We’ve all been there. You’re starting another day prepared to climb the mountain of helping a student increase their English fluency. You jump into class, greet your student, and then you start your warm-up game. The student visibly rolls their eyes. Oh no! Is your student tired of you? I doubt it. But this is the 20th time they’ve had to warm up with “I Spy” and they just want something fresh.
That’s where we come in. There are hundreds of fantastic ESL warm-up activities nearly anyone can do, so it makes sense to expand your horizons. All ESL students are unique, and what works well for one may leave other stifling yawns the whole time.
Different activities help us gauge different aspects of English language learning. Some games might be geared toward basic vocabulary, while others help us assess fluency and comprehension. Be sure to mix them up to get the best results.
Let’s take a look at 12 ESL warm-up activities that can enhance your class. Don’t stress if you already know all of these, GREAT. But challenge yourself to find others that didn’t make this list.
1 Odd One Out
Who is it for? Mid-level to Advanced
What is it? Another classic ESL warm-up activity is Odd One Out. Write 4 words on a page. 3 of them can be found in the bathroom, and one can be found in the kitchen. I bet you know which is the odd one out. This warm-up can be done with younger learners (but not beginners) all the way up to students with excellent English fluency. You can make the words relatable to the new words or phonics section of the lesson. Be sure to mix words up with pictures, as both can be used to great effect.
2 Physical Warm-Up
Who is it for? Everyone
What is it? Our students spend a lot of time in class and studying. Sometimes they just need to take a brain break from their usual lessons to spice it up with physical activity. If ballerinas and football players stretch before they do their thing, students can have fun doing it, too. Use target vocabulary and have everyone stand up. Stretch your RIGHT ARM. You can make it silly by stretching your ears. Doing jumping jacks (great for people with a stand-up desk) and various other activities usually lead to giggles and have the added value of keeping the teacher more awake.
3 What is it?
Who is it for? Young students, but not new students.
What is ‘What is it’? It is a simple vocabulary checker/expander. This one is well known because you probably have done it by accident. It works best for teachers who have a lot of easy access props or use digital effects like Manycam. A great way to use it is by staying in the confines of a category, like animals.
4 What does your name mean?
Who is it for? Mid-level to advanced students.
Checking? Vocabulary and Creative thinking.
What is it? This is a useful warm-up to get your students to express themselves. Have them spell their name horizontally (Chinese or English name for fun) and have them use words to describe themselves that start with the letter. Example, for someone named Bob:
5 Two Truths and a Lie
Who is it for? Mid-level to advanced students
Checking? Fluency and comprehension
What is it? This one works best when your class has multiple people. 3 is ideal as you can have the students close their eyes and then have each open 1 at a time to assign them to tell the truth or lie. It also works with each student having to say all 3 and then everyone guessing which the lie is. You won’t believe some of the creative lies you’ll hear.
6 Tongue Twisters
Who is it for? Beginner to Advanced
What are they? Everyone has their favorite tongue twisters. Sure, being able to say “She sells sea shells by the seashore” is going to take a more advanced student, but even the young ones can try out some of the simplest and funniest ones. Give “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear” a try the next time you have a chance. Tongue twisters help the muscles to warm up and can improve the student’s diction.
7 20 Questions
Who is it for? Advanced students
Checking? Investigative thinking, fluency
What is it? There are many forms of this age-old game and lots of ways we can use it in class. This one is geared more for advanced students so you can quickly assess English fluency. It is easiest to start by pretending to be an animal. Don’t tell the students what you are. They only get to know that you are an animal. Then they get 20 questions to narrow it down. You can also play this game with you asking the student questions!
8 Sit Down, Stand Up
Who is it for? Beginners and Mid-level
Checking? Fluency and engagement
What is it? This is a simple game of questions that works best with a handful of students. It also gets everyone moving and more energetic. Take turns asking questions. Any yes or no question will do. “Do you like chocolate?” “Is your favorite color red?” Everyone that is a yes has to stand up. Then don’t sit down until they are a no. It is simple and fun.
9 Simon Says
Who is it for? Young learners
Checking? Vocabulary and listening
What is it? Everyone knows Simon says. And as well they should. It is a fantastic exercise that checks comprehension and actively engages students. Whether you are using body parts or just make faces, Simons says, “Have fun.”
Who’s it for? Beginners to mid-level
What is it? This game is a reverse of the classic A-Z game. Rather than having students come up with something for each letter in a specific category, the students will choose one letter and think of a word for different categories. Choose four to five different categories to begin and students can use the first letter of their name if they like.
11 Describe the Picture
Who’s it for? Mid-level to advanced students
Checking? Fluency and creative thinking
What is it? We are all used to asking students, “What do you see?” on the title page of the lesson. But we can take this one step further by asking students to come up with a story or dialogue based on a picture. There are many variations which will get all students involved. Have one student make one sentence, and then have the next student continue the story. Or assign each student a character or person in the picture and have him or her say what that character is thinking.
12 Keyword Storytime
Who’s it for? Everybody
Checking? Listening and engagement
What is it? In this game, students have to listen carefully for a key word while the teacher tells a story. The teacher tells the students the word to listen for and that when they hear it, they should raise their hands, stand up, or do another action. While telling the story, the teacher can try to trick the students by pausing in the middle of words (if the key word was ‘today,’ you’d say ‘to–‘ pause ‘morrow’) or using words that sound similar. For advanced students, you can even choose a word that is a homonym so students must pay attention to the context, not just the word itself. The word should be repeated several times in the story. This takes a little bit of preparation if you can’t think of a story on the spot, but you can be as creative and silly as you want to be to get students laughing.
What are your favorite ESL games to check your student’s level of English fluency?
Delanie Honda has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in International Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While in Cambodia in 2014, she discovered she had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals through language learning. During her Master’s studies, she researched interventions using technology to provide quality education to students around the world. She has been a tutor with ALO7 since April 2017 and lived in Southeast Asia, Ecuador and Colombia.
The digital nomad lifestyle has allowed her to pursue the two things she loves: travel and education. As a Chinese-Japanese American, Delanie is asked, “Where are you from?” a lot, but welcomes the opportunity to share her culture with the people she meets from around the world. Her favorite things to do while traveling are trying new foods, playing Ultimate Frisbee, and exploring on foot.