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Six of the best: ESL Games to Break the Ice

August 15, 2016
esl games for kids, english games, icebreaker

As ESL teachers across the globe prepare to let battle commence for another academic year, some may be wondering how they are going to quickly establish a rapport with their new students. It’s not as easy as you might think, particularly if you’re new to the country where you’re teaching and not familiar with the local language or customs. Essentially, it’s crucial that you get off to the best possible start, lest your students’ collective anxiety and awkwardness eat the class alive. Worse still, your students might think you’re boring. And you certainly don’t want that.

So how do we avoid these disastrous scenarios? What’s the best approach?

Games! There’s nothing like a great game to break the ice at the start of the teaching year. And in this profession, there are countless ‘icebreaker’ ESL games for kids, teens and adults to enjoy.

One of the things I loved learning during my TESOL certification course was how to use games with a linguistic purpose. Since I became qualified, I’ve accumulated some great English games and activities that are guaranteed to please. So I thought it was about time I shared a few with you, specifically icebreaker English games for the beginning of term. I’ve listed 6 here – 3 for kids/younger teens and 3 for older teens/adults – but if you’re desperate for more then check out the other resources I’ve linked to at the end of this post 🙂

ESL Games for Kids

One: ‘Remember The Name!’

I’ve never actually thought of a name for this game until now. “Remember the name!” may not seem particularly original but given that there is literally no other objective to the game it is pretty much the only accurate title I could come up with. Anyway, kids and young teens love it.

How to Play

  1. Begin by asking your students to stand in a circle and introduce themselves one by one. Just their name and where they are from is enough (or even just the name if they’re all from the same place). Go around the circle twice so each student repeats his or her name.

  2. Next, explain the rules: You start by calling the name of another student and then walking to him/her. Before you get there, the student whose name you called must call the name of another student and begin walking towards him/her. And so it goes. If a student can’t remember any names, hesitates (using “err” for example), gets a name wrong or calls the name of a student standing next to him/her, he or she is out! Eventually you are left with 4 winners.

The more students you have for this game, the better it is. You have to be strict though, or the game will last too long and won’t be funny. The trick is to keep it going as quickly as possible. You could play as many rounds as it takes for everyone to remember everyone else’s name (which could be the whole class if you’re lucky 😉 )

Two: ‘Splat!’

A classic. In or out of the ESL classroom, Splat! is probably the best group game ever, no matter how old you are. Having taught Spanish, Japanese and Chinese learners, I know that there are slightly different versions to it, but all are just as fun.

How to Play

  1. Students stand in a circle and you stand in the middle. Explain that when you point your hands, clasped together in a pistol-like gesture, at a student and say “Splat!”, he or she must duck and the students to that student’s right and left must also make a pistol with their hands, point at each other and say “Splat!” The first student to point and say the word wins, the other sits down and is out. Some of the reactions are priceless; from incoherent screaming to sheepish and confused moans of despair, there are so many laughs in this game.

  2. You could make the game more interesting by bringing in new gestures. Continue using the pistol gesture, but instead of saying “Splat!” you could say “Bird!” (students then pretend to have wings), “Pilot!” (students make pilot goggles with their hands and look at each other) or – my personal favourite – “Goldfish!” (students stretch their cheeks back with the palms of their hands creating a fish-like face). Much like ‘Remember The Name’, this game is better when there are more students and improves as it goes along. If your students don’t enjoy this game, then they’re just weird.

Three: ‘Teacher Says’

Out of ideas? ‘Splat!’ not working out for you? Fret not, for there is always ‘Teacher Says’, one of the simplest yet most fun English games for kids out there. It’s essentially just ‘Simon Says’ (who is Simon by the way? And why is he so goddamn bossy?), but in this case you change ‘Simon’ to your name, unless you’re actually called Simon or you have a name that’s difficult for the little ones to pronounce (in which case just use ‘teacher’).

How to Play

  1. You may want to teach some pre-vocab before you start the game, just so you get a feel for what vocabulary they’re familiar with. At any rate, start off with some nice and easy examples and a couple of warm-up rounds. “Teacher says…touch your nose”, “touch your toes” etc. This gets them going.

