forms of verbal humor go a long way toward helping students grasp the concepts (meanings, denotations, and connotations) behind complex vocabulary words, because they serve to illustrate them in a memorable fashion. Here are three quick ideas that can easily be incorporated into routine vocabulary instruction:
- Have you heard the one about – the teacher who collects jokes to elucidate vocabulary words? Say, for example, the vocabulary word under review is indolent. A sampling of “indolent” jokes might sound like the opening monologue on a late-night television show, and go something like this: “Have you heard the one about the guy who was so indolent that he hates emptying the trash in the recycle bin on his computer? Man, it’s bad. How bad? He’s so indolent, he throws his kisses. That’s how bad it is. He’s so indolent, he came in last place in a snail marathon! You get the picture?” Bah-dump-bump! Jokes like these are easily found all over the internet, and can be adapted fairly quickly for instructional use. I searched for jokes about “laziness” and got a million of ’em. Replace “lazy” with “indolent” and voila! A comedy routine to fit the occasion is born.
- Worth a thousand words – another teacher I know collects illustrative cartoons. I, myself, am partial to this method. I read the comics pages of the newspaper (in print!) every day, scouring them for the presentation of relevant vocabulary words. One of my favorites is Bizarro, by Dan Piraro, because of the frequency with which he uses words that come up in vocabulary instruction. For instance, the prefix pseudo– recently came up in my classroom, as in: pseudonym, pseudoscience, or pseudoclassic. By a stroke of pure luck, I had just seen a Bizarro cartoon with a man on a subway explaining to the woman next to him that he was “hooked on Pseudoku — sort of like Sudoku, but not exactly.” I clipped the cartoon and shared it with my students. They got the meaning of pseudo- right away, and a good laugh!
- Word play – if the teacher is having way too much fun with words, the students will have no choice but to join in the festivities, and who doesn’t enjoy a good pun? One of the most fun things about the English language, puns require a nuanced understanding of meaning, and the skilled application of that nuanced understanding of meaning for effect, and because of that, they up the ante from other forms of humor. Puns such as this one, “A thief fell and broke his leg in wet cement. He became a hardened criminal,” could be mobilized in a discussion of the vocabulary word recidivist, for example.
In any case, making vocabulary instruction fun for students is not solely a matter of finding material they can connect with. It’s also a matter of letting them in on the act. Ask students to join you in a BOLO (“Be On the Look-Out”) for jokes, puns, and cartoons that help illustrate the vocabulary words that the class is studying. An even more ambitious project might include inviting students to write their own jokes or puns, or draw their own cartoons. In the final evaluation, a little word play only makes vocabulary instruction that more effective, because the rate at which students retain complex vocabulary words goes up when it can be said that “a good time was had by all.”