Icebreaker Fails

Icebreaker Fails

My First Failed Icebreaker

I remember my first big class after finishing grad school and getting my TESOL degree. It was an Intermediate ESL course at a community college in the United States. I faced a room full of Chinese students, mostly in their 20s, who needed academic English to survive in college classrooms. I started the class with a name game.

Yes…A name game. If you have a degree in education, I’m sure you know the type. I don’t remember the details, but it was the kind of activity where the only objective is for everyone in the room to remember everyone else’s name. My students played along politely, but a lot of them had these blank stares, which I interpreted to mean, “Did we come all the way here so that this American kid can teach us how to remember each other’s names?”

Sure it’s important for students to learn each other’s names, and I know that this sort of activity can be really fun with some groups of students, but I realized right away that it just wasn’t the right way to set the tone in this particular class. I guess that was the moment when it struck me that not every great communicative activity that I’d learned in grad school would work with every class. Luckily, my lackluster icebreaker wasn’t the end of the world. The course turned out just fine, my students learned lots of useful things, and I learned to be more selective with my activity choices.

The Icebreaker I’d Never Try

Are there any icebreaker ideas that make you cringe? Ones that you’ve read about on the internet or learned about in a professional development workshop, but would never ever ever try?

For me, its that toilet paper one. You know that one that seems to show up on so many Top 10 ESL Icebreaker lists? If you don’t, here’s the gist: You casually pass a roll of toilet paper around your classroom and say, “Take what you need,” with no further explanation. When everyone has some toilet paper, you ask students to share one fact about themselves for each square that they took.

Um… Has anyone actually tried that out with real students? I imagine that if I were to begin class on a Monday morning with a roll of toilet paper in my hand, my professional adult students would take one look at me and lose all faith that they would ever learn anything from me.

I know…I know…I’m being overdramatic. But this just seems forced funny. I have a silly sense of humor, and my students are always giggling as they make grammar mistakes, but… toilet paper? What’s the point? Why don’t you just ask your students to share 5 facts about themselves? Or to roll a dice? And what if one student takes the entire roll? I’m sure that the rest of the class doesn’t want to spend the day listening to that person’s entire autobiography. Maybe it could work if you teach middle school students who find toilets hilarious, though…

What do you think?

Anyway, I like a good ice breaker as much as any other teacher, but I also love a good fail story, so please leave your comments, stories and ideas in the box below. Here are some questions for you to think about:

  • What’s your icebreaker fail?
  • And what icebreaker would you never try?
  • Have you attempted the toilet paper thing and lived to tell?

Leave your comments below. I’m listening!

Writer Me vs. Teacher Me – a conundrum over cliches

ESL Teacher Conundrum - teaching cliches

Before I started teaching ESL, I was a college writer. I carried adorable little observation journals everywhere, I lived for jotting down details, and of course, I avoided cliches like the plague (I know, I know, I can never resist that one).

Now, as an ESL teacher, it’s my responsibility to teach everything about the English language… Including the stuff you aren’t supposed to use… Including those dreaded cliches. And I admit, I like teaching cliches. They’re colorful and descriptive and funny, especially when they don’t quite translate.

Here’s my mini-conundrum: For students to fully understand the language, they need to be able to understand cliches. At the same time, I have to convince them that that it’s usually better to avoid them, at lease in writing.

To see what I mean, here’s the outline a typical food vocabulary lesson vs. a typical cliche lesson.

A food vocabulary lesson, for example, goes something like this:

Step 1: Teach new food vocabulary.
Step 2: Practice new vocabulary by responding to conversation questions.
Step 3: Students write about their favorite restaurants.
Step 4: In groups, students create their own ideas for new restaurants.
Step 5: Students role play restaurant situation conversations.

A typical lesson on cliches is more like this: 

Step 1: Teach new cliches.
Step 2: Practice new cliches by responding to conversation questions.
Step 3: Teach students to never ever ever use cliches again.

The struggle! What’s a teacher to do?

My favorite little language teaching trick

Imagine the following scenario: I’m teaching a small group Beginner conversation class. I turn to a student and ask, “What did you do yesterday, Maria?” Maria answers, “I go shopping.”

