Speak Easy: 7 ESL Icebreakers to Get Your Students Talking
Many of us have seen over-used or boring icebreakers fall flat, whether leading them or enduring them during conferences or training sessions.
But don’t let bad experiences with icebreakers turn you off to them altogether!
There are actually fun, effective ESL icebreakers that you can use to get students interacting with one another in a friendly way while building their English skills.
- 1. Paper Airplane You
- 2. Four Corners
- 3. Say Cheese
- 4. Concentric Circles
- 5. Where Are You From? Where Will You Go?
- 6. Cootie Catcher Questions
- 7. Who’s in Your Circles?
- What Makes a Good ESL Icebreaker?
1. Paper Airplane You
This fun writing icebreaker works well with students that are at least at an upper-beginning level.
To start, the students write three to five facts about themselves on a piece of paper. Then they put their creativity to work by folding that paper into a paper airplane. (If you aren’t sure how to make an airplane that flies, check out this article on creating the best paper airplanes.)
On your count, everyone flies their planes toward the middle of the room. Then students pick up a plane that landed near them.
Students take turns reading the facts written on the plane and trying to guess whose it was. Let the class help if individuals get stuck.
If you like, you can tailor the facts students write to what you’re studying. For example, if you’re doing a sports unit, have students write three sports they like. If you’re studying travel, they could write three places they would like to go.
2. Four Corners
This listening-based icebreaker can be a bit of a challenge for beginning students. So keep it for intermediate to advanced students or tailor your questions to the language level of your students.
Before playing, label the corners of your room one through four. Then ask get-to-know-you questions. For this activity, asking about students’ favorites is a good way to go. For example, ask about their favorite sports, their favorite movie genres, their favorite animals, etc.
You’ll be giving students four answer choices—one for each corner. For example, if you’re asking about favorite animals, you might give them these choices: 1. Dog 2. Cat 3. Fish 4. Bird.
Students then move to the corner that represents their answer.
Not only does this help students get to know one another, it also lets them see what they have in common with other students in your class. And that’s a good starting point for chit chat and/or developing friendships.
3. Say Cheese
This super fun speaking activity takes some preparation on your part, but your students will love it. Not only that, you can tailor it to work with any level of student depending on the icebreaker questions you choose.
To prep the activity, gather some old film canisters (ask at a photo lab—they usually have some they’re getting rid of) or use plastic Easter eggs or other small, opaque containers. Tape an icebreaker question on the outside of the container. If you need some ideas of questions to ask, look at this list for inspiration.
Put a small item inside each container. If you want to have pairs of students working together, put the same item in each of two canisters. If you want groups of three, then put the same item inside each of three containers.
Good items to put inside the canisters include pennies, cotton balls, popcorn kernels, erasers, etc.
To play, give each student a random canister. Tell students not to look in their container but to shake it instead. Using the sound of the canister only, they should then find the person/people who have the same item in their container.
By limiting students to the sound of their item and permitting them to listen only to their own canister, students will have to describe what they hear to find their match, which will give them good speaking practice.
After students find their partners or groups, have each person introduce him/herself and answer the question on the outside of their canister. The other members of the group should also answer each question.
To maximize the effectiveness of this activity, make sure the like items all have different questions on the outside of the container. Or keep it simple and put a different question on each canister.
Another great aspect of this game is once you set it up, it’ll be ready to use anytime you need to fill a few minutes. And you can change things up whenever you want by putting new questions on the outside of each canister or changing the items that are inside.
4. Concentric Circles
You may never have wanted to try speed dating, but your students will definitely love this icebreaker twist on it. For intermediate and advanced students, it’s a fun, active way to get to know lots of people in class in a short amount of time—and it provides excellent practice for real-world conversation your students may have when they meet native English speakers.
To prepare for the activity, have your class divide into two groups and form two circles in the middle of the room, one inside the other so each person is facing one partner.
Ask an icebreaker question to the class and give students a chance to answer. After one minute, call out, “rotate!” The inner circle should move one spot clockwise. Students should now be facing a new partner.
Call out another icebreaker question and give students a minute to answer before rotating again. Keep going in this manner until you run out of time or until students are back facing their first partner.