  2. Now, depending on the age/level of the students, you could now mix things up by throwing in funnier commands like “Teacher says get under the table”, “Teacher says touch Pepe” (they love that one) or “dance on the table” etc. This is better for younger learners since they can understand simple verbs and word collocations like “dance” and “table”. Alternatively, you could add new verbs and/or more obscure body parts to the game, e.g. “poke”, “slap”, “wiggle”, “elbow”, “belly button”, “earlobe” etc. This is when it starts to get confusing so reserve the most obscure examples for kids with a higher level.

  3. If you took the latter option in the previous step, you could extend the activity even further by teaming up the students and having one member of each team come to the front of the class and compete against one another. So at its most complex, this game requires students to either obey or disobey the command depending on whether you precede it with “Teacher says” and perform the command correctly (i.e. correct verb and body part). Trust me, it’s lots of fun.

ESL Activities for Adults and Older Teens

Four: ‘Find Someone Who…’

‘Find Someone Who’ is probably the most popular icebreaker activity of all time, since it’s so easy to prepare and virtually guaranteed to get your students up on their feet, mingling like they’re old friends. Wherever you teach English, this one is guaranteed to work time and time again.

How to Play:

  1. Firstly you’ll need to prepare some question prompts. Around 10 is a good number, but you may want to add more for bigger classes. From “…has visited London” and “…is excited to learn English” to “…is in love” and “…has got a tattoo”, your question prompts can be as tame or wild as you like. The more creative the better I say! Type them all up with the title “Find Someone Who” and make one copy per student.

  2. Before handing out the prompts to the students, explain that they must actually get up out of their seats and move around the classroom as they do the activity; if you don’t then I guarantee they will stay seated and quietly interview the person sitting next to them. You should also make sure they understand that the objective is to talk to as many people as possible, including you! Remind them that they should form the question, according to the prompt – not just read what’s written on their worksheet. Start the activity by asking them to stand up and go to the student furthest away from them. Monitor throughout, listening for interesting answers.

  3. After the activity is over, ask students to take their seats and then nominate random students (perhaps starting with those who seemed more confident during the activity) to feed back information. Make sure you pick up on all the funny answers you heard while monitoring!

Five: ‘Who Am I?’

Better known as ‘The Rizla Game’ in the UK, this fun English language game involves imagination, the ability to ask present-tense-formed questions and either some post-it notes or extremely sweaty foreheads. Post-it notes are preferable.

How to Play

  1. Before students have had chance to even say their name, pass them each a post-it and tell them to secretly write the name of a famous person on it. You should do the same.

  2. Next, simply stick your post-it to the forehead of the student sitting closest to you (with prior warning) and instruct all students to do the same to the student sitting to their left. Make sure they do this without any other students seeing.

  3. Now everyone has a post-it note stuck to their forehead and is wondering what the hell they’ve got themselves into. This is the point when you explain that they have to get up, mingle with the other students and ask them questions beginning with “Am I..?” Students may only answer “yes” or “no”. Illustrate with a few example questions (a student should also have stuck a post-it to your forehead).

  4. Let this go on for a while. They may need a little encouragement but eventually they’ll relax and start to enjoy it! Monitor and correct where necessary.

  5. When either enough students have managed to guess their name or too much time has passed and hardly anybody has guessed correctly, call time and tell the students they can remove their post-it to find out ‘who they are’. This is always the funniest bit and certainly lightens the mood for the final stage of the activity.

  6. Finally, while the students are still on their feet, ask them to actually introduce themselves to each other; name, where they are from, occupation and a random fact should be enough. Then students sit down and all social awkwardness has been successfully prevented!

Six: ‘Would I Lie To You?’

Perhaps you’ve seen the show, but have you played the ESL version of this devious game? Probably not, since this is a product of my own making and, I hasten to add, a prizewinner of One Stop English’s monthly lesson plan competition! (literally the only thing I’ve ever won in my life). So it must be pretty good. You can download the full lesson plan here but before you do let me explain the basics.

How to Play

  1. Before class, think of six personal and interesting questions which you are prepared to answer. Then, write those answers on the board (not the questions) but one of the answers must be a lie.