Assuming that Maria has already learned the past tense of “go,” I don’t correct her mistake for her. Instead of saying anything, I respond with a little gesture…a simple wave of my hand, backward over my shoulder. Maria recognizes the gesture to signify past tense and corrects herself. “Oh, no…I went shopping,” she says. “Yesterday….I went!”

In my invisible bag of teaching tricks, the gesture is my personal favorite, especially when it comes to teaching simple tenses. A backward wave means past tense. A forward wave means future, and a point at the ground means present. I find that after I use a gesture once or twice, students catch on and start using it themselves, to help each other. It’s like a gentle nudge to remind them to use something that they’ve already learned.

After enough silent corrections, I generally find that students start correcting their own mistakes without any help from me. Sometimes they’ll even make a mistake, pause, gesture to themselves, and then correct themselves without me even moving a muscle. It’s adorable, and it’s like magic.

So, What’s Your Favorite Teaching Trick?

What little teaching tool or strategy do you depend on for classroom survival? Do you use gestures to give corrective feedback, or do you have another favorite method for error correction?

Please share your tips and ideas in the comment section below. I’d love to hear them!

What's Your Favorite Teaching Trick-

Beginner Box, Part 2 – How to fill your box with questions and get your students speaking!

Beginner Box, Part 2: Growing List of Beginner Conversation Questions for Your Classroom


*******Update: New Stufft Alert**********

Hi everyone! I’ve been working on a new site, and I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been putting together a collection of conversation questions on a variety of topics over there. Most of the questions are intended for lower-level English learners, and would be perfect for a conversation box. And best of all, every set of questions comes with a printable worksheet for you. You can find the new questions over here:  Beginner-friendly speaking questions



Yesterday I posted about creating a question box geared toward your Beginner ESL students. Today I’m going to give you a big list of simple questions to fill your box with. There are tons of lists of conversation questions on the internet, but most that I can find are aimed toward Intermediate students and above. My goal is to create a massive resource for teachers of lower-level classes who want to get their students chatting. 

I’m trying to keep the questions simple, with no phrasal verbs or idioms. Some of them may require students to look a word or two up in the dictionary, but not more than that. Some of them are yes/no questions, but if the student is ready, you can encourage them to elaborate. For example, if the question is, “Do you like dogs?” Your student might say, “Yes, I do. I have a dog. My dog’s name is LuLu. She is brown and white. She is friendly.” Etc…

Please keep in mind that this is a growing list, and I plan to update it regularly, so if you have any suggestions on questions or categories to add, please leave a comment in the box at the bottom of the page.

The Categories

I’ve organized the list into the following categories:

  • Simple present
  • Simple past
  • Future (Includes “will,” “going to,” “want to,” and “would like to”)
  • Describe… / Talk about…
  • Opinion questions

I would suggest color-coding your question cards (blue for present, pink for past, etc.) to make it easier for students to pick questions that are relevant to them. Again, this list is a work in progress, so if you have suggestions for other categories, feel free to let me know.

The Questions (so far)

Simple Present

  1. Are you happy today? Why?
  2. Are you tired? Why?
  3. Are you hungry? What do you want to eat?
  4. When are you angry?
  5. Are you hot or cold today?
  6. What do you do every day?
  7. Where do you go on the weekend? (Saturday and Sunday)
  8. Where do you go after class?
  9. What is your favorite restaurant? Where is it?
  10. Who is your favorite musician?
  11. What is your favorite comedy movie?
  12. What is your favorite action movie?
  13. Do you like horror movies? Why or why not?
  14. Is your city safe or dangerous?
  15. Is your city exciting or boring?
  16. Do you prefer dogs or cats? Why?
  17. Do you prefer hot weather or cold weather? Why?
  18. Is a monkey a good pet? Why?
  19. Is a mouse a good pet? Why?
  20. What animals live in your city?
  21. What’s your favorite animal?
  22. What’s your favorite food?
  23. What do you drink on hot days?
  24. What do you drink on cold days?
  25. What do you eat on hot days?
  26. What do you eat on cold days?

