4 Icebreakers to Make Conversations Flow in ESL Classrooms

Another school year is about to begin, but even though it’s still summer your classroom may be a cold place. Your new students won’t know who you are or how the school works, and the returning students may not know what to make of the change. Add the tension to this mix that can come from a multicultural classroom or a monolingual classroom where students can easily revert to their native language, and you’ve got a situation that will set the tone for your class for a long time. Picking the right icebreaker can make everything much easier.

The classic game for teachers is “Two Truths and a Lie”: It’s easy to implement and can yield some fun answers. In practice, though, I find it less effective for English language learners. Some may misunderstand the activity, some who are less willing to talk may steal someone else’s lie, and lower-level students may struggle with the vocabulary. The end result is that you rarely get the quick assessment and introduction you could get with something more targeted.

What’s in a name? A fellow TESOL blogger recently wrote about how to pronounce students’ names, and I found that more advanced students may like to tell you more than just how to say who they are. I used an excerpt from The House on Mango Street as an example of how someone explains her name and what it means to her, and then followed up with a collaborative writing/speaking activity in which students got to tell me and their classmates what their names mean, the story behind the name, how the names sound to them, what they like to be called, and anything else they would like to share about it.

Have you ever … ? Each student has likely had his or her share of experiences, and with a little help you can learn an anecdote that helps that student stand out. You can write some “have you ever …” questions on the board (for some examples, go here) and have each student pick one to answer. A few fun questions can alleviate a lot of tension.

Would you rather … ? A similar activity is to present students with either a list of questions that they can answer at their seats or have them written on the board about choices they would make, such as: “Would you rather have unlimited time or unlimited money” or something academic, like “would you rather do a science project or solve a math problem?” (For some more examples, see page 10 of this document.) More active students won’t hesitate to give you their preference along with a reason, and this is a good time to see who those are.

Introduce your partner. Classes with a combination of returning students and new faces may benefit from pairing off and asking questions to introduce someone else to the class. Depending on the levels, you can limit your instructions to something broad, like “Ask five questions,” to giving students more targeted information to obtain, such as “What is your partner’s favorite subject?” to provide more scaffolding.

By the end of the icebreaker, your students should feel more comfortable expressing themselves because they aren’t strangers any longer. And you, as a teacher, get a quick and informal assessment of how well each student can handle spontaneous tasks in English.

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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2 Responses to 4 Icebreakers to Make Conversations Flow in ESL Classrooms

  1. Lisa Carney Farwell says:

    I was unable to get to the link of the excerpt from The House on Mango Street. Can you tell me the page in the book please?

  2. Rubiel says:

    The implementation of such ideas are thouhgful and suitable for our Colombian context since having our learners communicating with each other in the target language is somehow challenging for teachers as they, learners, sometimes feel shy and nervous about making mistakes. This not only engages students and promote communication, but also help learners to leave aside their fears and increases their confindence when speaking before their classmates. Promoting this activities make classes more didactic and less conventional, the more ludic the classes, the more interesting it becomes for students. So teachers to be should take advantage of all this kind of methods to implement in their clasroom.

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