The first lesson of the semester is often distinguished by its briskness. Not only are you a bit stressed, but the students also, so everyone tries to put on a good show and prove their commitment to the group. This is also the time of first impressions which will set the mood for how your group works together going forward.
Has this ever happened to you? You walk into a new semester, with a new group, all cheery and greet your new students. “Hello everybody!” And just by the looks on their faces and their half-hearted responses, you say to yourself, “What a pleasure it will be to work with you lot…” or, “Well, this won’t be easy.” This has happened to me, and boy was I right!
You can, and you will, come across various types of people in this profession. Whether they be extroverted, withdrawn, shy, exuberant, serious, confident, insecure, more or less talkative and of course with various levels of English, you know you’re going to meet them all! And then there’s your personality which plays a big role, and no matter how professional you are, the group will get to know your strengths and weaknesses, too.
Therefore, breaking the ice with your new students the right way becomes crucial. Your students have come to learn English for various reasons, but they all have one thing in common: they are all stuck with each other (and you) for a while. They will have to work in pairs, groups and teams (especially if you are using any ESL Expertz resources 😉 ). They will be sharing their opinions openly in front of one another, debating topics and ideas, expressing their ideas and views, perhaps even talking about their hobbies, vacations, family, house, in short, their life…
Over time, you get to know one another and create a space of trust in the classroom. Some people will open up more slowly than others, and friendliness may take some time, but in order to open people up as much as possible, we must start from the very first lesson.
There are thousands of articles on how to break the ice, and it’s easy to get lost. In this post I will share with you what has worked for me over the years after much testing, experimenting and reflection. I will also share with you what I don’t recommend (after testing, failing and, of course, giving it a fair bit of thought).
My recommended icebreakers
First and foremost, an icebreaker activity must be simple and without the need for much explanation, especially for beginner levels. So, forget anything that is too esoteric or busy; your students are sufficiently delighted to have a space to speak English. No need for you, as the teacher, to seek thought-provoking or philosophical activities.
Play a game!
For A2 and up. We tested this method during language stays (think Angloville) when we had to get to know our students in less formal settings (like on the beach). Instead of proposing a predictable ice breaker game with typical boring questions (…ugh!), we went straight to good old-fashioned play! We tested this method back in the classroom with games the school had in their supply closet. It was a huge success, so I began using games as icebreakers in the classroom.
For French teachers visiting Les Zexperts FLE, I suggested Dèclic, Kalifiko and Jungle Speed as games they could play with their students (young and old). Dèclic (based on non-personal True and False questions) and Kalifiko (where students must guess the object based on a set of characteristics) are only available in French 🙁 but Jungle Speed is a picture-based game that has no linguisitic basis. What they all have in common, though, is they are fast-paced, simple, do not rely on personal information or cultural knowledge, and do not ask students to be creative.
***Avoid games like Dix It, Guess Who and Apples to Apples as Icebreakers!***
Look through your school’s (or your closet’s) collection of games and see if you can find anything that matches these criteria and you are good to go! Walk into class, present yourself, have everyone introduce themselves very quickly in 3 sentences and start playing immediately!
What do I mean by play? And why do I say it’s a good icebreaker activity? When you play a game with your students, you are actually doing something together as a group. There is no presenting yourself in turns, so there is no putting anybody on the spot! Also, these should not be games that test your students’ creativity or cultural knowledge. Nobody should walk away from the game feeling less capable. Play like this is a sign to your students that we are in this together. It can also give you some clues to your students’ abilities and personalities.
For students A2 or higher. Put about 30 different photos (real photos cut out from magazines) on the table and ask your students to each choose 3 that reference some part of their own life (professional life, their personality, their hobbies…). Students will then present their photos to the class by explaining why they chose them. Be sure to encourage the other students to pose supplementary questions after each presentation. Teachers should participate in the activity just like everybody else.
Why it works: by choosing the photos themselves, students decide what information they would like to divulge to others. Even for shy or timid people, this method works well because there is always a photo that will remind them of something they can share. Also, as students negotiate the pile of photos together, they will need to have some basic exchanges with one another (“Can you pass me that?”, “What’s that?”, “Thanks,” etc.).
For your A1 students. Choose a ball, not too big, not too small (I borrowed one from my children). Before any explanation, say your name and throw the ball to a person in the class. Then, they throw the ball to someone else and say their name. etc… Play like this for a minute until the ball gets back to you. Next, throw the ball to someone whose name you remember and say their name. Then, they throw the ball to someone whose name they remember… etc.
This silly, almost stupid, activity is for me extremely delightful: there are some names that I remember immediately, but others that are difficult to learn. This game is a wonderful occasion to get to know the personalities of some of your students (try to observe how each one reacts when they must catch the balloon…). For the very beginning, the ball is all you need. You can adapt the activity as you see fit.
True or false?
For A1 and up. So, I guess there are some icebreaker clichés that truly are all-stars. You know the game, right? Ask each student to write 4 sentences about themselves, one of which isn’t true. Students read their list and the others choose which sentence isn’t true. Easy to explain, and usually pretty fun, too. Encourage your students to ask supplementary questions.
A or B
A1-A2. Print and cut out the cards found on the PDF below and lay them on the table face down. Eeryone stands up. Your students will take turns in alphabetical order (this would be perfect right after the ball…). The first student draws a card and reads the choices out loud: The sea or the mountains? Students must then choose which they prefer by going to the left of the room for the sea and to the right of the room for the mountains. Everyone must choose a side, so explain to them that these are just approximate answers. Do this about ten times, then ask for a volunteer to present a member of the group by giving as much true information as they remember about them (“He/She prefers the mountains, chocolate and television”). An inoffensive activity that encourages concentration.
Break that ice!
We are offering this simple “A or B” activity for download in PDF format. If it seems too simple to you, that means it is just right! Don’t complicate things on your first day 🙂
Icebreakers to avoid…
1. Asking questions that are too personal. “Do you have children?”, “Do you have a girlfriend?”, “Do you believe in God?”. You know which questions to avoid when breaking in a new group, but your students might not. Therefore, watch out for any “Write 10 questions to interview your neighbor” type activities. Certain students know without a doubt to respect certain limits and others not so much. If someone feels uncomfortable with one of their classmates on the first day, well… it’s not a great first impression, is it?
2. Asking banal questions (favorite color, favorite food, if you were an animal, which would you be…). A useless, boring activity that can make you look not very motivated.
3. Any activity where you must create lists: adjectives to describe your personality, the things you like, etc. It is mechanical, people do not tell the truth and nobody ever remembers information that is presented like this.
4. Art class: the activities that ask your students to draw pictures or symbols to “express your personality.” I am not wholly against using drawing in your lessons, but definitely not in the first lesson. Some students may freeze up and become frustrated that they cannot participate easily in the activity.
5. Charades and theater: Normally, I enjoy using charades, miming and a bit of theater in my classes but not for the first lesson. People don’t want to come across as idiots, and if you ask them to make faces or mime actions when they don’t know each other, it’s a guaranteed failure (you, however, must use exagerated gestures and make faces in the first lesson in order to show that these are necessary communication tools in class… but give your group some time to understand this.