ESL warm-up activities are essential in the English classroom. Students may be tired or have other things on their minds and diving straight into a textbook or grammar explanation can be quite jarring. With a good warmer you can put your students into English mode; attentive, interested and ready to participate. A warmer can also serve to review language from a previous lesson or prime the class for a new topic.
I have created a page collecting activities suitable for teaching online many of which work well as warmers and fillers.
No-preparation ESL Warm-up activities
Here is a list of warm-up activities you can use which don’t require any preparation. Most of them can, of course, also be used as filler activities if you find yourself a few minutes short at the end of the lesson.
Write a list of two or three questions on the board which introduce the theme of the lesson. For example, if you are going to talk about books, you could write: What’s your favourite book? What was the last book you read? What kind of books do you prefer? etc. Give the students 5-10 minutes to discuss the questions and then have students report back to the class.
If you’re looking for ideas, this page has a bank of more than 500 themed conversation questions, which are also available in handy card sets with additional exercises in our book 50 Conversation classes.
Make the most words
Write a topical vocabulary item on the board. In twos or threes, students make as many new words from it as they can. Use longish seed words such as apologise, dictionary or September. Score teams a point per word and award a bonus point for the longest.
Make the longest words
Write a topical target word vertically down the board, for example, WINTER. In twos or threes, students attempt to come up with the longest word that begins with each letter. Give teams a point per word and a bonus point for the longest. Waterfall Industrious Nausea Terrified Empty Retailer
What does your name mean?
Using a dictionary, google or any other resource, students find and write down an appropriate adjective that begins with each letter of their first name. For example: Flirtatious, Relaxed, Extrovert, Desirable
It’s always good to start the class with a question. Write a good one on the board but mix up the word order, then challenge students to reconstruct the question and then discuss it in pairs or small groups. For example: most item you have the ever expensive what’s bought?
Mixed-up question (anagram variation)
Alternatively, write a question on the board but this time scramble the letters of each word. For example: tahw si ruyo seealirt rommey?
Letter string dictation
This is a great way to lead into the topic that you want to cover in the class and also serves as a simple activity to help students recognise letters of the alphabet. Think of a couple of questions for students to discuss in pairs or groups. Write the questions down and then dictate them as a long string of letters. For example: whatsyourfavouritecolour? whatdidyoudoattheweekend? whatkindofbooksdoyouliketoread?
After dictating the letter strings, students should attempt to form the questions and then discuss and report back to class.
For more advanced students try dictating the letters backwards and then have the students decode the question. This is more challenging because students will find it more difficult to predict the next letter and therefore must focus on the letters being dictated. For example: ?teemotekiltsomuoydluowohw
For more ideas on using dictation see the article 10 dictation activities.
This popular filler can also be a great way to start a lesson with beginner learners who are still unsure of the alphabet. Just put a recently learned word on the board and let the students take it in turns to guess a letter. If you don’t know how to play, you can read an explanation here.
In this activity, a word must be transformed step by step into a target word. To illustrate the idea, write the word run on the board and explain that the target word is fit. For each turn, only one letter can be changed. See if the class can find a valid sequence together. Some possible sequences are:
|run fun fin fit||cat cot cog dog||head bead beat boat boot foot||gives lives likes lakes takes|
Students will need access to a dictionary in order to check if their words are valid. If you want to find possible word pairs, there is a site with a handy word ladder generator. Put students in pairs and have them create their own word ladders to test their classmates with.
The A to Z game
Give students a theme, for example, jobs, things you take on holiday, food. Write the letters A to Z on the board. Teams of students must race to write an appropriate word next to each letter on the board. Read more about the A to Z game here.
What’s the missing word?
Find a group of compound words or collocations which share a common word. For example, bedroom, bathroom, living room, classroom, showroom, etc. Give students one of the word/collocation parts, such as bed and have them guess the missing part, add to the list writing bath, living, class, etc., until they successfully guess the word. Here are some more examples:
- ear, boxing, diamond, finger, wedding (ring)
- tea, soup, table, dessert (spoon)
- kitchen, tea, bath, beach (towel)
- green, light, ware, boat, work, wife (house)
What do you know about bananas?
Set a five-minute time limit and in groups have students think up and write down as many facts as they can about bananas (or cats, Belgium, David Beckham, etc.). One point should be given for each true sentence.
Things to do with a potato
One of many brilliantly simple ideas from one of my favourite teaching books. Produce a potato (if that’s not possible, introduce the concept of a potato). Ask students to come up with a list of as many unconventional uses for it as they can. For example paperweight, weapon, pen holder, smartphone dock. The longest list wins the potato.
