Most teachers at some point have probably walked into the classroom to find the students sitting there with their books and things out, just mutely waiting for the teacher to come so things can get started. But maybe the students aren’t looking motivated because they’re just not quite ready for us yet. They’re not English-ready. So what can we do to warm them up and get them ready for studying and learning?
Some general pointers
Keep it short. No longer than 5 minutes, or 10 at the absolute maximum. You just want to get students involved and engaged straightaway and you need to be able to cut it off easily when students are ready to move on.
Keep it simple. I’d recommend avoiding paper, avoiding TTT and even avoiding too much STT. Drawing, miming, gesturing, silence and only single-word/short utterances can be very useful.
Start with something non-threatening. The students need to be using English, but not worrying about or focusing too much on their English proficiency just yet.
Get moving. I once heard* that people who’ve done a bit of exercise before studying remember a third more than those who didn’t do the exercise. It stimulates oxygen flow and warms up cold classrooms!
Some practical ideas for ‘pre-warmers’, as I like to call them…
1. Count to 20 as a group. One person starts, one person continues, in no specific/pre-set/known order. If two people say the same number simultaneously, you have to start again. Try to reach 20.
2. Students count to 3 in pairs. Now teacher instructs them to count to 3 in pairs but replace ‘2’ with a clap/snap/blink/other simple physical movement. It’s surprisingly difficult. Students love it.
3. Pairs face each other, holding up their hands. Student A shows a number. Student B ‘reads’ and says that number aloud, simultaneously holding up a different number. Student A ‘reads’ and says that number aloud, simultaneously holding up another number. Ad infinitum. Again, surprisingly difficult and students have a ball trying to keep it up.
Simple word games
1. ‘Count’ with words. Pairs ‘count’ 3 words together, each proceeding from what the other just said. E.g. A: Make. B: Or. A: Break. / A: Bring. B: And. A: Buy. / A: Take. B: Time. A: Off. etc.
2. Yes to everything/no to everything. Brainstorm alternatives to saying simple “yes” or “no” on the whiteboard. One student asks the other yes/no questions. His/her partner must answer yes (or no) to everything, whatever the question – but he’she’s not allowed to literally say “yes” or “no”.
3. Word ping-pong. Students in pairs construct sentences/dialogues, just offering one word each to build up a sentence, however silly/realistic they like. E.g. A: What, B: do, A: you, B: want, A: to, B: do…
4. Alphabetical list (possibly as a race) on a particular topic. E.g. sports A-Z.
5. Incomplete lists. E.g. Teacher boards 5 of the 10 words studied the previous lesson. Students have to come up with the rest.
6. One letter. Groups/pairs pick (or are assigned) a letter and have to list as many words as they can starting with that letter. Possible twists include limiting it to things in/related to/visible from the classroom, or only nouns, only verbs, etc.
1. I’ve christened this one ‘Binary Stations’. Identify two points in the room and label them (with signs or just by telling the students). Read out sentences, halves of phrases/collocations, or anything else that can be matched to only one of two options (i.e. the two options you’ve just identified as two places in the room). The students have to run to the correct one. E.g. correct/incorrect (read out some sentences from the previous lesson), countable/uncountable, ‘a’/’an’, ‘none’/’any’, ‘go/play’ + sport. Alternatively, could be done with sts standing up/sitting down instead of running.
2. Listen to the lyrics. Works well with songs with repetitive lyrics. Assign to each student words from a song which appear more than once. Play the song. Sts jump up when they hear ‘their’ word.
3. Target practice. Adults love throwing things as much as children do. Whatever pre-warmer you’re doing, get sts to nominate each other by throwing a ball of paper, or choosing a word to explain from the whiteboard by throwing a ball at it.
More pedagogic/study-based activities (*NB: potentially longer than your typical pre-warmer)
1. Error correction. Start the lesson with a handful of errors on the board that were covered in the previous lesson. See if sts can remember how to correct them. Possible twist: sts bet on their answers.
2. Mini tests. Sts test each other from their notes from the previous lesson, or test each other’s memory of what happened in a text/listening from the previous lesson, or read out gap-fills completed previously to each other, humming the gaps and seeing if their partner can fill them in.
Other miscellaneous ideas
1. Chat. The age-old way to warm up a class. But if you’re going to do this, try to help the sts learn how to chat. Put suggestions on the board for what to say while they’re thinking, or inviting others to join the conversation, or changing the subject, or finding/identifying things in common (e.g. something you both did at the weekend – “so did I” etc.).
2. Teacher performance. Tell an anecdote, draw a picture, elicit a word/sentence/whole text using only mime. Sts have to pay attention but don’t necessarily have to contribute much themselves. Eases them into the lesson in a non-threatening way.
And one last tip…
Have fun, but be sensitive and realistic. If you don’t choose your pre-warmer carefully and think about it before you do it (this doesn’t mean spending 20 minutes planning a 3-minute warm-up), you could end up with students producing no language, being embarrassed, feeling childish, perceiving the whole thing as pointless, etc. The point of these activities is to get the students ready for their English lesson, not alienate them the second they walk through the door!
*Thanks are due to Chaz Pugliese, who first got me thinking about this interesting aspect of lesson preparation when I saw his talk about creativity in teaching at the English UK Conference back in November 2010. In particular, that talk gave me many of the ideas outlined above. It’s things like this that seem so obvious when someone says them, but perhaps you’d never previously considered it as an element of teaching/learning worth really exploring in closer detail. (I also got a few of the ideas from various other sources and at various other times, too numerous for me to remember, but including tefl.net, chats with colleagues, workshops in various schools and just experience, trial and error. Thanks to all for the inspiration!)