  2. Students come in, take a seat and you introduce yourself. Ask them to work with the student sitting next to them and work out what the questions are to the answers written on the board. Do the first one together as an example (make it an easy one). The questions I use are:

  • Have you got any pets?
  • What’s your favourite movie?
  • What’s your dream job?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
  • What would you do if you won the lottery?

These usually work well since in the event that a few students already know each other, they may not know these facts (relevant to the main stage of the activity).

  1. Once students have made guesses for each question, ask for their suggestions and help them with clues if they need it (often the case). Elicit the correct grammar before you write each question above the answer on the board.

  2. When all the questions are on the board, tell them that one of your answers is a lie and that they have 5 minutes to ask you for further information before they guess which one. As you answer questions, be truthful except for the lie, which you could over-elaborate a bit, so they have an idea.

  3. When the 5 minutes are up, ask for a show of hands for each question. Then, with a drum roll, reveal which answer is the lie.

  4. Now comes the main stage of the activity. First, make sure every student has written down the six, correctly-formed questions. Then, explain to students that they will now work in pairs and elect a Liar between them. The Liar must lie about ALL 6 questions while the other student must tell the truth about ALL 6 questions in the interview stage which takes place later. Each pair must work separately, so leave one pair in the classroom and take the others outside into the corridors, spare rooms, the stairs etc – anywhere they are secluded and moderately comfortable! Give them 8 minutes to do this.

  5. Once each pair has elected a Liar, made up new information for those same 6 questions and the Liar has learnt that information by heart (since reading from their notes will immediately give them away), bring all the students back into the room. Have one student from each pair sitting in a row facing the board; then ask the other students to sit facing the person to the left of their partner. They now have 5 minutes to interview their new partner (asking only their name and the 6 questions from the board) and find out as much information as possible. They can take notes so they don’t forget. After 5 minutes are up, shout “Switch!” and the students facing away from the board get up and move along one place to the right, where they sit down and restart the process with another student. Keep going until they are back to their original partner, at which stage you must group them with all the students sitting on their side of the tables, so you have 2 large groups of 5-6 students. This is the final interview which you should give about 8 minutes for.

  6. When the interviews are complete, ask the students to take their original seat with their original partner. Now they have to guess who is lying from each pair. There’s usually a lot of whispering, pointing and giggling at this stage.

  7. Start with the first pair by asking them to name and point to the students they think are lying. You could tally the nominations on the board. Then move on to the next pair and so on, until you have a total tally of nominations per student on the board.

  8. Finally, ask the Liars to reveal themselves by standing up, which inevitably causes shrieks of laughter and gasps of amazement. After you’ve cracked a few jokes about terrible liars and liars who look like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth (though to be fair that would probably be a poor choice of idiom for a first class), you can end the activity by asking the Liars to reveal the truth about themselves to the rest of the class. At this stage, the ice is so completely broken that no one really minds standing up and revealing personal information to a bunch of strangers. In fact by now the ice has been smashed to smitherines; ’tis but a mere damp patch by the door.

A Few Thoughts

While the main worry with first classes may be breaking the ice, it’s certainly not the only thing you ought to consider. Some teachers may be more concerned about the challenging task of stamping their authority in the classroom without seeming like a total jerk. There’s a balance which needs to be struck very early on with ESL courses. If you focus too much on being Mr. Nice Guy, kids will soon take advantage and turn your class into a living hell. If, on the other hand, you adopt a stricter approach, leaving no room for Mr. Nice Guy, kids will either fear or loathe you, and neither of those scenarios are ideal. So try to establish some sort of equilibrium if you can…

There are of course many other icebreaker English games to try. For instance, you could actually bring a bag of ice into the classroom, wait until everyone is seated and then slam the bag down onto the floor as hard as you can, ensuring it breaks. Don’t forget to say “Well that broke the ice” right afterwards, but also don’t expect anyone to laugh, since they definitely won’t understand. Providing none of the students immediately leave out of fear for their own safety, you can then explain your joke and the use of the idiom. With any luck, your students will think you’re really funny and not report you to the director of studies.

Suggested further reading:

Those are my top 6 ESL games for kids, teens and adults. They work a treat every time. What are your favourites? Let’s hear your ideas!

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