You may be familiar with the term “icebreaker” in contexts outside of school – at a dinner party, on a date, or delivering a presentation for work.
When it comes to the classroom, icebreakers are indispensable tools for any age group that an ESL educator should regularly include at the start of his or her lessons.
Several studies on icebreakers in the classroom show that they “facilitate, and support communication, pronunciation, and fluency” as well as exerting a positive effect on learners’ confidence and motivation.
Icebreakers strengthen social ties between students and “warm them up” for an engaging, fruitful English lesson.
Here, we will explore the many benefits of ESL icebreakers, as well as some ideas to create your own reliably effective versions.
The Role of Icebreakers in the Classroom
Icebreakers have several functions in the classroom:
- Energize students that may feel sleepy or lethargic
- Inspire students that may be disinterested in learning English
- Get students thinking creatively
- Set the tone for a collaborative, interactive learning environment that requires the active, rather than passive, participation of students
- “Detach” students from their smartphones or other devices. In the modern era, even young students often bring devices to the classroom, eyes glued to the screen. By fostering interaction through icebreakers, you are giving them an incentive to put the phone down that does not require threats or persuasion
The Many Benefits of Icebreakers in the Classroom
Apart from a fun way to start the lesson, icebreakers actually offer a number of critical benefits for effective teaching and learning:
Creating a Team Atmosphere
Humans are social creatures; we are designed evolutionarily to function best when we are part of a team working together toward a common goal – in the case of ESL, that goal is improving English language skills.
When students feel that there is “buy-in” from their teacher and peers to their own development via participation in an icebreaker activity, they will be more motivated to learn. Rather than being accountable only to themselves, students are encouraged to invest in each other’s education.
Allowing Students to Relax
School can be a hectic environment. If the students are attending a physical, brick-and-mortar school, this could mean navigating crowded halls before class. For virtual students utilizing distance-learning, this could mean fixing technical issues like adjusting the internet connection before class.
Icebreakers help students relax and settle into a distraction-free learning mode.
As any ESL teacher who has taught in Asia can attest to, this relaxing effect is particularly useful for the Asian ESL classroom. Generally speaking, Asian students study for long hours with strict teachers – they likely may never have a chance during school hours to just “unwind” and engage in the kind of casual learning opportunities offered by well-designed icebreakers.
Connecting With Students
A strong teacher-student bond is a prerequisite for effective transfer of knowledge (i.e., teaching and learning) from one to the other. These bonds do not form immediately; they require cultivation on the part of the teacher.
Many icebreakers, some of which we will explore below, offer the opportunity to build and strengthen these bonds so that students are more trusting of the teacher (and of their peers) and thus more willing to learn from them.
When to Use ESL Icebreakers
A mistaken notion that many teachers have is that icebreakers’ only purpose is during the first day of class – this is not true. Icebreakers can and should be included at the beginning of every lesson plan.
One of the biggest constraints that teachers have in mapping their lessons is time. Learning sessions rarely go beyond an hour; some are only half an hour.
What this means for teachers, often, is a lot of teaching to pack into a small window. Therefore, try to limit icebreakers to 5-10 minutes on average so that you have time for other tasks and activities.
How to Use ESL Icebreakers
Icebreakers are fun and effective on their own (for all the reasons explained above), but they are even more so when you weave the material you are teaching your students into the activities.
For ESL teachers, this could mean reviewing vocabulary or grammar from the previous lesson to refresh the content in your students’ minds. In this way, icebreakers serve as a segue between the last and upcoming classes, as well as a way to review the previous lesson’s core contents.
The Most Effective and Engaging ESL Icebreakers
If you are convinced of the value of icebreakers in getting and keeping your students’ attention for the upcoming lesson, here are a few tried-and-true ESL icebreakers that you might want to consider.
We’ve broken them down by age and skill level below.
Best ESL Icebreakers for Beginners
The Beep Game
This game gets beginning students on their toes by requiring careful attention. The most basic iteration of the “Beep Game” is that students vocalize numbers in order (1, 2, 3, etc.). Before the game begins, the teacher sets the parameters by requiring a basic task: for example, students must say “beep” on every number divisible by 3 (3, 6, 9, etc.).
As students become more proficient, the teacher can adjust the difficulty accordingly. This is best to use for focusing students and for practicing numbers (a foundational skill for English beginners).
Proper pronunciation is a key to English success. The “telephone” game is a great way to practice. Assembly line-style, the teacher whispers a vocabulary term into a student’s ear, who then whispers it into the next student’s ear, and so on until the term has been relayed throughout the whole class. The last student then announces the term.
When conducting this icebreaker, you may be surprised how often the terms are “lost in translation.” This game is best for practicing vocabulary and pronunciation.
To play “Pictionary,” divide students into two teams. One member of each team comes forward. The teacher then whispers a vocabulary term into the ear of each student at the front, who then draws their respective terms as best they can.
