Small talk and icebreakers can be a struggle for people in a variety of settings. Even very confident speakers can struggle when trying to get to know people in a group setting. Trying to find good ways to start conversations with the less proficient English Language Learners in your classes can be an especially intimidating idea. Icebreakers serve many vital purposes, though. They “play a significant role in events in which communication and participant comfort level are important factors. They help you ensure that all attendees are equal participants, and they fully engage participants when you want them to own the outcomes of the meeting or session.”1 Choosing the right topics and carefully picking get-to-know-you questions for your introductory icebreaker questions can help make your students more comfortable and engaged in the class setting and can help you learn about and connect with your students.
As Jovell Alingod notes, the teacher’s vocabulary is often more important than the student’s, so think carefully about what words you are using in your question. You may want to think of a few synonyms for the keywords in the question so that you can rephrase things for students who are struggling with comprehension. Writing the question on a whiteboard or typing the question on the screen may also be helpful as many students are more confident with written English than spoken English. Having relevant props ready is also useful if students are struggling to understand the question. Breaking a more complex question down into a series of simpler and less open-ended questions can also help students who are struggling to answer.
One of the best ways to encourage an honest reaction from your students is to ask them questions about their feelings and emotions.3 Almost everyone is more willing to talk when they are asked about things they feel passionate about. Inquiries like this can also provide you with helpful information about your students’ likes and dislikes, which you can use to engage with them in the future. These questions could range from “What are you excited about?” to “How do you feel about learning English?” There are few things that motivate students more than feeling understood and listened to.4
Questions for Younger and Less Fluent Students:
- What makes you happy?
- What food do you like to eat?
- What food do you like to cook?
- Who is the best cook in your family?
- What is your favorite TV show?
- Why do you like your favorite book?
- What do you like to do at the park/playground?
- What is your favorite season? Why do you like it?
- Why are you learning English?
- What do you buy at the store?
Conversation Starters for Teens and More Fluent Students:
- How will knowing English help you in the future?
- How would you describe your lifestyle?
- What do you spend your money on? Why?
- What would you buy with $100?
- What would you wish for if you had three wishes?
- Tell me about a person who annoys you
- What actor/actress would play you if they made a movie about you?
- If you could have a theme song that played when you entered a room, what would it be?
- What is your favorite smell? What does it make you think of?
- Do you like humans or animals better?
- Describe a funny video you saw. Has anything happened to you that would make a funny video?
- When do you feel stressed? How do you deal with stress?
- Describe yourself in three words
- Where do you want to live after you finish school? Why?
- If you were in charge of a school, what would it be like?
- If you could design a school uniform, what would it look like? What colors would it be?
- What is your least favorite chore or task? What is your favorite?
- If you could play any instrument, what would it be?
- If you could redecorate your bedroom, what would it look like? (What color would it be? What furniture would it have?)
- What would your life be like if you were a famous singer or idol?
While language barriers can sometimes make it seem like large sections of your students’ lives are not accessible to you, careful wording of questions can help you talk about and learn far more about your students than you may have originally expected. When talking to less fluent students, remember the importance of using props and TPR, and don’t hesitate to reword or tweak questions for your students’ level. Language is about connecting, and you may be amazed at how easily you can get to know and connect with your students.
Citations for Icebreaker Questions to Get to Know Your Students:
1 Heathfield, Susan M. “What Is an Icebreaker and How Is It Used?” The Balance Careers. The Balance Careers, August 31, 2019. https://www.thebalancecareers.com/what-is-an-ice-breaker-1918156.
2, 3 Contributor, BusyTeacher. “Get to Know Your Students: 11 Essential Questions To Ask.” Busy Teacher, September 1, 2016. https://busyteacher.org/17094-get-to-know-your-students-11-questions.html
4 Kardimis, Linda. “20 Questions to Help You Get to Know Your Students.” Teach 4 the Heart. Accessed February 25, 2020. https://teach4theheart.com/get-to-know-you-questions/.
Lauren Krystaf has been teaching with ALO7 since 2017 and loves having the opportunity to teach English from anywhere with an internet connection. She enjoys traveling, reading, hiking, and spending time with her family.
Lauren has a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from SUNY Buffalo and a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Drexel University. She also has a 120 hour TESOL certificate. Lauren is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa and Beta Phi Mu honor societies.