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Irony in Everyday Language Use
Vander Viana and Sonia Zyngier

This activity is from New Ways in Teaching with Humor, edited by John Rucynski, Jr.

Levels: Intermediate+
Contexts: English language school, teenager to adult

  • Learn about the differences between literal and ironic utterances
  • Employ resources that may enhance the irony of a situation
  • Develop awareness of the appropriateness of irony in different contexts
  • Identify instances of irony in everyday situations

Class Time: 30 minutes
Preparation Time: 3 minutes
Resources: Slips of paper with two sentences on each

Irony, or verbalizing what is contrary or different from what is actually meant, has always been part and parcel of human interactions and depends on the shared knowledge of the speakers for its understanding. Far from being a new linguistic strategy, its history is broad and diverse, covering a gamut of different areas (cf. Colbrook, 2004; Gibbs & Colson, 2007). Appropriate ironic remarks may help one bond socially with peers, while inappropriate use may eventually lead to social exclusion. Irony can be easily misunderstood by speakers who do not share common ground. In order to recognize ironic remarks, be able to use irony, and be understood as intended, English language learners must be aware of the cultural context. As explained by Ross (1998),

Understanding the force of irony involves awareness of the language used and knowledge about the world. Attention is brought to the form because there is something incongruous about its use in that context. The mismatch between the language use and intended meaning is often subtle, which means that irony may not be perceived as such. (pp. 50–51)

This activity is aimed at introducing students to a more conscious recognition, understanding, and use of irony in their daily interactions.


  1. Ask students to create a literal dialogue in which the sentences on their specific slip of paper (either A or B) could be said by one of the speakers.
    Group A Group B
    “Is this my grade? Fantastic!” “You look great in this outfit!”
    “This party is really exciting, isn’t it?” “What lovely weather!”

  2. Pair students from the same group, and ask each pair to compare their answers.
  3. Walk around, check their answers, and provide guidance as needed.
  4. In pairs, have students choose one of the sentences and think of a context in which the chosen sentence would indicate exactly the opposite of the speaker’s intention.
  5. Ask students to create a short dialogue and to practice it orally.
  6. Invite students to present their ironic interactions to the class.
  7. After the presentations, ask students to consider (a) how different the dialogues they acted out are from the ones they created in Step 1 (e.g., mismatch between what the sentence means literally and the context in which it was said) and (b) which resources they used to enhance the ironic aspect of the dialogue (e.g., contextual features, intonation, facial expressions, body language).
  8. Have students consider the contexts in which it would be appropriate or inappropriate to be ironic.
  9. Allow students to personalize what they have just learned by asking whether they have ever experienced a situation in which they said or were told these sentences (or similar ones). During the discussion, get them to consider the effect that the use of irony had in the interaction and/or in the relationship among the speakers.


  1. If time is an issue, each group could be given only one sentence, and you could skip Step 6. In the latter case, Step 5 could also be slightly changed so that students do not practice the dialogue orally.
  2. It is important to realize that not all students will be comfortable acting out in front of the class. Take care not to embarrass anyone. In large classes, you might want to ask for a few volunteers instead of having all the students act out their dialogues.
  3. The level of student participation in Steps 7–9 is directly related to their proficiency level. It might be more difficult for them to express their ideas in English if they are at lower intermediate level, for instance. In this case, either conduct a less detailed discussion in English or allow students to express themselves in their mother tongue.
  4. When working with more advanced students, instead of providing them with slips of paper, you could illustrate what is meant by an ironic statement and ask them to come up with their own examples. These examples could then be used as the springboard for the activity.
  5. If you are teaching a multicultural class, Steps 8–9 can be usefully enriched by teasing out the differences/similarities in diverse national groups.


Colbrook, C. (2004). Irony. London, England: Routledge.

Gibbs, R., & Colston, H. L. (Eds.). (2007). Irony in language and thought: A cognitive
science reader
. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Ross, A. (1998). The language of humour. London, England: Routledge.

Purchase New Ways in Teaching with Humor at the TESOL Bookstore

This activity may be reproduced for educational purposes only.
© TESOL International Association.

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