The team that guesses their respective vocabulary term first wins. This game is best for practicing vocabulary and building an environment of friendly competition.
Best ESL Icebreakers for Advanced Learners
Continue the Story
In “Continue the Story,” students are asked to fire up their creative engines and pen a short (but hopefully entertaining) narrative about any number of topics.
There are many iterations of “Continue the Story,” but one of the most effective methods involves the teacher writing an introductory sentence on the board such as “Billy went to the park.”
The teacher will then hand the marker to a student of his or her choice, who will write the next sentence. Then, that student will hand the marker to another student of his or her choice to write the next sentence, and so on.
The teacher may step in from time to time to insert his or her own sentence to steer the story away from inappropriate content (which happens quite often, especially with adolescent learners) or to improve upon the narration of the story.
Additionally, the teacher may want to add requirements to the game, such as that students include at least one vocabulary term from a previous lesson in each sentence.
This game is best for imparting storytelling skills, encouraging creative thinking, and building teamwork between students.
When played right, “Continue the Story” can be a powerful icebreaker that your students will look forward to.
Advanced students are often interested in learning novel, obscure vocabulary terms or phrases to impress their peers and/or parents with. “Balderdash” is a great medium to explore more advanced, not-commonly-taught vocabulary terms together.
To begin, introduce a new term or phrase that you are sure the students are not familiar with. Ensure that they’ve put away any dictionaries or phones.
Then, ask the students to submit their own guesses of what the phrase or term means. Read them aloud or write them on the board one by one. Include at random your own (the real) definition, then ask the students to guess based on context clues what the actual meaning might be.
This icebreaker is best for advanced students who are interested in taking their phraseology to the next (native) level.
Best ESL Icebreakers for Adults
Would You Rather…?
This is a great icebreaker to get adults practicing their grammar by comparing two possible scenarios and choosing between the best option.
Examples of “Would You Rather?” in action include “Would you rather lose a finger or a toe?,” “Would you rather date someone you love or date someone who loves you?,” etc.
As you learn the personality and interests of your students, you can tailor the game to better excite and engage them by asking more outlandish questions and/or questions more relevant to their own lives.
Find Someone Who…
Although simple, “Find Someone Who…” is effective for adult learners because it allows them the chance to share their interests and characteristics with their fellow students in a controlled environment.
The idea is basically that you, the teacher, create a list of character traits or fun facts such as “owns a pet” or “rides a motorcycle” with instructions to find classmates who fit those categories.
This is best for adult learners who are just getting to know each other.
Best for ESL Icebreakers Young Learners
Although exceedingly simple, Hangman is perhaps the most thoroughly vetted icebreaker in the history of ESL. Hangman involves drawing a platform and noose next to empty spaces that spell out an unknown word.
Students then guess letters that make up the word. When they guess a letter correctly, the teacher will add the letter in the appropriate space. When they guess incorrectly, the teacher will add a body part to the noose. These include, in this order: the head, torso, legs, and arms.
If the body parts are drawn before the word is spelled, the teacher wins. If the students (or a team of students) spell the word successfully, they win.
In addition to being fun, hangman is a great way to review the previous lesson’s vocabulary.
Teachers can amp up the excitement level by building suspense. For example, when a student guesses a correct letter, the teacher might initially make a move to add a body part to the hangman before moving the marker instead to add the letter.
As strange as it might sound to a grown, somewhat cynical adult, Hangman, when done correctly, is wildly entertaining for young learners.
You can also spice things up by adding stakes to the game. For example, divide the students into two teams with extra credit or a small prize such as candy offered to the winning team.
In general, young students love competing against one another – and all the more so when they stand to gain something by winning, no matter how small.
This icebreaker is best for outgoing, competitive groups of young learners.
Many of us remember “Simon Says…” from our own childhoods – it’s been a mainstay of young learners’ education for decades.
Young ESL learners love “Simon Says…” and teachers love it because it requires virtually no preparation.
To play, the teacher asks the students to stand. The teacher then explains to the students that they must follow his or her instructions – provided that the teacher says “Simon says…” before issuing the command.
Students who follow commands not preceded by the phrase lose and must sit. The last student standing is the winner.
This icebreaker is best for engaging effective listening and for allowing a bit of physical activity to release some energy before being required to sit for the lesson (especially important for energetic youngsters).
“Bingo” is fantastic for young learners. Although it requires more preparation on the teacher’s part than other icebreakers, “Bingo” is worth the extra work.
Then, divide the students into teams. The team with the most winning rounds gets a small prize such as kudos from the teacher or, if those don’t work, candies.
Icebreakers are an indispensable part of any solid ESL lesson plan. Include them in yours, and take note of the greater interest that students will likely take in the rest of your lesson.