How many sounds can you hear?
Students sit in silence for two minutes and write down every sound that they hear. Let them compare their lists with their neighbours before seeing who has the longest list? If you like this activity try doing a guess the sound quiz.
Odd one out
Give the students a couple of examples to guess, then get students to come up with their own ideas. Here are some examples: apple, peach, banana, tomato – a banana doesn’t have seeds strawberry, branch, bowling ball, boat, iceberg – bowling balls don’t float window, river, envelope, client, oregano – client doesn’t begin and end with the same letter comb, champagne, knife, plum – the word plum doesn’t contain any silent letters Note: There can be more than one correct answer.
Have students think of 10 items that fit particular criteria. For example:
- Jobs where you have to wear a uniform
- English football clubs
- Sports that are played with a ball
- Foods that contain egg
- Animals that lay eggs
- Three letter parts of the body – eye, arm, leg, hip, ear, toe jaw, rib, lip, gum
Two truths and a lie
An ESL classroom staple. Write or dictate three sentences about yourself. Two statements should be true and one false, for example: I used to be an air steward I can ride a unicycle My favourite food is sushi Now invite students to discuss in pairs which statement they think is the lie. Ask each pair which statement they think is untrue and have them explain why. Reveal your answer, and ask students to come up with three sentences about themselves. I find students need quite a lot of time (at least five minutes) to come up with three ideas. If some students are still short of a sentence or two, start the game anyway, and they can finish their statements during play. Check students’ statements and then have them take it in turns to read them out to the class. In each case, the other students have to guess which is the untrue statement. See this page for more ideas on using dishonesty for fun and profit.
Mastermind (AKA Bulls & Cows, Jotto)
Based on the code-breaking board game where players have to deduce the order of 4 coloured pegs which the other player had hidden behind a plastic guard. It’s slightly complicated to grasp but fun when you get the hang of it. Think of a four-letter word and write XXXX on the board, each X represents one of the letters of your word. Invite the first student to guess what the word is. Start a new line underneath your original XXXX. If the first letter in the student’s word is the same as the first letter in your word put a ✓ in the first position. If the first letter is not the same as the first letter in your word but is contained somewhere in your word put a half-tick /. If the first letter of the student’s word is not contained anywhere your word put an X. In the following example, the teacher chooses the word FIRE. XXXX XXXX – COAT X/XX – BEST X✓X✓ – HIKE /✓X✓ – RIDE ✓✓✓✓ – FIRE A word of warning. Stick to 4 or 5 letter words. It’s much more difficult to guess longer words and it can also be tricky trying to mark each guess. When students are familiar with the game you can get them to come and put their own words on the board.
I’m going on a picnic and I’m taking a …
This is a guess the rule type game. Think of a rule which governs which items can be taken on a picnic, for example, it must be six letters long, or it must start with a vowel. In this example, the rule is that the word must be an uncountable noun. Teacher: I’m going on a picnic and I’m taking milk. Student A: I’m going on a picnic and I’m taking eggs. Teacher: No, you can’t take eggs. Student B: Can I take orange juice? Teacher: Yes, you can take orange juice. And so on. Continue adding items to your picnic list until a student correctly guesses the rule (the choices don’t have to make sense within the picnic scenario e.g. love, information, air ). When you’ve finished, invite the students (alone or in pairs) to come up with their own rules and let them run the game.
This must be one of the oldest ESL warm-up activities, but sometimes the simplest ideas turn out to be surprisingly effective and word games don’t get any simpler than word association. Give an initial word, for example, banana and each student takes it in turns to say a word which they associate with the previous word. If the connection isn’t obvious, challenge the student to justify their choice. banana – monkey – zoo – tourists – hotel – bible …
Tell a story
This is another circle game. Going around the class students take it in turns to add three words to your story stem. You could start it off with relatively mundane stems such as Yesterday I went …, If I won …, I have never or something more imaginative like, A wolf howled, the rocket landed …, Princess Martha kissed … Write the story on the board and elicit corrections as you go along.
Three things in common
This is a great icebreaker, but you can also use it as a lead-in to a theme or to test your students’ knowledge of a grammar point. Simply ask students to work in pairs and find three things that they have in common and then report back to the class. You can narrow the topic down to areas like three things we both did at the weekend, three foods we both like, three things we both don’t like about this city, three things neither of us has done yet but would like to, etc.
