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There are so many fun ESL games for kids, but it can be difficult to find perfect warm-up activities for children with limited English abilities. These are the children who may most benefit from some fun warm-up activities to help boost their confidence and increase their involvement and investment in the class. 

Even very fluent students may be reluctant to participate in warm-up activities as they have often already had a long day of school and homework. Fatigue can be an even bigger issue for less fluent students; however, this is when warm-up activities are even more essential. They help to increase the energy level in the classroom and “wake students up.”¹ They can be an excellent way for teachers to wake themselves up, as well. 

Student studying online

Student studying English online (Image courtesy of © Paulus Rusyanto |

Warm-up Activities for ESL Students

  • Alphabet Circle: Most students are familiar with the alphabet and can play the “Alphabet Circle” game. While online ESL students can’t form a physical circle, they can certainly create a virtual one and take turns thinking of a word for each letter of the alphabet. Teachers can help by using the annotate function to write the letters and words on the screen.
  • Finish the Thought: If you’ve been struggling to get students to tell you about their day, the “finish the thought” activity can be a great option to encourage students to share. Begin with a sentence such as “I’m happy because…” or “Today my friend…” and have the students finish the sentences (Dixon). 
  • Song and Dance: For younger students, it can be especially helpful to have them physically involved in the class. Encourage them to dance or lead them in the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” or another song with motions.
  • Draw a Picture: Drawing a picture is a great way to involve even very young or shy students. Use the annotate function to draw a basic picture and have students guess what you are drawing ( Cat, dog, flower, and snowman are great for less fluent students. 
  • Categories: This is another fun game that doesn’t require a strong understanding of grammar. Have students take turns listing things that belong to a specific category ( Animals, places, and family members are all simple categories that are helpful to use with less fluent students. 
  • Use Images to Prompt Conversation: Having students describe or identify things in a picture is another great way to engage students who do not speak a lot of English. Choose a picture to share virtually and have students take turns describing the image. Prompt them to identify objects or colors in the picture, or if they are more fluent, have them create a story from the image. This can also be an excellent opportunity to introduce students to the game “I Spy.”
  • What’s this? or What Does the Teacher Have?: For the very youngest and least familiar with English students you may find a simple game of “What’s this?” a great way to start the class. Just hold up toys and objects and have students identify them. Stuffed animals, flowers, and basic food items are obvious choices for this game. This game can also have “themes” for different seasons or holidays. Perhaps in December, you will want to play it with a toy Santa, a stocking, and a wrapped gift. If the students are unfamiliar with the objects you are showing them, you can use this as an opportunity to introduce a few new words as well.

Tips and Tricks for Less Fluent English Speakers

When doing a warm-up activity with students with limited familiarity with English, you may need to show them an example of the types of answers you are looking for. A puppet or other stuffed animal can be a great assistant for modeling. Ask the puppet the question first and then have it answer. You can even use a silly voice for the puppet if you think your students are open to a little silliness. You may also want to type the question on the screen. Some students are more confident with written English than spoken English. This may be especially true if the students have not met you before and are not familiar with your accent.

Not every activity is a perfect fit for every class, and even with the best strategies, you may not get the level of engagement for which you hoped. Consider keeping notes on what English language games were most successful for which classes and what seemed to confuse students. While it can feel demoralizing if students don’t respond well to a warm-up activity, it doesn’t mean the class is doomed. Put on a smile and move onto the next part of the lesson. 

Warm-up activities can be a great way to start a class and increase student engagement. Even less fluent students will be able to enjoy these ESL speaking activities. Engaging students with these activities can help improve rapport and enthusiasm throughout the whole class.  

Citations for Warm-up Activities for Less Fluent ESL Students 
1 Dixon, Graham. “Warming Up: 8 Great Warmers for Any ESL Level.” Busy Teacher, March 27, 2014.

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