7 types of icebreakers that will get your students laughing, thinking and connecting

The art of asking the perfect question is my own personal Mona Lisa. It is the element in my practice that I am always improving and perfecting. In fact, I even made a little video about some of the cognitive elements involved in questions.

Let go of perfection

Crafting a perfect question takes audience intuition, subject knowledge and most of all genuine curiosity about the result. But getting it right can be a mix of experience, trial and error and just plain luck. Jump in with something you find interesting and see where it takes you.

Have my questions bombed? Oh yes. Have I had the uncomfortably long blank stare? Yep. I have even been asked why on earth I would ask such a boring question. Ouch.

Most of all, when you are ‘on’ and right in the middle of a lesson, you need a certain amount of preparation, as well as have enough spontaneity to roll with the group if they want to go another way.

listen for patterns

It is the simplest yet the most powerful tool to see how articulate and fluid your students are. If you can, try to set an intention for what you listen for. Perhaps you can focus on speaking patterns like verbs, or use of modals, or vocabulary from previous lessons. If you notice mistakes, try to pick the most prevalent pattern and then give it some attention. Or perhaps you notice that the students are incorporating a bunch of previously learned vocabulary–make sure you point it out and praise them.

Question Tag-You’re it!

During the COVID confinement, I taught an online conversation course with about 10 students at a time. To allow everyone to speak, we played a game I called “question-tag”.

Students choose a question from the list and ask another classmate. Then that classmate is “it” and chooses the next question and classmate. Simple concept, but it puts the control in the students’ hands and adds just a touch of suspense to keep people engaged.

Want to play…You can use these 7 types of icebreakers to get going. The questions are meant as a corporate team-building exercise. Thus they are authentic and funny. Let me know how it turns out.

What was your best/worst first date?

Get your students to tell you about some of the best and worst first dates.

  • Level A1, A2, B1
  • Exercise: video with questions and discussion
  • Language focus: past tense verbs, embarrassing situations
  • Media: video

Awkward!

It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a first date. And frankly, I don’t miss them. There are so many ‘what if’s’. What if we have nothing to talk about? What if I’m boring? What if I don’t like him? What if he is the one? What if he is a sloppy eater? What if he is a lousy tipper? I remember my mind ping-ponging with random thoughts and situations that would probably never actually happen. It’s a mix of nerves and excitement, but it mostly it puts us in a rather vulnerable state where we are exposed and not fully in control.

Awkward silences, clumsy interactions, you just hope you can reach that moment where you can find something to connect over. Nonetheless, First dates can also produce some funny stories worth sharing.

Don’t mess it up

Splattered spaghetti on your white shirt? Spit out nonsense words instead of an actual sentence? Or perhaps you decided to break into a brand new pair of shoes that left you hobbling by the end of the night? Or worst of all, you meet an ex while on your date. I’m sure if you think about it, you can find all kinds of little horror stories that make for good memories.

Exercise

Work through the statements on this sheet and then take a look at the video to gather some of the key vocabulary.

The Video: “First Date” by First Date Team

Your turn

Check out this list of first-date mishaps and have your students draw inspiration or choose scenarios that may have happened to them. The first link features actual Tweets from real people. Some are hilarious.

Ask your students to prepare a little anecdote with some detail.

  • What were you wearing? What was the other person wearing?
  • Where did you go?
  • What did you eat?
  • What was your first impression?
  • What did you talk about?
  • What happened that was funny or embarrassing?
  • How did you both respond? (laugh, get embarrassed, ignore the situation, etc.)

Feeling sick? What do you have?

It’s fall and the viruses are running amok. As I type these lines, I am sitting in bed, with my weekend pj’s, a box of tissues and a cup of tea at arm’s length…humph! What are my symptoms you ask? I am sneezing, I have a runny nose, I have a dry cough, I feel tired and I am congested. All expressions we only use once in a while but are crucial for a second language speaker to have.

When my daughter was three, she woke up looking pale and feeling awful. As the day went by, she started running a small fever. Normally I would have given her some acetaminophen and kept her quiet. But when my little teary girl put her hands around her collar and told me that her neck hurt, I immediately thought of meningitis. I went into full mommy panic mode and no sooner had I put her little coat on than we were in the emergency room. Once we saw the doctor, he deduced that “neck” meant throat in her language. She did not have meningitis, but just a bad cold. My point is, words matter, especially when talking about your health.

Lessons introducing health vocabulary can be interesting because you can pack a lot into them. Given it is a familiar subject in our first language, the task really boils down to having English equivalent to words your students already know–which can feel really satisfying. But if you add some role-playing, you can review yes/no questions, give treatment advice with verbs in the simple present and even learn a thing or two about which symptoms can considered serious or not.

If you are looking for a first-language site to use as a reference or even a role-play launch pad, check out some of my favourite go-tos…

  • Pharma giant Pfizer has a nice little reference sheet that can be used for a role-play Q&A.
  • WebMD has symptom checker that can be interesting to play around with
  • And for advice and recommendations, WebMD has a nice article all headed with verbs.
  • WebMD also has a simple article on home remedies “that work”

Grammar in a spoonful of sugar anyone?

