7 types of icebreakers that will get your students laughing, thinking and connecting

The art of asking the perfect question is my own personal Mona Lisa. It is the element in my practice that I am always improving and perfecting. In fact, I even made a little video about some of the cognitive elements involved in questions.

Let go of perfection

Crafting a perfect question takes audience intuition, subject knowledge and most of all genuine curiosity about the result. But getting it right can be a mix of experience, trial and error and just plain luck. Jump in with something you find interesting and see where it takes you.

Have my questions bombed? Oh yes. Have I had the uncomfortably long blank stare? Yep. I have even been asked why on earth I would ask such a boring question. Ouch.

Most of all, when you are ‘on’ and right in the middle of a lesson, you need a certain amount of preparation, as well as have enough spontaneity to roll with the group if they want to go another way.

listen for patterns

It is the simplest yet the most powerful tool to see how articulate and fluid your students are. If you can, try to set an intention for what you listen for. Perhaps you can focus on speaking patterns like verbs, or use of modals, or vocabulary from previous lessons. If you notice mistakes, try to pick the most prevalent pattern and then give it some attention. Or perhaps you notice that the students are incorporating a bunch of previously learned vocabulary–make sure you point it out and praise them.

Question Tag-You’re it!

During the COVID confinement, I taught an online conversation course with about 10 students at a time. To allow everyone to speak, we played a game I called “question-tag”.

Students choose a question from the list and ask another classmate. Then that classmate is “it” and chooses the next question and classmate. Simple concept, but it puts the control in the students’ hands and adds just a touch of suspense to keep people engaged.

Want to play…You can use these 7 types of icebreakers to get going. The questions are meant as a corporate team-building exercise. Thus they are authentic and funny. Let me know how it turns out.

Do you believe in luck?

Do you believe in luck?

I once introduced one of my girlfriend’s to a boy that seemed to be a good match for her. When I asked if things had worked out, she said no. She said he was nice, but he did not seem to have luck. She said it as if ‘luck’ was something you could be born with.

That was such a strange way of looking at luck. It made me realize that this idea can be seen in so many different ways depending on your culture, your beliefs and perhaps your superstitions.

On the one hand, it can open up discussions on gratefulness, positivity and recognizing all the things in our lives that make us feel lucky…our children, our health, various aspects of our lives that make us happy.

But luck can also be explored culturally. For instance, in Japanese mythology, the Seven Gods of Luck are believed to have the power to grant luck. Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, also have gods or figures that are believed to bestow luck. I suppose this means that you can believe in luck like you would believe in god. Or that if you are unlucky, it may be because you don’t deserve luck.

In this wordless animated short by Mike Bidinger & Michelle Kwon called Jinxy Jenkins & Lucky Lou, yet another facette of luck is explored. Jinxy is a walking disaster. Every step he takes is laced with misfortune. He is nervous and unhappy all the time. Conversely, Lou is so lucky she seems bored and unchallenged. I will let you watch to see what happens when the two meet.

Warm up

  • Do you think you are lucky?
  • What makes you feel lucky?
  • Does your culture have any beliefs or superstitions about luck?

The Video: Jinxy Jenkins & Lucky Lou by Mike Bidinger & Michelle Kwon

Discussion Questions

  • What actions or event in the movie make the girl (Lou) luck?
  • What actions or event make the boy (Jinxy) unlucky?
  • Why do you think Jinxy is so unlucky? Is there anything in his attitude?
  • Why do you think Lou is so lucky?
  • What happens when they meet?
  • Why does Lou seem unhappy about being lucky?
  • Do you have any examples in your life where luck was important?
  • Would you be happy if you were as lucky as Lou?

When I taught this lesson, I used this template to collect the answers. Feel free to use it too. I included the results of our discussion in case you need some ideas to prime your discussion.

Let me know in the comments section how it turns out for you.

What bad habit would you like to break?

Why are bad habits so hard to break?

First, what are bad habits? A bad habit is a negative behaviour pattern–perhaps one that causes bodily harm. What about your daily glass of wine, you ask? If it is not causing any pain or putting your health at risk, I would not consider it a bad habit. If you drink a whole bottle, get sick and have trouble waking up in the morning, that may be a different story.

Without being too hard on ourselves, I’m sure we can think of at least one bad habit. Mine…I stress eat. When I get stressed, I feel hungry, crave sweets (I don’t even like sweets) and I’m always looking forward to my next meal.

But why?

The creators of ASAP Science YouTube channel look at bad habits from the scientific perspective. They explain why we feel the need to repeat behaviours even when they hurt us. Let this scientific explanation take the guilt out of your bad habits and give you something interesting to talk about with your students.

Pre discussion

  • Mind Map a list of bad habits.
  • What are your bad habits?

The Video: How to Break Your Bad Habit

  • What are some of the bad habits mentioned in the video?
  • How much of our behaviour is done out of habit?
  • Can you explain “chunking”? What does it do for us?
  • Can you name the elements in the 3 step loop?
  • How can you change a habit?
  • Now think of your own bad habit…what do you think it provides for you? (e.g. a rest, socialization, a break from boredom, a break from stress, etc…)

Let me know how the discussions turn out. I love to hear from you.

