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An ESL teacher’s lesson planning often involves coming up with a warm-up question or some sort of activity to engage students at the beginning of class to help them focus on the lesson. We know it is essential for pupils to make the switch in their brains from their native language to English, and that a warm-up time can be critical in making that switch. It is possible, and even probable, that the students haven’t spoken English since their last lesson, and we need to shake the dust off the cobwebs of their brains and get things rolling again. When done correctly, a warm-up activity or even a simple question can be a conduit for a great learning environment and lesson success. 

ESL Teacher Warm-up Student
Photo courtesy of Marcos Calvo Mesa |

In addition, an ESL teacher can use the warm-up time to assess where the students are that day, their moods, and how they have processed the previous lessons and materials. 

According to Chris Cotter with Heads Up English, “A conversation-based warm up between the students allows you to sit back, observe, and assess everyone’s ability. Assessment proves especially crucial if you see different faces each session. But even a class with regular attendance will catch students on good and bad days.”1

I teach a large number of students every week, and the warm-up time also refreshes my memory, in addition to the notes I have, about the student’s personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and even personal lives. 

A warm-up actually sets the tone for the lesson to come. A fun activity can raise the energy levels for the class and can produce relaxed, engaged, and less inhibited learners. Many of us who teach Chinese students are seeing them at the end of a long day of school and lessons. A fun warm-up can be just what they need to gather the necessary energy and strength for this additional lesson in their busy lives.

Here are a few Do’s and Don’ts suggestions to help an ESL teacher make the best of the few minutes they take to do a warm-up in their lessons.

Warm-up “Do’s” for ESL Teachers

  • Make sure to relate the content of the activity to their real personal life. You may, for example, have them show you things from their house or show you objects of various colors. If you want to talk about their pets or what their parent’s career is, that is all relatable. Make sure it is somehow connected to past materials, so the students have success at the beginning of the class
  • Allow time and room for expansion if the students are ready for it. If your course focuses on literacy, write simple sentences for the students and have them expand upon them according to their abilities. This activity will cause them to get the wheels turning on knowledge from past lessons. I particularly like to choose one student to create a basic sentence and then have the next student expand upon it. Inevitably, this inspires students to make up ridiculous sentences, which gets them laughing and, therefore, relaxing.
  • Empower the students by giving them options for the next class warm-up. You could ask a student to prepare a picture or prepare to introduce you to a family member. I have had students all bring their instruments to class and play a 30-second song for us. This activity does require planning, and it helps to advise the parents ahead of time. It’s worth the effort, though, because it gives the students ownership of the class, and they get very excited. I remember show-and-tell being a highlight of my week when I was a kid and was chosen to bring something to school!
  • Assure that the warm-up activity is simple and successful for the students. If you ask them too challenging of a question, they will feel frustrated and may even shut down for the rest of the class. For example, suppose you ask them, “What is your favorite animal?” While some students may easily answer this question, others may be afraid to respond because they aren’t sure of all the animal names and are feeling intimidated to answer. If they freeze up, you can write two different animal options on the board and ask them to choose… “Dog or cat”? Use TPR and show them what you are asking. This simple strategy to modify the question will allow for success with less fluent students and it will help them feel confident in their abilities.

Warm-up “Don’ts” for ESL Teachers

  • Don’t make the warm-up time about you, the ESL teacher. It is okay to show them something that they may be interested in, but make sure to allow time for them to ask questions and to express themselves in English. If you want to show your learners your pet, for example, make sure to give them time to show theirs or ask them questions about pets they may wish to have. 
  • Don’t be monotonous. It is easy to ask the same questions every week, but we always will get the same responses and won’t be challenging them in their English skills at all. Don’t just ask, “Did you go to school today?” and “What did you eat today?” Ask them more engaging questions! “Who is your best friend?”, “What do you prefer – a cat or a dog? Ice cream or cake? Etc”  
  • Don’t make the activity unrelatable to their lives. Remember your target audience and their interests. A group of teenagers may want to talk about books, movies, and music. A group of five-year-olds would most likely rather talk about toys and animals. Keep your students in mind as you prepare the lesson.
  • Finally, don’t correct students too often during the warm-up time. This is a time to let some minor mistakes slide so as to not frustrate the children. You can give them assistance, but make sure to be gentle and positive through it all. 

A successful warm-up time can and will help the students engage with you right away. We want to use this short time as a hook to draw them in and focus on the class and the content we want them to learn while reviewing previous content. Remember, most importantly, that our goal with our students is to get them communicating in English. Let’s use this time to the maximum so we can see our students reach their potential. 

Watch Teacher Tara, one of ALO7’s 2018 Teacher’s of the Year, warm up her students with a fun activity!

Citations for ESL Teacher’s Guide: Do’s and Don’ts of ESL Warm-ups
Cotter, Chris. “Heads Up English: ESL Lessons – The Importance of Warming Up Students.” Heads Up English | ESL Lessons – The Importance of Warming Up Students. Heads Up English. Accessed December 4, 2019.

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