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9 Quality Icebreakers for ESL Teachers and Students

Andrew is a TEFL graduate and has recently taught classes in the UK. A keen traveller and article writer, he has also tutored 1:1 abroad.

Here are some fun activities to act as icebreakers for ESL students.

Here are some fun activities to act as icebreakers for ESL students.

Quality Icebreakers for ESL Students

Are you looking for some excellent icebreakers for your ESL class? Look no further. This article is intended for ESL teachers but would be suitable for any kind of class. They range from the simple to the more complicated. I've also given you some tips and nuggets of advice to help your class get off to a flying start. Remember, preparation is key.

  • If you are going to introduce icebreakers to your class, don't forget they will need to be an integral part of your lesson and should be on your lesson plan.
  • I will provide three basic icebreakers to help you ease into the teaching process—these are open to adaptation and development—then six more with extra tips and other suggestions. I'm sure that with practice you can begin to 'design' your own, specifically tailored to your group of students.

Getting Started

It's the first morning of your new class. You arrive in the classroom early and prepare for the lesson. The whiteboard is ready, the furniture arranged, and the register open in front of you. Now all you need to do is engage with the students!

You're going to start this first session with a beautifully simple icebreaker, one that is almost guaranteed to help the group:

  • physically relax,
  • gain motivation,
  • bond together, and
  • participate in learning.

These are the key reasons for starting with icebreakers. New students will inevitably be nervous on their first morning, so easy-to-follow activities can help dispel anxiety.

I make a point of always using them as a sort of hors d'oeuvres, an appetizer, before the main course of learning. If students are comfortable with themselves, then this means that your teaching will be that much more enjoyable.

Three Basic ESL Icebreakers

Reassure everyone that the icebreakers they are about to perform are straightforward and fun. They will not be judged—there is no right or wrong.

1. Getting to Know Your Name

Ask the students to stand up and form a circle or a line. If you can't manage a circle, let the students remain where they are, in their seats. Tell them that you need to learn everyone's name. There should be a small space between each person.

You should have something of value or an object of interest that will be passed around the circle. It could be money, a bunch of keys, or anything of importance to you personally. Start with yourself. Hold the object straight out at arm's length and tell everyone your name. 'My name is Tim Thomson.' Then you say, 'Pass this/these on please.' Each person should do likewise, hold out their arms and say their name.

Hopefully, your precious object will pass smoothly between the hands of each person before finally returning to base. Let everyone know how relieved you are! Tell them how much you trust them all. Then try and remember all the names!

2. Signatures

Keep the circle together and develop the idea of uniqueness amongst the group by asking each person to think of a signature movement, action or sound that is unique to them. It needn't be anything complicated; it can be a hand clap, a step or two sideways, a spin, a bow, a gesture, a mime—something that isn't copied or too similar. You lead the way with your own thought-up signature. Encourage the person next to you to think of something different and so on right round the circle.

Everyone should have their own little movement or sound. Next, get the group to try to remember them all one by one. Start with yourself again, then travel around the group building up all the individual signatures until you've nailed them all!

Extra Tips

  • Build confidence with regular praise, as it is vitally important to keep everyone on board at this early stage.
  • Hold a memory test. See if you can remember each person's name and signature.
  • Emphasize no rudeness, and make sure everyone is safe from injury!

3. Mirror on the Wall

Make sure you have enough space. Get the class to form into pairs, facing each other about a metre apart. One is going to be a mirror, the other a person. The idea is for the person to look into the mirror and for the mirror to 'reflect' the person.

Begin with a demonstration. Ask a capable student to face you, and decide who will be the mirror. Decide what action the person will perform—this could be a random act or a series of movements. Encourage your students to start slowly and then to elaborate a little.

Extra Tips

  • Give space and time for the less proficient students.
  • Focus in on each pair. Keep the group on their toes with suggestions and gentle corrections.
  • Volunteer one or two pairs to ‘perform’ for the rest of the group.
  • Enjoy yourself. Get involved!
  • Prepare cards beforehand with simple written actions such as 'You are going out to dinner' or 'You are doing your exercises' or 'You are getting ready to go to bed' and use these.
  • Allow 15 minutes for these initial icebreakers.

