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.
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.
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 ❤️
The descriptions are short, but full of juicy adjectives. They also carry shoes which can enhance your dialogue options.
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.
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.
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?
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
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?
Language focus: environment, action verbs, household items
Can you live a zero-waste life? I know I can’t…not yet anyway. But every year I try to incorporate a new environmentally friendly practice. For example, I switched my paper napkins for cloth napkins. I also buy at least 10% of my clothes at second hand shops. Also, I collect and bring all my styrofoam to a community drop off point.
It may not be a huge contribution to reducing my environmental footprint, but it’s something. I know we should and could be doing so much more. And I know that the degradation of our planet is alarming and overwhelming. But I also have to take care of my emotional well being. Thus, carrying the responsibility of saving the planet is pretty heavy. I try to not be too hard on myself about doing more and I try not to judge what everyone else is doing.
That said, I do like to hear what other people are doing to reduce waste and be better global citizens. Sometimes, there are practical things. Things that are not drastic or super time-consuming. Sometimes all I need are some ideas. Here is where Lauren Singer’s TED talk comes in handy.
Singer is an absolute champion at transforming her daily habits into zero waste practices. You heard that right…she produces no garbage at all. How does she do it? You’ll have to listen to her talk to find out.
What do you do to reduce waste?
What would you like to do, but feel that it is too much energy or too time-consuming?
The Talk: Why I live a zero-waste life by Lauren Singer
What inspired Singer to lead a zero-waste life?
Make a list of all the things Singer does to eliminate waste
What are some of the things Singer does that you could do?
What are some of things Singer does that you find too time consuming or complicated?
Do you think we are doing enough to reduce our environmental footprint?
What are some of the more important things we could do to reduce waste?
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.
Are you an introvert, extrovert or ambivert? You probably already know the answer, but wouldn’t you like to check? Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant shares his psycho-quiz on the TED site, which for us ESL practitioners can be transformed into a fantastic interactive reading exercise. I would suggest you pair up your students and ask them to quiz each other rather than simply have them do it individually.
But before jumping into the exercise I want to tell you why I snagged on this question in the first place. Yes, I like to psycho-analyze stuff with absolutely no authority to do so. And yes I love to use frameworks and patterns to help me understand the world better. But more than that, when it comes to spotting an introvert or extrovert or even knowing myself, I think I have it all wrong.
I recently watched a TED talk given by Brian Little which asks “Who are you really: the puzzle of personality,” in which he presents his framework for classifying personality traits. When he got to the extravert/introvert category, his explanation really puzzled me. According to him, I would be a total introvert. Me? I know right! Based on Little’s examples of the behaviours of each of these personalities, I would sway more on the reclusive quiet side.
Are you intrigued yet? So let me link each resource: first the TED quiz and then the TED talk. Let’s see you and your students change perspective…
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
What are some of the things you love and hate that demonstrate your personality?
The Quiz: Quiz: Are you an extrovert, introvert or ambivert? by Adam Grant
TED talk: Who are you really? The puzzle of personality?
What are the elements in Little’s framework?
Why do you think ‘kindness’ is not part of it?
Do you agree with his descriptions of introverts and extroverts?
Who do you know that fits those descriptions?
What are the advantages/disadvantages of introverts and extroverts?
Are you ready for a vacation, but don’t know where to go? Have I got a fantastic tool for you. The Washington Post offers this wild vacation planner tool. All you have to do is answer their questions and the computer will generate the top vacation spots based on your answers.
Is that not an awesome ESL exercise! I was beyond tickled when I stumbled on this gem of a website. Not only is it super useful for the common mortal, but it is also a fantastic speaking, reading and conversation exercise.
The questions are interesting and the options are funny. You may need to help the students with some of the jokes and figurative language, but once they understand that they don’t really have to understand everything verbatim, they should have a good time.
The articles are well written, perhaps a little challenging at times, but include many pictures.
How I would Teach This
Get students in pairs. One person asks the questions and the other answers
Let the computer generate the results
Ask each student to choose an article, even if they are not the traveller. Each read and then do a Tell Back on the content.