3 tips to nail your grammar lessons

When you say the word grammar, does your class suddenly give you the blank stare of death? Or perhaps you have a more mature class and they become overly focused on rules and lose sight of the communication goal of language. Whatever the reaction it causes, I find grammar lessons challenging.

It’s not that I am not good at grammar, I quite like it actually. But I’ve lived through many not-so-great grammar lessons (#introspectiveteacher).

1. Research how to explain it

It’s one thing to understand grammar it’s another thing to explain it. For this, YouTube is my best friend. Watch at least a couple of videos to see how others do it and either use the video in class or use the best of. One thing I told myself after some confusing and a little humiliating attempts and improvising… Never…ever improvise. At least I won’t.

2. Keep drills short

I had a teacher in university who used to say, “use a guerilla attack approach to grammar.” I think what she meant was, to keep it short, explain, practice, correct and move to the next thing.

3. Follow it up with a communication activity

Ideally, your next activity is a more communication-based activity that can provoke the context to use that grammar item. For that, I have made many suggestions in other blog posts (the list is at the end of this post).

Grammar challenges us (teachers and students) in different ways. It can be complex, dry and full of exceptions. Being overly focused on grammar comes at the cost of losing authentic dialogue. However, being underly focused can compromise accuracy. It’s a bit like poaching an egg, it’s not enough to know what an egg is, or how to boil water, it’s the subtle interaction of both that makes the dish. By the way, I also have a lesson on how to poach eggs. 😜

Here are some of Whole Language lessons I have that focus on grammar:

13 resources for ice-breaker questions

Need a good question to break the ice? I got you covered.

I’m sure you have experienced it. First day of ESL class, you plan an icebreaker activity, launch the question and you get the dreaded silent stares. What do you do, let them stew with the question and stand your ground, or come up with a follow-up question? Do you let them see you sweat, or pretend that that is what you wanted because you want them to think? “Please, please kind extroverted student somewhere out there in the crowd, get me out of this.”

Icebreaker activities always make me nervous. It’s often the first class, you don’t know your group, the chemistry is not established, you may not know their level and they are usually a bit shy. However, they are in an English second language class to develop their language skills, so it’s my job to warm them up and find some interesting questions that can inspire conversation.

I collect icebreakers like some people collect jewelry or stamps. I am always looking for creative, thought-provoking, not too deep, not too personal questions that people enjoy answering.

To me, it’s reminiscent of a high school dance where everyone is waiting for that great song that gets people on the dance floor. You can let loose and get lost in the crowd. Thus in my ESL class, I am a DJ of questions. When one doesn’t get the party going, I have plenty of others.

For your party…I mean class…needs, here are my best sources.

ICEBREAKERS

What should I wear today?

3 great sites to role-play shopping for clothes

I don’t know about you, but I love getting dressed in the morning. I know, not everyone does, but I do. In fact, there is a whole other version of me in a multiverse somewhere who is a fashion stylist. I love the colours, the textures the shapes and what style conveys to your entourage.

I also love teaching the vocabulary related to clothes and style in my ESL classes. We go “shopping” and role-play asking for certain pieces including colours, price, size, etc. But as with everything, I like to use real websites to do this following the Whole Language method. However, I am selective with my sites. They need to be clean, have clear names for the clothes (sometimes marketing can make things more complicated than it needs to be) and have good descriptions. Full disclosure, I have taken some writing contracts where I produce those descriptions, so I am especially critical of quality language there.

Here are some of my favourites sites and why:

Banana Republic

I can barely afford the clothes at BR, but I appreciate the simplicity of the pieces and the short, but well-crafted descriptions.

Charlie B

Clothes are for women only, so that is a bit of a bummer, but the descriptions tell a story. So nice. Make sure you click on the drop downs, it will tell you “Why we love it” which is great vocab for the role of the salesperson, and also gives you advice on what to wear it with. And it’s Canadian ❤️

Nordstrom.com

The descriptions are short, but full of juicy adjectives. They also carry shoes which can enhance your dialogue options.

DISCLAIMER😜

You might be tempted to buy. I get no commission on sales. Yes I love to shop, and yes I like these shops, but mainly I like these sites because the sites are easy to click through and the descriptions are well written and interesting to teach with.

What does your day look like in pictures?

Challenge your student to take pictures of a day in their lives. Eating, travelling, working, whatever makes up their day. Then you can do a series of “show and tells” with the photos. To make the activity even more engaging, I always suggest that the listeners should think of one or two questions to ask the presenters after the presentation is done. This will make the listening more active and get the speakers to dig a little deeper.

