The Heat Is On: 6 Fun and Fabulous ESL Warm-up Activities
When you look around your ESL classroom, do you see students ready to nod off to sleep?
Do you hear a choir of groans when you ask your students to open their texts?
Are your students focused on anything besides the hour of ESL they have ahead of them?
If so, don’t worry, it’s not (always!) your fault.
Your students’ brains could be cold and sleepy, and they might just need a literal and figurative stretch to get ready for what’s coming.
They need a warm-up!
Why Should We Warm Up to Start a Class?
Imagine you want to run a race. What’s the one thing that everyone will tell you to do before you start? That’s right, you need to stretch! If you don’t, you could be sore afterwards or even injure yourself while running.
It’s the same with most other activities. Just think: athletes, dancers, singers and actors all warm up before their respective activities. Why should it be any different for ESL students and even their teachers?
Besides, starting an activity cold simply turns the first minutes of the activity into an improvised warm-up, anyway. Those first few struggling minutes are often the result of class material being inappropriate for warming up.
That’s why you need some great warm-up ESL activities to help everyone ease into the class—and you might even save your students or yourself from a pulled brain muscle!
Fortunately for you, you can save a lot of time planning if you use any of these fun and interactive ESL warm-up activities.
To see how and why they work, we’ll start by looking at a few principles and general types of warm-ups. Then we’ll get into six real examples of warm-ups, complete with instructions about how to use them in class!
What Your Warm-up Activity Should Do
Before we get into our examples, let’s take a quick look at some principles about warm-ups, and why they’re especially important for ESL and other language classes.
Physically warm up students
Have you ever considered doing a physical warm-up before jumping into your lesson plan? That’s the kind of thing that a football player or a ballet dancer does to avoid injury, to get their bodies ready for their physical activity.
Studying can become boring, even stressful, when it’s a purely sedentary activity. Rolling your shoulders, head or hips a few times, or doing some bend-and-stretch exercises will help your students release tension and become alert before they turn to the class material.
Incorporate instructions (and therefore vocabulary) into the exercise. For example, for a head-roll warm-up, you’d recite: “front, left, back, right” while the students roll their heads. You can also include other useful words like up, down, reach, pull, push and twist.
Giving instructions while physically performing them contextualizes this vocabulary. Your students will never wonder again which is their left hand and which is their right!
Prepare students’ voices
Correct pronunciation depends upon how you use the muscles involved in speech production. It’s probable that 99.9% of your students will have been speaking their native language just before sitting down to study ESL—and some of them continue doing so even after you’ve started teaching!
This means that the muscle strength and articulation that they’ll need to pronounce English words will be secondary to what they’ve just used in their native language. You need to stretch out those muscles to at least shed the native language tensions and get those mouths ready for the muscle movements needed for correct English pronunciation.
It’s important also to relieve stress. The groups of muscles used in pronunciation are very small and react very easily to muscular stress. Though it’s unlikely your students will suffer vocal lesions from cold English pronunciation, doing some simple vocal warm-ups before class will help reduce the stress they’ll experience when trying to wrap their lips, tongue and teeth around English sounds.
Awaken students’ minds
Students often come into class in a kind of bubble formed by their native language. Some students, even adults, might be distracted and not mentally prepared for the work they need to do. To burst that bubble, you’ll want to combine different types of warm-ups with linguistic points, which will get them mentally prepared for the day’s class objectives.
You can slip pronunciation, grammar and language points into the different types of warm-ups you do with your students. Warm-ups should be ice breakers that get your students loosened up and ready to learn. While you can try to include points from the curriculum, be aware that students will notice if the warm-up is just another grammar exercise.
A great way to overcome the feeling of “just another grammar exercise” while engaging the students in a worthwhile warm-up (and class generally) is with video content from FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Types of Warm-ups
The six warm-up activities in this post fall into three different categories:
- Music with Movement: Have your MP3 ready with the song of the day; you’ll have your students on their feet and everyone will be dancing around.
- Sing Along with Me: Singing brings rhythm into the language and fun into the exercise.
- Words with Movement: Fast-track schoolyard games combine body movement with language.
6 Sizzling Warm-up Activities for ESL Classes
Music with Movement
1. “The Hokey Pokey”
This well-known popular song lends itself to a fun dance warm-up for any age group. The lyrics are simple and repetitive and the movement is obvious: Just form a circle and do what the song tells you to do. And yes, you should dance, too! You should also make sure you have plenty of room to create a circle of students.
Invent your own movement for the part when it says “you do the hokey pokey,” such as spinning arms or heads while you “turn yourself around.” Three minutes after laughing your way through this dance, you can get down to the class activity.
For a variation on this activity, you can play with lighting (turn off the lights and leave a string of flashing Christmas lights for a disco effect).
A few other vintage songs that include dance that can be used for this type of warm-up include:
2. “Knee Play 5”
Named after a song by Philip Glass, this hypnotic and repetitive warm-up incorporates upper-body movement and gives your students five full minutes of relaxing, yoga-like exercise, with a secret listening exercise at the end.
Here’s how to do it:
- Students should stand with plenty of space to lift their arms.
- Start the song.
