Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Breaking the Ice on Day One

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

First Day Fears

I don’t know about you, but even though I have been teaching for 15 years, I still get nervous on the first day of class. Once the students get to know each other, the tension tends to drop and the class takes on a personality of its own. But, those first few moments of the first lesson are silent, awkward and nerve-racking. Luckily, I learned early on in my teaching career the importance of lowering the affective filter. Krashen defines the affective filter as “a mental block, caused by affective factors … that prevents input from reaching the language acquisition device” (Krashen, 1985, page 100). More simply put, nervous students may not learn as well as relaxed students. For this very reason, I always spend time in the first lesson of the semester doing an ice-breaker activity. I also do it for my own sanity. I hate the look of fear and panic that first-day students tend to have, so I try to get them smiling as early in the semester as possible.

No Wine, Just Ice Breakers

I have taught all kinds of skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking, pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary) to students at all levels (from beginners to proficiency) and of all ages (from children to retirees) and one thing all my classes have in common is that I begin each with an ice-breaker to lessen the first day stress and lower the affective filter. With my adults, I explain WHY we are doing the activity. I say that I am learning French and that when I speak it I am nervous and shy. However, after a glass of wine (or two) I relax and my French starts to sound pretty good, at least to my own ears.:)  This anecdote never fails to get a chuckle from my students. It also helps them to understand that we are not wasting time with the ice-breaker activity and that it, in lieu of wine, serves a very important academic purpose. To this end, I have two “go to” activities that I use in my classes.

The Introduction Circle

  1. As a class, we brainstorm a list of easy “get to know you” topics. With the lower levels, we would make up questions for each topic as a class, but with my more advanced students, I let them improvise.
  2. I number half the class as As. I point and designate each student A1, A2, A3, A4 … I number the other half of the class as Bs: B1, B2, B3 …. Then, I tell the As to stand up and make a circle. They should have their backs to the inside of the circle. Finally, I have the Bs stand up and face their A partner (A1 with B1, A2 with B2 …).  Once this is completed there are 2 circles, an inner circle of As and an outer circle of Bs.
  3. I set my timer for 3 minutes and tell them they have this amount of time to get to know their partner.
  4. After the timer goes off, the As stand still where they are, but the Bs move clockwise to a new A partner. Then I re-start my timer and they have 3 minutes to get to know their new partner.
  5. At the end of the activity, once the students have returned to their original partner and then sat down, I ask the students to tell me one interesting thing about each student in the class, one by one. By the end of the activity, the students know at least half of the other students in the class.

The M&M Game

  1. I divide students into groups of 3 or 4 and give each student a big handful of M&M candies, even if they don’t want to eat them.
  2. I write all the M&M colors on the board and assign each color a different topic, for example red – family, blue – food, green – hobbies …
  3. I tell students to give one piece of information about the relevant topic for each M&M they have. For example, if Carlos has 3 red M&Ms, he would say 3 things about his family.
  4. After about 20 – 25 minutes of conversation, I have students introduce another group member to the class.

Affective filter lowering doesn’t begin and end with a game, of course. Check out Maria Spelleri’s ideas for creating a positive tone in your classes.  These activities can also be the first step for creating a relaxing atmosphere that is conducive to learning. There are plenty of wonderful ice-breaker activities that you use, as well, I am sure. Care to share?

Krashen, S.D. (1985) The Input Hypothesis. London: Longman.


Comment from Jamiella
August 23, 2011 at 3:58 pm

I have older students (university level) and so they tend to scoff at the more ‘cutesy’ ice breakers (although the above are great and I’m going to try the M&M one right away!) What I like to do the first day, especially if it’s an intermediate/advanced class that has a bit of background, is something called “Trouver quelqu’un qui” (Find someone who…)

They get a set of pre-written phrases in the target language (preferably pertaining to the chapter’s lesson) like “Find someone who drinks milk every day,” “Find someone who prefers wine over beer,” or “Find someone who does not eat meat.” They have to change each phrase into a question and go around the classroom asking people. I give them about 10 minutes. Then, after everyone is seating again I ask them Qs based on the examples: “Who in the class does not eat meat?” They answer (in a complete sentence) referring to someone else, and to that person I then ask a series of questions, such as “Do you dislike meat?” or just simply “Why?” to get them speaking on their own.

What I like about this is that it can be done throughout the year. Even if they are good friends, I have a lot of cases where they learn something new about one another through this activity. At some points they even start asking one another further questions on their own, such as “Really?! You like escargot?! Why?”

Comment from Mossaab Cherai
August 23, 2011 at 6:55 pm

Thank you so much Tamara. The ice-breaker activities are really interesting.

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 23, 2011 at 11:10 pm

I also like the “Find Someone Who” activity. It’s a fun way to warm up the class throughout the year. Thanks for sharing!

Comment from JR
August 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Who would have thought that M & Ms could be icebreakers? I think that this could work with any age group – but especially with young learners (I know more than a few kids who would love this idea!). By simply taking a different approach like this one, you can create an enjoyable, interactive and memorable first class. I appreciated the idea!

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 30, 2011 at 6:19 am

I am glad you liked this idea. It’s always a hit in my classes, both with adults and kids!

Comment from Annet
August 31, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Thanks, Tamara.

I did a Find Someone Who… on my first day this semester. I think breaking the ice takes more than the first day. In fact, I use different ice-breakers in the first two weeks to truly break the ice.

I attended a Webinar on Starting your course on the Right Foot and the participants shared lots of great ideas for successfully starting the semester. I’ll post the link here. The first 15 min. is the introduction, so feel free to forward the clip. Enjoy! https://sites.google.com/site/tlcwebinars/home/past-webinars

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 1, 2011 at 11:33 am

I totally agree that one ice breaker on the first day is not enough. In fact, I think these kinds of interactive activities belong throughout the semester. Thanks for sharing this great link!

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September 21, 2011 at 4:07 am

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Comment from Fabricio Solis
September 22, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Excellente activities for the first class.

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