Try something new for 30 days

I recently read the book The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. In the book, the main character visits a library in a parallel dimension where each book represents one of her possible lives…should she have made different choices. The journey takes us into multiple different versions of this character, Nora Seed. She is a rock star, a mother, a glaciologist, an Olympic swimmer, a philosophy professor and the list goes on. In each life, Seed has the luxury of measuring the level of happiness and fulfillment the different paths procure her.

What if

It is the classic “what if”, question. Of course, it got me thinking of my own life. Then, instead of delving into regretted choices or getting depressed about what could have been, I thought of this TED talk by Matt Cutts: Try something new for 30 days. Since we cannot travel into parallel universes to see what could have been, Cutts’ idea is the next best thing.

Parallel Lives for 30 Days

We have all heard it before, we must step out of our comfort zone to grow…right? Cutt’s takes this to the next level with his self-imposed 30-day challenge. What I like about Cutt’s talk, is it gives a more tangible objective to this idea of trying new things. It may not be as profound as the Midnight Library, but it’s a start. After all, what’s 30 days?

Warm-up

  • What new thing would you like to try but haven’t yet?
  • What does it mean to “step out of your comfort zone”?
  • What are the benefits of doing new things? Any disadvantages?
  • What are the benefits of sticking with what you know? Any disadvantages?

The Video: Try something new for 30 days

Discussion Questions

  • Why does Matt think this is a good idea?
  • What did it change in his life?
  • What areas of our lives could we apply this to? Make a Mind Map
  • Do you have any spontaneous ideas that you might like to try for 30 days?



Is too much choice making us unhappy?

Level: B2, C1Language focus: modal auxiliaries, expressing opinions, questions
Exercise: Discussion questions in the postMedia: video

As a parent, I find I am sometimes in a sad little loop of not feeling good enough, looking for parenting advice, then trying that advice and being exhausted by the amount of energy it takes to be that good version of myself and returning to square one.

One example of this is the choice paradox. Many parenting books will tell you it’s a good practice to give your children choices rather than always dictating. Like when kids are picky eaters, give them a choice of vegetables. Or when they put up a fuss to get their winter clothes on, give them a choice of mittens, scarves and hats. The premise is that children resist because they need to have freedom (or the illusion of it). If you have tried this parenting method, you know that it will only take you so far before you are exhausted and your kids figure out that the options don’t really interest them.

Retail and marketing also leverage this concept as a key selling point. Seemingly attractive retailers are often those who offer choices, variety and options. But is this making our lives easier or more complicated? Are we making ourselves exhausted with the number of choices and like our children coming to the conclusion that many options just don’t interest us that much? Barry Schwartz’s Ted Talk questions whether we, like our children, are just under the illusion of freedom when in reality we are simply more confused and eventually disengaged.

Warm up

I suggest you start the lesson by torturing your students with these Would you Rather statements. Perhaps pair them up and have them discuss their choices. Then, mix it up a bit and ask the other person to choose for you. Did you like letting someone choose? Did you agree?

The video: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

I suggest you watch this in small snippets and do short Tell Backs along the way.

What concepts stand out in Schwartz’s talk?

What are the advantages of choice?

What are the two negative effects?

Why do we need experts?

What do you think Schwartz is telling us with the way he is dressed?

What are some of the events in his life that led to this conclusion?

Can you think of events in your life where you would have preferred to have less choice?

What are questions you have that you would prefer someone make a decision for you?

Talk about a choice you made that may have been ‘not good enough’ . What consequences did it have on your life?

What’s the weather today?

I love talking about the weather. It is the easiest way to initiate a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance if you need to break the silence. Great for elevator rides, spontaneous waiting time and warm repartee.

It is also a ubiquitous element that can have multiple impacts on our lives. Indeed a rainy day, bright sun, or a snowstorm will change how we dress, the meals we eat, the activities we plan and perhaps how we get to work. Personally, I check the weather every morning because I take my bike to work–even in winter.

Moreover, I find weather phenomena fascinating. Tsunamis, earthquakes,  tornadoes, nature has a way of reminding us who is really in control. Beautiful, powerful, terrifying the planet is a person. She breathes, she aches and she speaks. Are we listening?

This particular discussion lesson goes from general to scientific to silly. The objective is to elicit the vocabulary around a familiar topic and add a level of complexity with either the science behind weather or weather-related expressions. I just couldn’t choose, so I put everything.

Pre discussion

  • What are the different types of weather or climate you can name?
  • What affects the weather?
  • How does the weather make you feel? When it rains, when it is sunny, when the snow falls…
  • Do you use the weather forecast to plan activities?
  • What activities do you do in spring, summer, fall and winter?
  • What are the seasons like in your country?

Option 1: The Video: The Science of Weather

  • Divide the video into 2 or 3 segments and do a Tell Back  of the main themes and words
  • How do meteorologists sort through information, identify trends, and make predictions?
  • Why do they often get it wrong?
  • Why is it important to predict the weather?

Option 2: Weather idioms

For this, I made a handout and some flashcards. They are on Teachers Pay Teachers TPT. Click to go see.

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