More Icebreakers

As promised, here are an additional six icebreakers to try out with your classes.

4. Sentences

Make up a sentence with the same number of words as you have students. If you have a large group, say 20–30 persons, write out three or four sentences. You can get the students themselves to write out the words on separate pieces of white paper. Or if you're really prepared, you'll have already done it yourself! Ask the group to arrange themselves in order so that the sentences make sense when read out loud.

5. Dialogue

Write down some simple dialogue on separate strips of white paper and hand one out to each member of your group. For example, on one strip you could write 'I'm sorry I must ask you to leave' and on another 'But I don't understand?' On two more, 'Did you hear what that man said?' and 'Was he talking to me?' Then get the group to work as a whole to find the correct matching pairs of dialogue. Encourage each pair to 'perform' their dialogue.

6. Three Questions

Ask your group to form pairs and get them to ask each other three simple questions. The idea is to extract information with these questions. For example, one student can ask 'Do you play a musical instrument?' and receive the answer 'Yes, I play the drums.' The next question should be a follow-up to the first. 'Why do you play the drums?' followed by 'How do you play the drums?' When everyone has finished, ask each pair to give feedback on the information gained. You could get some very interesting results!

7. Mime and Tell

Form a circle with your students. Tell them to watch you mime an action, then ask them to describe what you were doing. Encourage more-than-one-word answers if possible. When you are satisfied they've 'got' your mime, ask for volunteers to continue the activity.

8. Topical

Form a circle or remain seated for this activity. Write on white strips of paper a variety of topics. Make them one word if possible, for example: home, family, sport, books, cinema, nature and so on. Let your students pick the strips at random. You then call out a topic, and the student with the same strip must speak for a very brief time (it could be one sentence worth) on that topic. You could expand this activity by introducing questions and answers if possible.

9. Thunderstorm

Form a circle with your students. You are going to take them through a series of actions that will mimic a passing thunderstorm. Start off by softly whispering to each other at a not-too-close range. Then after a few seconds, proceed into rubbing your hands together, as if you're cold. Get the group to follow. Then after another few seconds, move on to finger clicking (or tapping one finger onto the palm if clicking is tricky for some), thigh slapping, hand clapping, foot stomping, and if possible shouting! When you're at the thunderstorms climax, gradually return through the actions until there is silence.

Consider Inventing Your Own Icebreakers

There are many other activities like the ones above to help classes prepare for more serious work. Why not try and invent your own? They help with inclusiveness and most students really enjoy them. I would say they are a natural lead into the more complex business of learning.

A 1:1 icebreaker within small group.

A 1:1 icebreaker within small group.

More Tips for ESL Icebreakers

Make sure you provide a smooth integration into the subject you are teaching by tailoring each activity appropriately. For example, if you're going to teach pronunciation, have an icebreaker that emphasizes speech. Try to ease into the actual teaching with smart bridges.

  • Evaluate the activity before offering it to the class. Is it too simple? Too difficult? Confusing?
  • Get the timing right. Don't spend too long icebreaking, or your lesson plan may get clunky.
  • Be prepared. Have all your paper, cards and other resources ready, so you don't have to waste time.
  • Be flexible. Some icebreakers will work better than others. Don't panic if the students get stuck. Have a strategy in mind before you start that will guarantee smooth easing out of any potential tricky situations.

Useful ESL Terms

  • CALL: Computer Assisted Language Learning
  • EFL: English as a Foreign Language
  • ESL: English as a Second Language
  • ELT: English Language Teaching/Training
  • ESOL: English to Speakers of Other Languages
  • L1: The student's native language
  • L2: The language being learned or studied
  • TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language
  • TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language
  • TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
  • TOEFL: Test of English as a Foreign Language
  • TOEIC: Test of English for International Communication

© 2012 Andrew Spacey