4 Easy Improv Warm-ups for Speaking Classes

It can be tough to get students excited about learning, and in this time of online classes, with students sitting in front of a screen all day, it’s even tougher. However, a fun warm-up activity can raise energy and interest in preparation for the day’s lesson.

This post includes four simple and silly warm-ups from the world of improv comedy that lower student affect and build community and enthusiasm. Each one includes face-to-face rules and online adaptations. And don’t worry—you don’t need to be a comedian yourself—in improv, the students create the fun themselves.

1. Shakeout

Most improv classes start with a quick shakeout that takes about 45 seconds. Students (and teacher) stand in a circle. Students quickly count out loud from one to eight while shaking on each count, first shaking their right hand eight times, then their left, then their right foot, then their left foot. Then they repeat each sequence faster and faster while reducing the count to seven, six, five and so on, until there is only one shake per limb. As the speed increases, so does the difficulty.

Online, ask students stand up and get as far as possible from their screen so everyone can see them in action—or if that’s not practical, ask them to shake their left hand, right hand, left shoulder and right shoulder.

2. Yes, Let’s!

Students in A. C. Kemp’s class play the improv game Yes, Let’s!

This is an easy, noncompetitive warm-up that lowers affect and gets students moving. It can also be used to practice new vocabulary.

There is only one rule to the game. The first student shouts out, “Let’s (verb)!” The other students shout, “Yes, let’s!” and everyone mimes the action until any other student shouts out a new “Let’s ____!” The teacher (who may or may not participate) ends the game before students are tired of it.

Let’s swim! Let’s jump! Let’s cry! Let’s dance! Let’s do karate! Let’s eat cake with our hands!

Online, without the benefit of eye contact, it can difficult for students not to shout over each other, so have a digital document available with the order in which they should participate. I use a Google doc to take attendance at the beginning of class, and students go in the order in which they signed it.

3. Bippity Bippity Bop!

This is another fun, noncompetitive game that gets students moving. The game should be played as fast as possible to encourage mistakes. The rules are cumulative, and each is introduced and practiced before the next is added. See below the activity for distance learning variations.

First rule: The first player (the teacher) stands in the center of the circle and says “Bippity bippty bop!” pointing at any student. That targeted student must shout “bop!” before the first student finishes saying “Bippity bippity bop.” If the second player does not manage to say “bop” in time, they must move to the center of the circle and continue the game.

Second rule: Alternately, the player in the middle can say, “Bop!” to any student standing in the outer circle. The second student must freeze for 5 seconds. If they talk, move or laugh, they must replace the first student in the center.

Students in an improvisation class.

Third rule: If the student in the center says, “Haunted House!” to any student in the outer circle, that student must crouch, imitating a witch, and say, “Come in!” with a creepy laugh while rubbing their hands together evilly. The students on either side of the witch must form a roof by holding their arms above the witch. If any player fails to do their part, they must take the place of the player in the center.

Fourth rule: If the student in the center says, “Jell-O!” to any student in the outer circle, that student must wiggle their arms and hips, and say, “Watch me wiggle!” The students on either side of the “Jell-O” must form a bowl by holding their arms around the “Jell-O.” If any player fails to do their part, they must take the place of the player in the center.

Fifth, sixth, nth rules: If desired, you can add more rules, such as “Fashion model” (The student pointed to strikes a pose, while the students on either side take pictures of them) and so on. Use your imagination! The game finishes when the teacher decides and/or there are so many rules students can’t remember all of them—and the game falls apart.

Distance Learning Variation
Online, since students are not in a circle, the student in control of the game should say the targeted student’s name before giving the command. (“Su, Haunted House!”) For the later rules, you can either have the targeted student perform an action alone, or for more of a challenge, have the students before and after that student on the digital class list take the parts of the students next to the target in the circle. If you choose the latter, I recommend you have students shout their names in that order a couple of times to get a sense of where they are in the imaginary circle.

4. Dr. Know-It-All

This noncompetitive game makes students think about grammar and vocabulary.

Four to eight students line up in a row. The teacher tells them that they are an expert on a particular topic. The topic should come from the other students in the “audience.” (Examples: growing carrots, teaching pronunciation, modern architecture.) The more unusual the expertise, the better.

Once the topic has been established, the teacher asks the line of students, “What is your name?” Starting on the left, students answer the question using only one word per student. The name should be appropriate to the expertise

Teacher: You are an expert in carrot growing. What is your name?
Jin: My
Michio: name
Agnes: is
Younghun: Dr.
Jin: Orange
Michio: Underground
Agnes: Gardener.

Next, the audience comes up with silly questions for the “expert,” such as, “Why aren’t carrots blue?” or “What is the best way to keep elephants from eating your carrots?”

After each question, the “doctor” answers, again one student/word at a time. When a student feels a question has been answered already when it is their turn, they bow to indicate the sentence is finished. Then, the audience should applaud. After two to three questions, bring up new students to be the expert.

Online, the “row” should be made up of students whose names are next to each other on the digital class list. Students making suggestions or asking questions should raise their digital hands and wait to be called on by the teacher. Alternately, students can write suggestions and questions in the chat, and the instructor can choose which questions the expert should answer.

What warm-up activities do you use in your classes? 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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