3 Speaking Skills for the First Day of Class: Hit the Ground Running

For many of us, the first day of school is fast approaching. The first class is crucial because it sets the tone for the rest of the semester. Therefore, we focus on creating a friendly, low-stress environment, setting clear expectations, and building community through introduction activities.

One thing we don’t always do is teach new skills on the first day. However, doing so can add another dimension to the class and give students a feeling of accomplishment right off the bat.

Following are three examples of how speaking skills can be built into introduction activities that you may already be doing: The Name Game (vocabulary), Twist and Shout (tag questions), and In Common (question intonation).

Students meeting on the first day. Photo credit: Ram Joshi (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

1. The Name Game

Procedure

In this typical introduction game, students sitting in a circle take turns saying their names. In the second round, each student repeats the previous student’s name before their own (“He’s Tim; I’m Jorge”). In some versions, more information is added (“My name is Guolong, and I love pizza”) and in others, each student repeats the names of ALL the students who spoke before them.

Add a Speaking Skill

Find or create a handout of interesting adjectives about people that might be new to the students in your class, along with their definitions. An example list of “Positive Adjectives to Describe People” with definitions can be found on Vocabulary.com. You should have at least one and a half times the number of adjectives as students to give them some choices. First, go over the pronunciation of the words. Then, each student gives their name and adjective, plus an explanation for why they chose it.

Example

Tim: I’m Tim and I’m gregarious. I really like to make friends.
Jorge: He’s Tim and he’s gregarious. He likes to make friends. I’m Jorge and I’m agile. I can do gymnastics.

Online Tips

Online, the “circle” can be made by assigning each student a number (starting with 1) and asking them to replace their display name with it. Each round proceeds from Student 1 to Student 2 and so on. Alternately, students can call out numbers in Round 2 rather than go in order (Jorge: “I’m Jorge and I’m agile. I can do gymnastics. Number 13!”)

2. Twist and Shout

Student making a peace sign

Student making a peace sign. Photo credit: Stephen Barringer (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Procedure

A lively twist on the Name Game is to use gestures rather than adjectives. For example, as Ana shouts, “I’m Ana!” she flaps her arms like a bird. The rest of the class repeats, “She’s Ana!”, while making the same gesture. In the second round, the game can proceed in a circle, with each student giving the name and gesture of the previous speaker before their own, or one student can point to another to be “next.” In a face-to-face class, gestures can be big, like yoga postures or dances. Online, the space will be smaller, but there are still plenty of possibilities, such as tilting the head, snapping the fingers, shrugging the shoulders, or tracing a shape with both hands.

Add a Speaking Skill

Twist and Shout lends itself to adding tag questions. Before the game, introduce or review tag questions and their intonation. Then, after each student gives another’s name and gesture, they add a tag question. The previous student—or the class—should answer the question.

Example

Panpan: You’re Ana [flutters her hands like a butterfly], aren’t you?
Ana: No. I’m Ana [flaps her arms like a bird].
Panpan: Oh! You’re Ana [flaps her arms like a bird]. I’m Panpan [makes a peace sign].
Tomas: She’s Panpan [makes a peace sign], isn’t she?
Class: Yes, she is.

Online Tips

As in the Name Game, students should replace their display names with numbers. Play can go in numerical order, or students can choose who’s “next” by number.

3. In Common

Procedure

In this community-building activity, the instructor writes categories in which students might find commonalities, such as past travels and experiences, abilities, favorite books and movies, clubs, interests, hobbies, sports, and life goals on the board. The teacher then gives some examples of specific things they might have in common (both are middle children, both have seen a shark in the ocean, both can do the same TikTok dance). The teacher also explains what they CAN’T claim on their “in common” list. These may include that they go to the same school, have a similar appearance, or share common characteristics with all human beings (breathing, having a head). The teacher then models the activity with a student, starting with a general question and becoming more specific. The specificity of the examples modeled will signal how unique the commonalities should be.

After modeling, students are divided into pairs. Each pair has 5 minutes to discover five unusual things they have in common.

Example

Fumito: Sara, do you play sports?
Sara: I swim and I play tennis.
Fumito: I swim, too. Can you do the butterfly?
Sara: No, I can’t. But I can hold my breath underwater for 2 1/2 minutes.
Fumito: Me too! That’s one thing.

Once the 5 minutes is up, each pair tells the class what they have in common. If there is time, pairs can then be combined into groups of four to find five new things they all have in common.

Add a Speaking Skill

As with many first-day activities, questions are central to this game. Therefore, question intonation can be a part of “In Common.” Before the game, introduce or review question intonation rules, such as upward intonation for yes/no questions and downward intonation for wh– questions. Students then practice with a list of interview questions to make sure they understand the rules.

Online Tips

For this game, students should display their names. The category list can be posted on the virtual whiteboard or on a shared Google Doc. Use breakout rooms to divide the students. Only check in briefly with pairs to make sure they understand and are following the instructions. Students can become shy with online interruptions, especially on the first day.


These are just a few examples of ways teachers can incorporate lessons into introduction activities. You could add transitions to a short self-introduction, tenses to a “Find someone who…” game or /th/ pronunciation practice to “Two truths and a lie.” Whatever you choose, students will start the term knowing that in your class, learning is fun!

Do you have any other engaging first-day speaking activities that will work well online? Please share in the comments, below.

About A. C. Kemp

A. C. Kemp
A. C. Kemp has been a lecturer in English language studies at MIT since 2007. She has a master’s degree in applied linguistics from the University of Massachusetts/Boston. A. C. has also presented extensively on teaching strategies for vocabulary acquisition. Since 2002, she has been the director of Slang City, a website devoted to American slang and colloquial language. She also has a strong interest in ITA training, for which she created the User-Friendly Classroom Video Series in 2016.
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