5 Reasons to Use Ice-Breakers and Warm-Up Exercises in Your ESL Classroom

Contributed by Sylvia Cossar, teacher at ILSC-San Francisco


Breaking the ice (photo credit: University of the Fraser Valley)

When our car engine is cold in the morning, we warm it up by letting it run, and before we go jogging or start a long hike, we warm up our bodies by stretching.  In both cases, dismissing this important step can lead to less than optimum performance.  The same can be true for our students.  Here are five reasons to use ice-breakers and warm-up exercises in the classroom:

Reason #1 – The students get to know each other

Ice-breakers that ask students to share personal interests, hobbies, etc. allow other students to see with whom they share things in common. This is a sure way for the students to make friends, and that camaraderie between them creates a trusting classroom environment.  Of course establishing a safe environment is essential to getting students to feel comfortable with taking the risk of speaking in a foreign language.  Also, if students know each other well, it makes pair and group work easier and more productive.  One ice-breaker to try begins with handing out slips of paper.  Ask students to write something interesting about themselves, then collect and redistribute.  The students read what is on the slip you gave them and mingle around the room asking their classmates questions that help them find the person it belongs to.

Reason #2 – You get to know your students

We have all been there; it is the first day of the session, and you are faced with having to learn all of your students’ names  and how to pronounce them correctly!  If you are like me, this can be a daunting task depending on the class size, but the right ice-breaker can help.  For example, challenge your students’ listening skills and play what I like to call “My name is…” The teacher begins with, “My name is _________, and I like (insert hobby here)”.  The first student repeats the teacher’s name and hobby, “her name is ________ and she likes _________”, and adds their own information, “My name is _________, and I like (insert hobby here)”.  The game continues with each student repeating all of the previous names and hobbies and then adding their own.  By the end, you have heard each student’s name repeatedly, and you also have a list of the students’ interests to incorporate into your lessons.  At lower levels this is a great way to review pronouns and the third-person-s in the present tense.  At higher levels, it can also be a review of infinitives and gerunds.

University Life 21

(photo credit: Flickr user Francisco Osorio)

Reason #3 – To wake them up!

Some people, myself included, are not morning people, which makes an early morning class challenging.  If your students’ lattes haven’t kicked in yet, an effective way to wake them up is to get them moving with warm-up exercises that require your students to mingle around the room.  One tried and true classic is “Find Someone Who”.  Create a bingo card with various things like “plays the guitar”, “has been to Yosemite”, or “does not like pizza” in each of the boxes.  The focus can be on verb tenses or it can be used strictly as an ice-breaker and be all about personal likes and experiences.  The students mingle and ask their classmates the questions until they get a bingo. To encourage them to speak with as many people as possible (and move around the room as much as possible too), ask the students to only ask one question per classmate.  This is a wonderful exercise to do in classes that follow the lunch period as well, another time when students are in a lull.

Reason #4 – To review points taught the day before

As teachers, we all know the value and necessity of review and reinforcement of the points we teach.  One way to do this is through a warm-up exercise.  Perhaps in your previous class, your lesson was on adjectives.  The next day, you can write a few sentences on the board with mistakes in the use of adjectives.  As the students come in, ask them to read the sentences and find the mistakes together with a partner.  This immediately gets the students talking and thinking about what they learned the day before. Then, go over the sentences together as a class.  Maybe you teach communication, and your previous lesson was on inverted word order for emphasis.  Your warm-up exercise could be the beginning of a sentence on the board like, “Never have I …” or “Little did I know…”  Again, as the students arrive, ask them to complete the sentences with a partner, but one variation could be for the students to find a new partner and complete the sentences again.  With each new partner, the students will get better at using the target phrase.  At the end, call on a few to share with the class.

Reason #5 – To relax the students before a quiz or test

It is pretty common for students to feel anxious before a quiz or test, especially one taken in a foreign language.  Warm-up exercises can be just what they need to relax!  My favorite is called “Bananas!” In pairs, the one student asks random questions, and the other student can only answer with “bananas”.  It sounds silly, but try it! The purpose of the game is to not laugh, as the first one to laugh loses.  Of course, this makes the students laugh that much more, and the result is a reduction of stress and test anxiety.

These are just some of the reasons ice-breakers and warm-ups can enrich your classes. Many of the example exercises mentioned came from online resources such as those listed below. Most are easy to do, and require little to no preparation.  I encourage you to peruse through them, and find the ones that work best for you and your students. Happy teaching!

Favorite sites for ice-breakers and warm-ups:





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