ESL Icebreaker Activities

Instructor: Suzanne Rackham

Suzanne has taught English Language Development for twenty six years and holds an MA Ed. in TESOL Education

This lesson will review specific goals and strategies of warmers and ice-breakers in the classroom. This will help you decide how to integrate both into your content and how to provide scaffolding for various proficiencies.

ESL Icebreakers and Warmers

Imagine that you are going to a workshop where you don't know any of the participants. How would you get comfortable in order to fully participate? You would likely introduce yourself as a step to form partnerships, understand individual goals and, most importantly, feel like a part of the workshop. The workshop facilitator might then pose a problem to find out what all the participants know prior to the workshop. This reinforces that background knowledge is essential and valuable.

Icebreakers

These goals are much the same in using ice-breakers and warmers for the ESL classroom. It is important to realize that, in addition to promoting language development, icebreakers are usually done at the beginning of a course when the participants don't really know each other very well. However, in a second language learning environment, this is an opportunity to set expectations for students to use the target language exclusively in the classroom. The icebreaker can give students questions to discuss or it can ask students to find peers who have similarities.

Have students walk around and speak to as many peers as possible. With adult students, I call this icebreaker 'the cocktail party' as a means of giving them the directive to speak to everyone, as well as bring a cultural tidbit into the instruction. Remember to stop while motivation is still high and to set this withing a time limit of no longer than ten minutes. Icebreakers can cater to proficiency levels. Let's take a look at the three typical levels that ESL students might be in.

Lower Level

Learn general information about students with a simple question format using standard question words:

  • What is your name/job?
  • Where are you from/where do you live?
  • Who is in your family?
  • When is your birthday?
  • Why do you want to learn English?

You can also ask student to find someone who:

  • Has the same birthday
  • Has the same reason for studying English
  • Who lives in the same town

Using these two formats as a baseline can provide you with many other ideas, as students get to know each other.

Intermediate Level

Questions should be more subjective and look at more in-depth answers.

  • What will you use English for in your daily life?
  • Who is the most important person in your life?
  • Where have you lived and why did you live there?
  • When do you use English in your daily life?

Advanced Level

At this level, questions require extensive answers and use more vocabulary.

  • Where do you see yourself in a year?
  • Who influenced you the most in your life?
  • What was the most important year in your life?
  • When did you start studying English?

The Warmer

Now, let's move on to the goals behind the warmer. Use this at the beginning of any lesson to assess background knowledge, make connections in knowledge and build confidence and motivation. While you are circulating the room and listening, provide individual support and questions to help students clarify their answers, as well as reinforce the need to use the target language.

The warmer has a different goal than the icebreaker, instead of sharing personal information, it should provide a practical example of how the content ahead can be used. You'll want to limit these to 15-20 minutes from start to finish, and keep the list to a few words so you can stay within the time limit and reinforce that the students are only writing words, not full sentences. Also, you may be more successful by having small groups do these warmers together. This will allow more question and answer time and will also build collaboration and the opportunity for peer review. Let's take a look at how warmers could be used in various lessons.

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