Just a Minute Tic Tac Toe
Based on the BBC Radio show. Draw a Tic Tac Toe grid on the board and in each space write a topic that you think some of your students might be interested in or have some knowledge of. Play the game with two teams, to claim their X or O, a team member must attempt to talk about the topic in the chosen square for 45 to 60 seconds (depending on their level) without pausing or repetition. Check out this tic tac toe past tense activity for more information about how to play this popular ESL game. Possible topics for your Tic Tac Toe board might include Sport, Breakfast, Smartphones, Family, Movies, Cats, Rock Music, Soap Operas, Chocolate, etc.
I discovered this great activity at BusinessEnglishResources.com. Start off by explaining the concept of one-upmanship, that some people always like to appear to be more interesting or superior to others in their company. Tell the students a relatively mundane story about something that happened recently and invite a student to tell a similar story but to top it in some way. Each student, in turn, tries to top the previous student’s tale. For example: You: Yesterday I overslept and was five minutes late to class. Student: That’s nothing, I overslept and was an hour late. Student B: An hour! I once overslept a whole day! If the students are sufficiently advanced you could have them watch and read through Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch which is a very funny skit on the subject of one-upmanship.
Spontaneous Scatter Sheet
Scatter Sheets are a great way to review vocabulary, introduce a theme and get students talking. As a warmer, have students brainstorm words connected to a theme, for example, the seaside, London, marketing, etc. Write these words on the board randomly, not in straight lines or columns but higgledy-piggledy and at jaunty angles. When you have around 20 words on the board, go around the room asking each student, in turn, to describe one of the words, when it’s been successfully guessed, circle it and move on to the next student. Encourage students to let the describer produce at least two sentences before shouting out the answer.
Spin the marker
Sometimes students just want a chance to talk and express themselves in an unstructured way and it’s a good idea to encourage this. Spin the marker pen and whoever it points to can dictate the conversation, ask questions, suggest the topic, etc. Spin the marker again when you feel the conversation has run its course. I find this activity works best when students are sitting in a small circle not too far apart.
Fortunately / Unfortunately
English learners often have trouble remembering and correctly pronouncing these two useful words. One way to practice it is to start a story and have learners alternately advancing the story using these adverbs. For example: Teacher: Yesterday my car was stolen. Student A: Fortunately, it was insured. Student B: Unfortunately, the insurance company went bankrupt. Student C: Fortunately, my grandfather said he would buy me a new car. Student D: Unfortunately, he’s lost his mind and doesn’t have any money. Etc.
Have students arrange themselves in order according to a given criterion. For example by age, alphabetical order of first name or surname, the number of shoes owned, etc.
Give each student a slip of paper and ask each student to write down three things they did at the weekend. Collect up the slips of paper and randomly read each one out. The students must guess whose weekend is being described.
Write a provocative statement on the board and then put students into small groups to discuss their opinion of it. For example, some drugs should be legalised, Facebook should be banned, Breaking Bad is overrated, one child is enough, organic food is a waste of money, etc. Have students report back to the class. You could make a list of arguments for and against the thesis.
Draw the kitchen
I often use this when I work in-company. Ask the students to think of a room or area which they are all quite familiar with and then have them guide you as you try to draw a plan of the room on the board. This is great for practising there is and there are as well as prepositions of place and furnishing vocabulary.
The Categories Game
I tend to use this as a filler rather than a warmer. Put students into teams and write on the board six vocabulary categories. Now give them a letter of the alphabet and the teams must race to think of a word beginning with that letter for each category. Writing stops when the first team yells finished! and points are given for each correct answer. See The Categories Game post for a more detailed explanation as well as a list of possible categories.
Compound word quiz
This is a fun little quiz you can do at the beginning of a lesson to get your learner’s brains buzzing. Choose five groups of three compound words with the same stem and write them on the board without their stem. For example paste, ache, brush (the stem is tooth) or ball, man, board (the stem is snow). Put them on the board (as below) and give students five to ten minutes to figure out what the missing stem is.
Here are some more examples:
doorbell, doorman, doorstep | headline, headcount, headlight, headset, headhunter | backpack, backseat, backfire | timeline, timetable, timesaver | blackbird, blacklist, blackout | lighthouse, lightbulb, lightweight | daydream, daylight, daytime | nightlife, nightclub, nighttime, nightmare | sunburn, sunset, sunshine, sunrise | waterfall, waterbed, waterproof, waterfront, watercolour | lifeboat, lifetime, lifeguard | paperback, paperwork, paperweight, paperboy/girl