Icebreaker Activities for the ESL Classroom

by Carrie Kellenberger /
Carrie Kellenberger's picture
Oct 09, 2009 / 0 comments

Icebreakers are activities that are generally used during the first class to help students relax, get acquainted, and establish goals. These activities can be a fun and interesting way to jumpstart your class. Listed below are several examples of icebreaker activities and ideas that are based on age and language-ability.

Zero-beginners: 3-6 years of age
There’s no doubt about it. These classes can be rough when it comes to the first few weeks of class. Not only are the little tykes traumatized about being in a new classroom, but they’re also being taught by a big, scary, strange-looking teacher they can’t understand. Count yourself extremely lucky if you make it through the first class without anyone crying or throwing a temper tantrum, and don’t feel bad if it happens.

It's a good idea to include some sort of physical activity to begin these classes: a game, a song and dance, or a little march around the classroom works wonders for getting students moving and for grabbing their attention. Remember that the younger the child, the shorter their attention span. Just because you introduced an activity at the beginning of class doesn’t mean that you can’t use it again throughout the class whenever you see your students losing focus. Having a number of activities that brings their attention back to you is one of the best things you can do to prepare for these classes.
Icebreaking Ideas:  
Introduce a Teacher Says game that is based on classroom commands and rules. Examples: Stand up. Sit down. Raise your hand. Lower your hand. Open your hands/eyes/mouths/book. Close your hands/eyes/mouths/book.
Teach your students a simple little song and dance with hand gestures. A great online resource for teaching with music is Super Simple Songs 
Beginners or low-intermediate: 6-10 years
Name-based activities such as the English Name Game always work well with small groups of students. Ask your students to sit in a circle. Ask a student to begin by saying his/her name. The next student says his/her name and repeats the name of the previous student. Keep going around in a circle until someone makes a mistake. Repeat.

Another alternative to this game is to ask the students to think of an adjective that starts with the same letter as his or her name. For example: Crazy Carrie or Jumpy Jessie. You could also ask each student to choose an animal that goes with the first letter of his/her name, such as Carrie the Cat or Jessie the Jackrabbit.
The Name Game is, believe it or not, a hit with older students. Teenagers can get very clever with the words they come up with, and the result is usually a lot of laughs around the circle. If your students are intermediate language-learners, you can always introduce sentence patterns, like I am Carrie the Cat. She is Jessie the Jackrabbit.
High school intermediate-language learners: 12+ years
Who am I? is a super-fun game that most kids can relate to. Bring some Post-It notes to class and ask each student to write down the name of a famous person. Collect the Post-It notes and redistribute them among the classroom by putting a note on each student’s back or forehead. The game begins with a student asking yes-or-no questions about the name on his or her Post-It note.

Some questions to ask: Am I alive? Am I a boy or a girl? What’s my job? Where am I from?
Intermediate-Advanced: 14+
Older students and adults can be difficult to engage in conversation at first. They don’t like to play games, they are generally there for a very specific learning goal, and they don’t want to waste valuable time. Another thing to keep in mind is that with these kinds of classes, the learning level of each student usually varies dramatically. If you can, try to do some homework on your students ahead of time. 

One way to begin class is to hold a general Q&A session. Everyone in the class asks you a question. Answer the questions and then have them write down as many things as they can remember about you. Collect their notes. This simple activity helps you learn about your students’ listening and writing skills.

Then, break the class up into teams and have them interview each other for a short time. You might want to prepare questions ahead of time or provide general guidelines for the interview. Ask them to get information about jobs, likes and dislikes, family life, hobbies, favorite sport, etc. After the interviews, reassemble the group and have each team introduce their team member to the group. This exercise helps them to learn about each other.

If your adult students are quite advanced, you could play a situational game like Marooned. Tell your students that they are marooned on an island. Ask them which items (give them a limit) they would have brought with them if they had known they were going to be stranded on an island. Note that they are only allowed five items per team, not per person. You can have them write their items on a flip chart and discuss and defend their choices with the whole group. This activity helps them to learn about other's values and problem solving styles and promotes teamwork.

For more great ideas, please visit my ESL Icebreaker page at ESL Icebreaker Activities. If you’ve got a great activity you’d love to share, please drop me a line either here or on My Several Worlds. I’d love to hear from you.
For more great tips and advice on teaching abroad visit MSW Teach and Travel or  

MSW ESL Activities

Carrie Kellenberger is the ESL Editor for Wandering Educators.