Laugh it up: how comedy can improve students’ writing skills
Research from the National Literacy Trust has found that young people who enjoy writing very much are seven times more likely to write above the level expected for their age, compared with those who do not enjoy writing at all.
But enjoying writing isn't merely a matter of ability. The subject matter can makes all the difference – which is where comedy comes in handy, helping pupils to have fun and feel inspired by their English lessons.
Here's my advice delivering literacy through comedy in the classroom:
1. Use comedy clips to introduce techniques
There are plenty of clips available on BBC Comedy Classroom – have a look and choose a selection that will suit your pupils' age and ability.
We get pupils to watch a clip once without any discussion, and then watch again while noting down how the humour has been created. We ask them to focus on language techniques – misdirection, euphemism, puns and so on. This enables them to discuss the clips in detail and create a list of features to think about in their own writing.
The aim is to develop students' understanding of the impact of language techniques – and we are also able to introduce them to more sophisticated techniques like irony, which can be difficult to build into writing. By watching these techniques in performance, they gain a greater understanding of how to employ them in their own writing.
2. Use examples of comedy in literature
My team and I have spent a lot of time looking at comedy in literature. We give pupils a variety of examples – from Shakespeare to modern texts – and explore how the writers experiment with language to exploit opportunities for humour.
Scripts from TV shows work really well for this. You can explore how the language has been constructed and manipulated, and the impact this can have on the audience. The ability to analyse writing is an essential skill and this really helps with that.
We use assessment objectives for key stage 4 as a guide to support students in this task and help them to understand the tools and skills they need to achieve at GCSE (key stage 1 and 2 criteria would work just as well though).
We break the objectives down into pupil-friendly language and have the class apply them to the script, thinking about it solely as piece of writing, rather than something to be performed. Pupils annotate the script, discuss their findings and are then encouraged to apply their new knowledge to their own writing.
3. Encourage pupils to write about what they know
We encourage pupils to stick to what they know and look at how their day-to-day lives can provide opportunities for amusement. Popular topics include school, detentions and family life.
It can also be useful to explain the value of universalising language; there's no point in their writing only being funny to people who know them very well or live in the same area. To address this, we talk about situations that many people of their age face and experience (these discussions usually result in a lot of laughter!).
4. Focus on the writing
Pupils can get carried away with performance, delivery and jumping into scenes. They need to be brought back to the literacy side of things, thinking carefully about what makes something funny and how language can be manipulated to produce humour. We talk a lot about different techniques – puns, homophones, metaphors and so on – and discuss irony and satire at length. Pupils are encouraged to discuss what they find funny and to be specific about what appeals most to them and why.
5. Re-write, re-write, re-write
We want our pupils to understand the importance of planning and editing so we have them brainstorm lots of ideas, in as much detail as possible. They then go through these ideas, discussing them and identifying strengths and weaknesses.
We also want to encourage them to think more about their writing and how it is crafted. When students are set a task, they will often write endlessly without consciously crafting their work. Spending lots of time on drafting and editing has a positive impact on all of their writing.
Louise O'Connell is an English teacher at St Mark's Catholic School. Last year her pupil won the caption category in the BBC Comedy Classroom competition for secondary schools. The competition is now open for a primary aged children. Find out more about Red Nose Day Comedy Classroom with Blue Peter, and how to enter here. The competition is open until 28 February 2017 for children aged 6 to 12. There are free teachers resources for both primary and secondary levels.