Suzanne has taught English Language Development for twenty six years and holds an MA Ed. in TESOL Education
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
If you are teaching a grammar lesson on conditionals, you could ask students to make a short list of ways that they would spend a million dollars. Once again, it is fun, subjective and thought-provoking. Keep in mind that students may need time to organize their thoughts, so once again, using a list format would be easiest. Also, as with icebreakers, prompts should be interesting, age appropriate, relevant to their lives and culturally sensitive. However, the warmer gives the student the opportunity to gather some vocabulary from previous lessons and use this knowledge to build on what they learn in today's lesson. Therefore, make sure that the warmer activity can easily transition to the content goal.
Some warmer ideas for grammar could be:
- What action is it?
- What am I doing?
- Did you do it today?
- What are some social rules in an interview/funeral/elevator?
- What's my line?
- Provide an event in history where students need to add necessary details with clauses
Warmers should use a question that produces vocabulary that are used with the new grammar. If you are teaching a speaking/listening lesson, the warmer should elicit vocabulary that students could expect to hear in the dialogue.
Some Warmer ideas for speaking and listening:
- Brainstorming familiar items and actions associated with those items
- Make a short commercial
- Create metaphors or unusual grouping
If you are working in a reading or writing lesson, the warmer should motivate students to think about a theme in the reading or an experience for the writing task. This prompt could be as simple as
- Name the most important day in your life and list five items that you used on that day
- Write down five characteristics of a successful person
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