What, why, which, how, and all the other question words

Asking questions is an integral part of conversation. When I prepare an ESL lesson, I can spend quite a lot of time composing just the right question. Not too hard, not too easy, avoid yes, no and add some nice vocabulary words to feed the answer. In fact, the art of asking questions is a bit of a passion of mine. You can even consult my Questions by Cognitive Skill page to see just how scientific I can get to achieve the perfect question.

But enough about me! What about the students? How are they at asking questions? The wh-words are such an important cornerstone in ESL development. But I find that simply exposing the 5 w’s is too simplistic and not very conversational. I got inspired by a great lesson that uses photos and question starters to practice questions. I liked it because it was open enough to allow for variety but controlled enough to feed the students with the structure and words to provide opportunity for success. So I made one of my own with Google Slides.

You can download the exercise for free. Questions-questions

Here are a few screen shots:

Can kindness make you happy?

Can kindness make you happy? Altruism was a hotly debated topic in my philosophy classes. For instance, if we do something nice, and it makes us happy, are we doing it for ourselves or for others? This question put my thoughts in a bit of an impossible loop, so I would tune out and focus on the symbiotic relationship between acts of kindness and our own personal happiness. In other words, if it makes the other person happy and it makes me happy too, then who cares about the rest…it’s win win.

So what are the things you do for others that bring light into your life? What could you do? Aryasb Feiz’s animated short “Mr. Indifferent”, deals with this very topic. As I was watching the wordless video, the first thought that came to me is what a great way to practice modal auxiliaries.

There is very little first language video material that can work in a lower level ESL class, so I like to use these animated short to concentrate on the actions. The authenticity of the video usually motivates the students to talk–with whatever words they have. Authenticity is magic.

That is what this lesson provides. I included a little printable handout to help note down some of the key vocabulary.

Pre discussion

  • What do you do for other people that makes you happy?
  • Do you volunteer?
  • What could you do?

The video: Mr. Indifferent by Aryasb Feiz’s

Discussion Questions

  • Use the handout to help collect some words and expressions.
  • What is it about kindness that makes us happy?
  • Why do we forget, or chose not to bother?
  • What are some small, no money required, acts kindness we could do to brighten our lives?

Let me know how the discussions turn out.

Can you live a zero-waste life?

Can you live a zero-waste life? I know I can’t…not yet anyway. But every year I try to incorporate a new environmentally friendly practice. For example, I switched my paper napkins for cloth napkins. I also buy at least 10% of my clothes at second hand shops. Also, I collect and bring all my styrofoam to a community drop off point.

It may not be a huge contribution to reducing my environmental footprint, but it’s something. I know we should and could be doing so much more. And I know that the degradation of our planet is alarming and overwhelming. But I also have to take care of my emotional well being. Thus, carrying the responsibility of saving the planet is pretty heavy. I try to not be too hard on myself about doing more and I try not to judge what everyone else is doing.

That said, I do like to hear what other people are doing to reduce waste and be better global citizens. Sometimes, there are practical things. Things that are not drastic or super time-consuming. Sometimes all I need are some ideas. Here is where Lauren Singer’s TED talk comes in handy.

Singer is an absolute champion at transforming her daily habits into zero waste practices. You heard that right…she produces no garbage at all. How does she do it? You’ll have to listen to her talk to find out.

Warm-up

  • What do you do to reduce waste?
  • What would you like to do, but feel that it is too much energy or too time-consuming?

The Talk: Why I live a zero-waste life by Lauren Singer

Discussion Questions

  • What inspired Singer to lead a zero-waste life?
  • Make a list of all the things Singer does to eliminate waste
  • What are some of the things Singer does that you could do?
  • What are some of things Singer does that you find too time consuming or complicated?
  • Do you think we are doing enough to reduce our environmental footprint?
  • What are some of the more important things we could do to reduce waste?

When you go to someone’s house, what do you look at?

When you go to someone’s house, what do you look at? Oh yes, we all do it. Maybe you like to check out the kitchen or take a peek in the bedrooms, or maybe you check how clean the toilet is.

As humans, we all have a natural curiosity about how others live. Sometimes we judge, but I think we are also just curious. Sometimes it can be as ordinary as comparing the toothpaste other people use.

Researcher Anna Rosling Rönnlund takes this curiosity to a new level. In her TED talk, Rönnlund presents her massive sociological photographic database. It contains over 40,000 photos of everyday objects, like cutlery, toys, stoves and yes, toilets. So if you wonder what a toothbrush looks like in Burkina Fasso, or you want to see what distinguishes low-income families and very high-income families, this visual database unlocks huge truths in tiny mundane objects. For a voyeur like me, it provides hours of fascinating revelations.

