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”

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’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.

When you go to someone’s house, what do you look at?

  • Level: A2, B1, B2, C1
  • Discussion questions in the post
  • Comparative and superlative handout 0.99$ on TPT
  • Data collection handout (free)
  • Language focus: rooms in the house, household items, comparatives and superlatives
  • Media: video

When you go to someone’s house, what do you look at? Oh yes, we all do it. Maybe you like to check out the kitchen or take a peek in the bedrooms, or maybe you check how clean the toilet is.

As humans, we all have a natural curiosity about how others live. Sometimes we judge, but I think we are also just curious. Sometimes it can be as ordinary as comparing the toothpaste other people use.

Researcher Anna Rosling Rönnlund takes this curiosity to a new level. In her TED talk, Rönnlund presents her massive sociological photographic database. It contains over 40,000 photos of everyday objects, like cutlery, toys, stoves and yes, toilets. So if you wonder what a toothbrush looks like in Burkina Fasso, or you want to see what distinguishes low-income families and very high-income families, this visual database unlocks huge truths in tiny mundane objects. For a voyeur like me, it provides hours of fascinating revelations.

But Rönnlund’s intentions reach far beyond curiosity. She explains that the power of visual data is about helping us better understand the world we live in and perhaps re-align some of our misguided beliefs

And aside from a fantastic eye-opening experience, the talk and the tool makes for great ESL material to practice the language of comparisons. Take a look-see…

Warm up

  • When you go to someone’s house, what do you like to look at? Why?
  • What is the most important room in a home?

The Talk: See how the rest of the world lives, organized by income by Anna Rosling Rönnlund

Discussion Questions

Data collection handout
  • Why did Rönnlund take pictures of peoples’ homes?
  • What can we learn about something simple like cutlery?
  • Stop the video on some of the pictures and compare:
    • Is there more or less
    • Is it bigger or smaller?
    • Is it simpler or more complicated?
    • Is it tidier or messier?
    • Is it cleaner or dirtier?
    • etc…

What is your comfort food?

What is your comfort food? I dare you to NOT think of the answer. Too late? I bet your favourite dish is already in your mind. Maybe you are even seeing a memory or a person attached to this dish. Is it something your mother made when you were sick? Something you eat at Christmas? Is it sweet or salty?

Healthy…probably not

Chances are your comfort food is not too healthy. Right? Generally speaking, comfort foods are hardy, starchy and fatty. All great words that describe food. And that is exactly what you will find in this Insider Food video featuring 20 different people from 20 different cultures describing their comfort food.

But it makes me happy

Food makes people happy, conjures memories, and heals us when we are sick or sad and is often the heart of most celebrations. It is also a super fun thing to talk about. It ties in food, feelings, events and people, thus a nice integrated vocabulary exercise. The perfect Whole Language exercise.

While you listen

This video is chalk-a-block full of vocabulary, so I made a Google docs handout available through Teachers Pay Teachers to help collect the essential ideas. Or you can try this cool interactive worksheet. Of course, if you are working with more advanced students, you might want to ditch the handout and just let the students note what they can. Rember you can turn the CC on and slow down the video.

Google Docs Handout

Pre Discussion

  • Just to get the food words flowing, do a Mind Map
  • What is your comfort food?
  • Why?

The Video: 20 Comfort Foods From around the world

Discussion

  • Which story did you find the most interesting?
  • Which dish have you tried?
  • Which dish would you like to try?
  • What do most of the dishes have in common?
  • What were some of the reasons the dishes were considered comforting?

Do you talk to strangers?

Do you talk to strangers? Maybe we should.

Did your mother tell you not to talk to strangers? Mine did. Was that really good advice? Of course, we don’t want to compromise the safety of our children and we are not all be social butterflies. We have our personalities and our boundaries and it is important to respect ourselves in that way.

How to break isolation

But isn’t there something alarmist, maybe even cold, about stranger danger? Are we encouraging isolation, apathy, disengagement, fear, tribalism? Even though it is natural to gravitate toward people who have familiar ideas and beliefs, could we be missing something in those who are different from us?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “Talking to Strangers” he exposes how opening ourselves up to others has a lot to teach us. But it is not all touchy-feely shiny happy people communing. Talking to strangers can be very destabilizing and may even reveal or confirm that there are some twisted people out there. Not everyone is truthful and not everyone is empathetic. But some are, and by closing ourselves off for fear of landing on a bad one, we are pruning our outlook and our own empathy.