5. Where Are You From? Where Will You Go?
In this intermediate level icebreaker, students will talk with one another to try and guess where their classmates have been and would like to go. You’ll need a world map for this activity, so grab an empty bulletin board and get one up before you start.
Give each student two pushpins or straight pins to put on the map. Each person should put one on the map to mark where they’re from and another to mark where they would like to go.
Once all the pushpins are in place, the class tries to decide who placed each pushpin on the map.
This is a flexible activity that you can adapt to the skill level of your students.
For beginning students, have them ask simple questions for their guesses:
Mario, are you from Italy?
Na-An, do you want to go to the Bahamas?
For intermediate students, encourage them to use modals and phrase their guesses as statements:
Mario might be from Italy.
Na-An could’ve marked the Bahamas.
Challenge your advanced students with this activity by requiring them to give reasons for their guesses. For example:
Na-An probably chose the Bahamas because she loves the beach.
No matter what level your students are at, they’ll be increasing their vocabularies as they read and practice using the names of countries around the world.
6. Cootie Catcher Questions
Did you ever make a cootie catcher as a kid? I couldn’t go through a single day in fifth grade without encountering one. And your intermediate and advanced students will have fun making their own for this writing and speaking activity modified from The Spruce.
Have students follow the directions linked above to make a paper cootie catcher. Under each flap (the “fortunes” area), they should write a get-to-know-you question. Students pair up and play, answering the questions that they land on.
Give each person a chance to run the cootie catcher and to answer a question from their partner’s before switching pairs and going another round.
7. Who’s in Your Circles?
Icebreakers that focus on discourse may not be all that common, but your intermediate and advanced students will have fun with discourse when they learn who’s “in their circles.”
You don’t have to do any prep before class, but at the start of the activity, have each student draw three concentric circles on a blank piece of paper.
Pick a topic for the round (such as favorite food, favorite season, etc.) and have students write it in the center circle. They should label the second circle “Love,” the third circle “Like” and the space outside the circles “Don’t Like.”
In the innermost circle under the topic, each student writes something (say, a food) they love. Then students mingle with one another, bringing their papers with them, and ask how a particular student feels about the food they wrote.
When a classmate answers, the person should write their classmate’s name in the appropriate area of their paper.
Play for a few minutes and then start again with another topic—sport, type of music, favorite season, etc.—with a new sheet of paper.
After a few rounds, encourage students to discuss common interests with people who share their inner circle on different topics.
What Makes a Good ESL Icebreaker?
Not all icebreakers are created equal. And not all icebreakers are good for ESL students. Here’s what to look for when choosing effective, appropriate icebreakers for your English class:
- They don’t make students take big social risks with people they barely know. Though some people put every aspect of their life on social media, not everyone is ready to put their personal details out there for the world to see. So good icebreakers don’t expect your students to get overly personal with people they don’t know.
But getting to know one another is another aspect of good icebreakers. You have to put yourself out there a little bit, so the best icebreakers walk that fine line between helping students get to know one another without getting too personal.
- They match your students’ proficiency level. If your icebreaker requires more English input or comprehension than your students can handle, no one will participate. If it’s too easy, they’ll get bored quickly. You want your icebreakers to be at your students’ language level, not above or below it. So choose activities that guarantee language success.
- Even the best icebreaker won’t do any good if your students are unwilling to participate, so good icebreakers appeal to students. In other words, they aren’t lame. When choosing an icebreaker for your class, keep in mind what they like. A bunch of fifteen year olds aren’t going to like the same things that a bunch of business professionals like.
These are just a few pointers to remember when choosing the right icebreaker for your language class. You can find some general icebreaker dos and don’ts here.
Pro tip: Sometimes, it can be beneficial to give the students something to talk about in an icebreaker game. For example, by showcasing videos from the FluentU library, you’ll provide a talking point that is somewhat “neutral” between the students, which can lead to a more in-depth and personal discussion later on.By showcasing a short clip such as a film trailer or mini-documentary, you can break down the initial barrier. Start with some basic questions such as what did you think of the video? or do you and your partner agree with the video?
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Getting to know new people in English shouldn’t cause anxiety in your students, and it doesn’t have to. With activities that appeal to your students and don’t put them in too intimate situations, getting to know one another might become something your students love and look forward to.