The hilarity of incongruity header
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The hilarity of incongruity

It’s the start of the academic year here in Thailand and I’ve been dusting off some activities from last year for a second year. I think it’s great to revisit lessons you planned before and see things in a new light.

It dawned on me why some games always go down really well with all ages and levels. I was playing Happy Holidays from Games for Vocabulary Practice.

Happy Holidays activity

Here’s how it works:

  1. All players have an adventure holiday location. In the middle of the table you have a pile of adventure holiday items on little cards.
  2. Learners take turns to explain why the items are useful to them on their holiday, and if they manage to convince the other players, they keep it.
  3. The player with the most cards wins.

Sounds pretty dull, right? But the fun starts as soon as a card comes up that definitely doesn’t match the player’s location, like skis on a desert island, and the player has to come up with a convincing reason for taking it. I realised that most of my (and my learners’) favourite controlled practice games are based on this principle of incongruity. Here are just a few others…

Telephone Game

Telephone game

  1. Ask learners to write an activity using the -ing form, eg. ‘drinking tea’, ‘cleaning the toilet’, on little blue cards. Encourage imagination!
  2. Ask learners to write a prepositional phrase like ‘under a bridge’, ‘on the moon’, etc. on little green cards.
  3. Place all the cars face-down on the table. Demo having a telephone conversation with a learner using your mobile phone as a prop, then learners do the same:

A: Hi, where are you?
B: [picks up green card] I’m just at the dentist’s.
A: Oh, right. Are you ok?
B: [picks up blue card] Yeah, I’m fine, I’m just eating spaghetti with meatballs.
A: What?
B: Yeah, umm, my dentist is a really good cook. How about you?

A change of plan

A change of plan flipchart page

When you know that incongruity is silly, funny and more motivating than dull controlled practice activities, you can make your own. Here is on I made a while back on the DipTESOL.

I was focusing on ‘was/were going to’ and functional expressions for talking about a change of plan, eg. ‘This morning, I was going to…, but unfortunately…, so  I… instead.’.

I made 2 lots of cards: activities and hitches. Learners pick up a card to set the scene, then another for the hitch, and make up their own ending.

We had some weird changes of plan, like “This morning, I was going to have a job interview, but a dog bit me, so I went on holiday instead.”

It’s fun for 5 minutes, which is about how long it takes learners to get to grips with the form and pronunciation. To give the activity more purpose, I told learners that they will feed back to the class on their funniest sentence.

One of the learners was in hysterics and went up to tell the DipTESOL observer her sentence at the end of the lesson… I’d like to say she nailed the target language after that fantastic controlled practice… But oh well, let’s just say progress isn’t always linear in language learning.

While I was watching TV…

While I was watching TV... stage 2

An alternative to using cards is to write the prompts on the board and learners mime the sentences to each other. This works superbly for Past Simple and Past Continuous narrative tenses:

  • Brief focus on form
  • Write up a load of activities on the left of the board, eg. ‘watching TV’, ‘playing games on my mobile’, and a load of interruptions on the right, e.g. ‘heard a loud bang’, ‘monkey jumped on me’.
  • Rub out and replace all the phrases with a little doodle, eliciting what to draw from the learners.
  • Do a quick demo: mime an activity and an interruption and learners supply the phrase. Now learners do the same in small groups. Lots of fun.

Incongruity in more meaning-focused tasks?

I wondered whether incongruity is only useful for controlled practice. After a few seconds wondering, I came to the answer: no; it can be used in more meaningful tasks, too. Here’s what sprang to mind…

Estate Agents

This is my take on this classic activity.

We read a great little article about estate agents advertising a house as a ‘quaint fisherman’s cottage’, when in reality it was next to a nuclear power plant! That set the scene perfectly for some persuasive writing…

  • Give each pair a picture of a house, some should be lovely, some truly horrible.
  • Learners write a persuasive ad to try and sell the house.
  • Next learners either read their ads aloud as a pitch or just pin them up on the wall like in an estate agent’s, except without the pictures.
  • Finally, each pair must decide on one house to buy.
  • The incongruity comes when you finally reveal the pictures and learners see what they’ve bought. My learners were in stitches, as several of them were persuaded to buy a pile of sticks in the middle of the desert.

A picture tells a thousand words

cockroach story yellow.png

The classic ‘make a story from the pictures’ can also rely heavily on incongruity, as you need to piece the story together from seemingly incongruous elements. Here in Thailand, everyone has a cockroach anecdote. I love to get learners to predict mine from pictures and do the same with their own anecdotes.

Last word

So just to recap, incongruity is a powerful driving force behind lots of simple TESOL games. When designing materials, it is well worth remembering this, as it can make a fairly repetitive controlled practice activity a memorable experience for everyone.

And it doesn’t need to stop with controlled practice. Teachers and materials designers can harness the principle of incongruity for all sorts of storytelling, prediction and persuasion/deception tasks.

Have you got any favourite activities that rely on incongruity? I’d love to hear them.

Further Reading

Featured image adapted from: Image from page 83 of “Our domestic animals, their habits, intelligence and usefulness;” (1907). For more information on images on TESOLtoolbox, see Imagery.



  1. Pingback: Teaching functional language: Exposure | TESOL TOOLBOX

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