But Rönnlund’s intentions reach far beyond curiosity. She explains that the power of visual data is about helping us better understand the world we live in and perhaps re-align some of our misguided beliefs

And aside from a fantastic eye-opening experience, the talk and the tool makes for great ESL material to practice the language of comparisons. Take a look-see…

Pre-Discussion

  • When you go to someone’s house, what do you like to look at? Why?
  • What is the most important room in a home?

The Talk: See how the rest of the world lives, organized by income by Anna Rosling Rönnlund

Discussion Questions

  • Why did Rönnlund take pictures of peoples’ homes?
  • What can we learn about some simple like utensils?
  • Stop the video on some of the pictures and compare:
    • Is there more or less
    • Is it bigger or smaller?
    • Is it simpler or more complicated?
    • Is it tidier or messier?
    • Is it cleaner or dirtier?
    • etc…

Are you an introvert, extrovert or ambivert?

Are you an introvert, extrovert or ambivert? You probably already know the answer, but wouldn’t you like to check? Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant shares his psycho-quiz on the TED site, which for us ESL practitioners can be transformed into a fantastic interactive reading exercise. I would suggest you pair up your students and ask them to quiz each other rather than simply have them do it individually.

But before jumping into the exercise I want to tell you why I snagged on this question in the first place. Yes, I like to psycho-analyze stuff with absolutely no authority to do so. And yes I love to use frameworks and patterns to help me understand the world better. But more than that, when it comes to spotting an introvert or extrovert or even knowing myself, I think I have it all wrong.

I recently watched a TED talk given by Brian Little which asks “Who are you really: the puzzle of personality,” in which he presents his framework for classifying personality traits. When he got to the extravert/introvert category, his explanation really puzzled me. According to him, I would be a total introvert. Me? I know right! Based on Little’s examples of the behaviours of each of these personalities, I would sway more on the reclusive quiet side.

Are you intrigued yet? So let me link each resource: first the TED quiz and then the TED talk. Let’s see you and your students change perspective…

Pre discussion

  • Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
  • What are some of the things you love and hate that demonstrate your personality?

The Quiz: Quiz: Are you an extrovert, introvert or ambivert? by Adam Grant

TED talk: Who are you really? The puzzle of personality?

Questions

  • What are the elements in Little’s framework?
  • Why do you think ‘kindness’ is not part of it?
  • Do you agree with his descriptions of introverts and extroverts?
  • Who do you know that fits those descriptions?
  • What are the advantages/disadvantages of introverts and extroverts?

Guess Who?

ESL and EFL lesson on the parts of the face.

Ever play the game Guess Who? You know the one where you and your partner have a bunch of tiles representing different people and you have to ask yes/no questions to guess which person your partner has in mind.

I love that game for beginner ESL. Only it costs a lot of money to buy one for each pair of students. So I created a modified version of this in a PowerPoint. The presentation also includes a couple of introductory exercises to practice the vocabulary of the different parts of the face.

I placed the fully downloadable presentation on Teachers Pay Teachers. At $2.99, it will save you some precious prep time. Get it here: Parts of the Face

Here is a sneak peek of the lesson:

How are you feeling?

Can you describe what emotions you are experiencing right now? This is the question Tiffany Watt Smith asks her TED audience to sensitize them on how easy or how hard it is to put words on our emotions. This is a fantastic presentation to conjure the vocabulary of emotions and an esl psychology lesson.

Do you think words can really describe how we feel? If you watched the movie Inside Out, or are knowledgeable about the scientific litterature on emotions, you may have heard that emotions have been broken down into 6 basic forms: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise. The first time I read this, I found it hugely oversimplified. I just couldn’t relate my own personal experience with this.  Yet, these basic emotions seem to be the baseline for emotional researchers.

Smith challenges this simple view of emotional language. She looks across different languages and cultures to show the complexity and diversity of the words used to describe how we are feeling. She even suggests that the very existence of these words may allow us to feel things that people in other cultures don’t. She exposes a compelling and thought provoking-idea that words can shape how we feel. Before you start, be sure to download the Google docs included in this post. It has a preliminary list of emotions vocabulary words.

Warm-up

  • What emotion words do you know?
  • Do you think you are good at talking about how you feel?

The Video: TED The History of Human Emotion Discussion by Tiffany Watt Smith

I would break this presentation down into a series of snippets and begin by doing Tell Backs of each segment.  In fact, if you have more basic students, I would stop at the 6 min mark and center a discussion on the vocabulary of emotions. However, for more advanced learners, I would go through the presentation as it digs much deeper into the topic of the history of emotions and may be very engaging for higher-level discussions.

Questions 

  • What emotions does Smith talk about?
  • Can you give some examples of the emotional language of other cultures?
  • What stuck with you in Smith’s presentation?
  • Do you have words in your native language that describe feelings that don’t exist in English?
  • How are emotions viewed in your culture? Do you talk about them, or not?
  • What, according to you, is emotional intelligence?
  • Use the emotional definer wheel and say which are positive and which are negative

Want to download this lesson?

Get the Google Docs version for free