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Five Icebreakers for your First Day with a New Class
The first day of a new class can be nerve-wracking for both teachers and students. As a teacher, you may not know what the students are expecting, what their former teachers were like, what level all the students are, what their interests are, or even if they want to be in class! The students are equally apprehensive, particularly if this is their first class at the school and perhaps even in a brand new country. For all these reasons it’s important to build rapport straight away, get students producing language in a low-stress environment, and assess everyone’s abilities.
Below are five activities that can help you do all of those things. Some of these activities are widely known throughout the ESL industry, so it’s impossible to provide credit. Others were inspired by activities found at onestopenglish and their brilliant minimal resources activities. Many more can be found at http://www.onestopenglish.com/methodology/minimal-resources/.
This is a great, no-materials needed activity that allows you to share some personal information about yourself while giving students the opportunity to learn about each other. It is adaptable for a wide range of levels (from elementary to high intermediate) and doesn’t take much time at all.
Before class, think of 5 simple pieces of personal information you don’t mind sharing with students (for example, your home city or your brother’s name). Try not to make them too obvious!
When class begins and after introducing yourself, draw a five-pointed star on the whiteboard. At each point write one of the facts about yourself. Tell students that in pairs they are going to guess what each fact represents and plan yes/no questions to ask you to find out. Do a demonstration. For example, if a fact is “Taz” students can ask, “Is that your brother’s name?” (no) “Is that the name of a town?” (no) “Is that your dog’s name?” (yes). Give students a couple minutes to talk in pairs, then ask/answer the questions as a class.
Then give students a few minutes to individually draw their own star with 5 facts. Remind them not to make the facts too obvious (e.g. their first name or home country). You can provide some ideas and assistance if some students are struggling.
After all the students have 5 facts on a star, put them into pairs to ask/answer questions about the facts. You might switch the pairs from the previous activity where students were guessing about the teacher. Do some feedback after the activity to find out what students learned about each other.
#2 Guess what?
This activity is more suited to higher levels – intermediate and above. It’s great for practicing question formation and gives students an opportunity to be a bit creative.
Before class you will need to select a personal object of some importance (for example, a small musical instrument you play or your favorite book). When class begins, tell students you brought an object that is important to you, but don’t show them. Students have to guess what the object is by asking yes/no questions, for example “Can you write with it?” or “Is it small?” You might write some sentence frames on the board like “Can you ______ with it?” “Is it made of ______?” to provide additional support. When students have guessed the object, show them what it is and then they can ask you additional, open-ended questions like “Why is it important to you?” or “How long have you had it?”
Then tell each student to think of something important they have on them today (they can get a bit creative and pick an app on their phone or draw something on a piece of paper) – give them about 30 seconds. Then in pairs they have to guess what each other’s objects are and ask additional questions to learn why it’s important as they did in the whole class demo.
If there’s some more time, you can mix up the pairs and have each student tell their new partner about their old partner’s object. Do some feedback whole class so everyone can learn about each other.
Somewhat similar to the previous one, this activity can be used with lower levels and requires you to bring in a few more objects. This is another great way to test students’ abilities to use language and it can be made simpler or harder based on their level.
Before class, select 4-6 personal items such as drumsticks, a dog collar, a coffee mug, etc. Then at the beginning of class, show each student the objects one at a time and check they understand what they are. In pairs, students guess facts about your life based on the objects (e.g. “The teacher must have a dog. She probably likes coffee.”) After a couple minutes, bring the whole class together and take some ideas. Tell students if they are right or not.
Now have students do the same thing in pairs using personal objects they have on them. If they don’t have many objects they can show pictures on their phone or draw pictures. Tell them to show their partner a minimum of 4 objects
After a minute of preparation time, students show each other their objects and discuss. Do some feedback whole class to find out what they learned about each other.
#4 Letter to my teacher
Writing a letter is a bit different from the other activities in this list as it’s not spoken. It’s important to get a writing sample from your students early on in a course to thoroughly assess their abilities, so this is a great activity to do if the stu
dents haven’t done a diagnostic test. It can also be nice for younger or shyer learners who are more hesitant to talk to each other.
Before class you will need to prepare a mod
el letter to the students (e.g. “Dear students, My name is Erica and I’m from Chicago. In my free time I like hiking and playing with my dog…) You can include as much or as little personal information as you like, but try to keep it short, simple, and level-appropriate. Include a few questions in the letter such as “Why are you learning English?” or “What do you do in your free time?”
When class begins tell students to read the letter and pick out one surprising / interesting fact they learned about you. They could also begin answering the questions you included in your letter in pairs to generate some ideas.
After some planning time, students write their letters to you individually. Try to encourage them to write in complete sentences and provide at least 3 pieces of information.
After several minutes and when all the students have written at least a couple sentences, post the letters around the room. Students read as many as they can and think of one question they’d like to ask each letter writer. Then in small groups or whole class students can ask/answer the questions. Collect the letters and mark some errors on each to provide language feedback.
#5 Stop the bus
More focused on vocabulary review than fluency, you may recognize this as a classic school game. It’s best suited to learners intermediate and above, though it can be adapted to be simpler for lower levels. This game doesn’t focus on personal information, so it’s best when you’re a new teacher taking over for an existing class and students already know each other quite well.
Tell students to think of six different categories for words (e.g. furniture, fruit, animals). Draw 6 columns and write one category at the top of each column. Use your discretion when deciding what to accept, as some categories are much more difficult than others.
Write a letter on the board and ask for one example in each category that begins with that letter (e.g. “S” furniture – “sofa”, fruit – “strawberry”, animal – “snake”). Explain that students will do the same thing with other letters as a race in small groups. The first group to get all 6 words yells “Stop the bus!”. After each round, check that the group’s answers are appropriate, and if so they get a point. You might make it easier/faster by telling them they only need to get 5 out of the 6 categories to get a point.
Continue playing with other letters until one team has three points or you’ve run out of time.
Erica Lederman is an ESL teacher and teacher trainer who has had classroom experience on four continents in addition to online tutoring. She is currently focused on teaching academic English to university students in Chicago and also running intensive CELTA courses with Teaching House as a freelancer.
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