- When the lyrics start, you’ll hear a chorus counting off numbers. The numbers will be in the following sequence, and you should instruct the students to move their arms and breathe differently for each sequence:
- 1 2 3 4 (Students raise their arms in front of their bodies while inhaling)
- 1 2 3 4 5 6 (Students open their arms to the side while holding their inhaled breath)
- 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 (Students raise their arms above their heads and then lower them to the sides while slowly exhaling)
Now you come to the secret part of the activity. As the singers are counting, in the background you’ll hear actors reciting seemingly-unconnected sentences. And in fact, they are basically random at first, but at about 3:30 a speaker begins to recite a charming love story!
You shouldn’t tell your students beforehand, but once they’re sitting down again, ask them to remember stray words or phrases they heard throughout the exercise.
Going further, ask them to try to retell the love story. Ask specific questions, like:
- “What was the man’s name?”
- “How did he explain his love for her?”
Finally, let the exercise go for now and get on with your class.
Days later, do the same warm-up. This time, the students will probably anticipate that you’ll ask about the lyrics. They may pay more attention. Again, don’t specifically instruct them to do so.
There’s no quiz and there are no right answers. It’s just a pleasant way to get ready to focus, and to have the experience of understanding some English without having been asked to do so.
Sing Along with Me
3. English Operetta
English operetta is well-known for its happy music and snappy lyrics. Among the leaders in this genre of musical theater were the composer Arthur Sullivan and the lyricist W.S. Gilbert. Their magical combination of popular composition with witty word play can give you a number of different warm-up exercises.
In English operetta, the words fit in with the basic rhythm of the music, reinforcing many of the principle rhythm patterns of English, a language accented in the utterance rather than in the individual words.
You can use the chorus from the popular song “I Am So Proud,” from “The Mikado,” to lead your students through a tongue-twister-style exercise:
To sit in solemn silence / in a dull dark dock
In a pestilential prison / with a life-long lock
Awaiting the sensation / of a short sharp shock
From a cheap and chippy chopper / on a big black block
Here’s how you can do this warm-up:
- Take them through the lyrics and explain the meaning.
- Have them practice each line several times, each time more rapidly.
- Divide lines at the “/” and have them mix and match the sections.
- Put on the recording and first have them listen while mouthing the words.
- Finally, have them try to sing along out loud with the recording.
Other songs from Gilbert and Sullivan that work for this type of warm-up include:
- “I Am the Very Model of the Modern Major General”
- “My Name Is John Wellington Wells”
- “When I Was a Lad”
- “As Someday It May Happen”
4. Sing It Like a…
For this warm-up, you’ll want to use a song that you’ve studied together before. The point of the activity is to sing the song in different styles of voice.
Here’s how you can do it:
- Have the students sing the song once together, as they always have done.
- Ask them to close their eyes and imagine that they’re on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, and that the song is part of a major new opera. That is, they have to sing the song like exaggerated opera sopranos and tenors.
- Now take them to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. In this case, they’re going to sing the same song, but with a rich country-western twang.
- For longer songs, change the place and style with each verse or chorus. Other singing styles you can include are:
- A church choir (at a Southern Baptist church)
- A bunch of five-year-olds (at a school function)
- A heavy metal or hard rock band (at a sports stadium)
- A fishmonger or vegetable seller (at a local market)
- A tenth-century Gregorian monk (in a massive cathedral)
- A group of over-80 senior citizens (in a retirement home)
Words with Movement
5. Rubber Chicken
Even the prop itself is pretty funny. Get your hands on a rubber chicken (or at least a bean bag). Whichever you get, you’ll use it for tossing around the group.
Try doing it this way:
- Tell your students which set of vocabulary words they must produce for this activity. For example, you could use clothing, professions or past participles, or even something more specific like foods that begin with the letter “B.”
- When the students are in a circle, they randomly throw the chicken to one another. The person who catches it has three seconds (or whatever time limit you set) to produce a word that fits into the vocabulary set.
- If they fail, then they must stand in the center of the circle and try to intercept the chicken in order to return to the outer circle.
- If the student intercepts the chicken, he or she must produce a word in order to return to the circle.
- Multiple students can find themselves in the center, competing to intercept.
6. Blind Man’s Bluff
This is a good warm-up for smaller groups, since only one student will be talking at a time.
Here’s how you do it:
- Prepare (or, even better, have your students prepare) cards with lists of questions based on recently-studied topics. Alternately, you can also use random trivia questions. It’s easiest if questions have one clear answer, such as:
- “What’s the past participle of the verb ‘to drink'”?
- “What’s five times three?”
- “How many eggs make up a dozen?”
- “What’s the capital of Canada?”
- One student puts on a blindfold and holds a question list, while the others wander freely about the room.
- When the “blind man” touches a “wanderer,” the blind man removes the blindfold and asks the wanderer a question from the list.
- If the wanderer answers correctly, the blind man puts the blindfold on and tries to catch another wanderer.
- If the wanderer does not answer correctly, he or she becomes the next blind man.
If you want to increase the possibilities of students talking, you can also bring multiple blindfolds to make several “blind men.”
When you use effective warm-ups and see how they transform your class, I’m sure that you’ll make them a regular part of your ESL lesson plans.
Schedule at least five minutes at the beginning of each class to use warm-ups. That will help transition your students from the outside world into the classroom ambiance, and as a bonus it’ll loosen them up and prepare their vocal muscles.
And if you add a bit of lexical content to the warm-up, you’ll have the added benefit of students who are much more attentive and ready to take on the objectives you’ve planned for the day’s lesson.
Plus, they’re just fun for you and for your students!
Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into Teacher Training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.