Talking to strangers is the key to more peace

Justin Trudeau’s keynote address to the NYU graduates takes this notion to the next level. He calls us out on our hidden biases, our fears, our tribalism. He wants to inspire us to have courage and get to know those who make us uncomfortable, get to know those who don’t resemble us and get to know those who don’t think like us. For him, and perhaps for Gladwell as well, talking to strangers is the path to world peace…no less.

Warm up

  • What do you think talking to strangers can achieve?
  • Why is it so difficult for us?

The Video: Justin Trudeau Diversity doesn’t have to be a weakness!

Discussion Questions

  • What are some of the main messages that stuck with you?
  • What does Trudeau mean when he talks about ‘tribalism’?
  • What does he mean when he says “win the argument”?
  • What can we do to know the good strangers from the bad strangers? Are there tools, tricks?
  • Do you think Trudeau is being naïve? In what way?
  • What are some of the ‘juicy’ words and expressions? Make a list and see if you can put them in other sentences.

Masks vs. Coronavirus

It seems counterintuitive that a small piece of cloth can stop a deadly killer. It is even harder to believe that less than a year ago if you walked into a grocery store with a mask you would have probably caused all kinds of suspicious looks and anxiety. For some masks represent a new way to express individuality, for others a necessary nuisance and for others still a political statement. One thing is for sure, during the coronavirus pandemic, carrying (and wearing) masks are as necessary as taking your keys and wallet.

The misconceptions

Of course, I’m sure you heard some of the arguments against wearing masks. Notably, masks cause you to breathe in your own germs, or you could poison yourself with your own carbon dioxide. And if you have ever asked yourself, “if my pants can’t contain a fart, how can a mask contain the Coronavirus”, then you are not alone.

The discomfort

In addition to the misinformation about masks, there are discomforts. For those who have to wear a mask all day, they can cause acne, rashes, moisture. For others, it may even feel like you are working harder to breathe. And last but not least, they really fog up your glasses.

We do it because we care

The bottom line is, masks do prevent the spread of germs, and if you need to understand how, I invite you to watch this video from PBS’ It’s OK to be Smart. Coronavirus is invisible, insidious, and in many cases comes without any symptoms at all. Yet for others, it can spell doom within a matter of days. So why not get all the facts about mask-wearing and then wear it loud and proud…because you are part of a together-world.

Lesson Handout

For this lesson, I prepared a simple true/false handout that you can get on TPT (Teachers Pay Teachers) for a dollar (a girl’s gotta eat). What I like to do with my students is read through the statements and have them guess the answers before they watch the video. This way you can explain any difficult vocabulary and get their brains ready for this fast-talking video. The handout includes the answer key. If you don’t want to use the handout, that’s ok too. I’ve included a few warm-up and discussion questions you can use.

You can download the full hand-out on TPT for 1$

Warm up

  • What do you think of wearing masks?
  • What do you find unpleasant about it?
  • What kind of mask do you wear (does it have designs)?

The video: PBS It’s OK to be Smart: Masks

Discussion

  • Cut the video up and do a TellBack of the main points
  • What are some of the misconceptions about masks and the Coronavirus?
  • What are some of the weird questions or arguments in the video or that you have heard?
  • Can you explain why masks help fight the spread of viruses?
  • Why are some people against masks?
  • What are some of the advantages and disadvantages?

Can kindness make you happy?

  • Level: A1, A2, B1
  • Handout: free Google docs
  • Language focus: modal auxiliaries, daily actions, action verbs
  • Media: video

Can kindness make you happy? Altruism was a hotly debated topic in my philosophy classes. For instance, if we do something nice, and it makes us happy, are we doing it for ourselves or for others? This question put my thoughts in a bit of an impossible loop, so I would tune out and focus on the symbiotic relationship between acts of kindness and our own personal happiness. In other words, if it makes the other person happy and it makes me happy too, then who cares about the rest…it’s win win.

So what are the things you do for others that bring light into your life? What could you do? Aryasb Feiz’s animated short “Mr. Indifferent”, deals with this very topic. As I was watching the wordless video, the first thought that came to me is what a great way to practice modal auxiliaries.

There is very little first language video material that can work in a lower level ESL class, so I like to use these animated short to concentrate on the actions. The authenticity of the video usually motivates the students to talk–with whatever words they have. Authenticity is magic.

That is what this lesson provides. I included a little printable handout to help note down some of the key vocabulary.

Pre discussion

  • What do you do for other people that makes you happy?
  • Do you volunteer?
  • What could you do?

The video: Mr. Indifferent by Aryasb Feiz’s

Discussion Questions

  • Use the handout to help collect some words and expressions.
  • What is it about kindness that makes us happy?
  • Why do we forget, or chose not to bother?
  • What are some small, no money required, acts kindness we could do to brighten our lives?

Let me know how the discussions turn out.

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