Simple Past

  1. Where did you go yesterday?
  2. What did you see yesterday?
  3. What did you eat for breakfast?
  4. What did you eat last night?
  5. Where did you travel last year?
  6. What was the last thing you bought?
  7. Did you exercise last week? How?
  8. When did you last play sports?
  9. What did you last cook?
  10. Did you speak English yesterday? Who did you speak to?


  1. What are you going to do after school today?
  2. What will you do after you learn English?
  3. What will you do this weekend?
  4. What would you like to eat today?
  5. What are you going to eat this evening?
  6. What are you going to eat for lunch?
  7. What will you do after you learn English?
  8. Who are you going to speak to later?

Note: The prompts in the next two categories (Talk About and What Do You Think About…) are intentionally open-ended. Encourage students to say anything that comes to mind on the subject. You will probably need to teach the meaning of “Talk about” and “What do you think about,” but students will catch on quickly.

Talk About:

  1. Talk about your family.
  2. Talk about your hometown.
  3. Talk about your neighborhood.
  4. Talk about transportation in your hometown.
  5. Talk about food in your country.
  6. Talk about shopping.
  7. Talk about clothing.
  8. Talk about a famous person from your country.
  9. Talk about the weather.
  10. Talk about your house.
  11. Talk about your first day in this city.
  12. Talk about animals.
  13. Talk about police officers.
  14. Talk about doctors.
  15. Talk about school.
  16. Talk about horses.
  17. Talk about summer fruit.
  18. Talk about recycling.
  19. Talk about winter.
  20. Talk about summer.
  21. Talk about spring.
  22. Talk about fall (autumn).
  23. Talk about your job.
  24. Talk about coffee or tea.
  25. Talk about apples.

What Do You Think About…?

  1. What do you think about animals?
  2. What do you think about cars?
  3. What do you think about bicycles?
  4. What do you think about books?
  5. What do you think about new technology?
  6. What do you think about sports?
  7. What do you think about crowded places?
  8. What do you think about children?
  9. What do you think about fast food?
  10. What do you think about chocolate?
  11. What do you think about makeup?
  12. What do you think about vintage clothing?
  13. What do you think about horror movies?
  14. What do you think about action movies?
  15. What do you think about comic books and animation?

Thanks for taking a look at my gradually-growing list. I hope you find it helpful. If you decide to use them in your class, I’d love to know how they worked out for you. And if you have any suggestions for new questions or categories, please don’t hesitate to let me know!

Links to more Questions:

Conversation questions about food: Yum!

Conversation questions about animals: Woof!

Conversation questions about feelings: Happy!

Conversation questions about homes: Home!

And the general, constantly-growing list of speaking questions for lower levels at my new site, ESL Airplane: Beginner-friendly speaking questions

Thought Cloud Prompts for the ESL Classroom (and beyond)

Thought Cloud Prompts

What ‘s on That Guy’s Mind?

Thought clouds can be a great tool for introducing new topics, writing stories, and practicing grammar tenses in your ESL classes. They’re good for brainstorming, expanding vocabulary, and encouraging creativity. I’ve created a list of several strategies for putting them into action in your own classrooms. As an ESL teacher, my focus is on using them with English language learners, but teachers of other subjects (especially creative writing) may find some ideas here, as well.

Strategy #1: The Warm-up / Do-Now Prompt:

When I introduce a new topic, I find that pictures with thought clouds can be helpful in (a) brainstorming vocabulary and (b) giving students the opportunity to share their opinions and past experiences on the topic.

Train Station Thought Cloud
Try using this picture to warm up for a lesson on travel or public transportation.

If I were beginning a unit on travel or public transportation, for example, I might display the picture above, of a man standing alone in a bustling train station (I think it’s Grand Central Station in New York City). First I would ask the whole class, “What do you see in the picture?” I would list new, relevant vocabulary words on the board.

Next, I would give students a couple of minutes to write a sentence or two into the bubble. When they were finished, I would go around the room and ask students to share their ideas.

Finally, I would bring in some discussion questions related to both the picture and the lesson that we are about to begin. (I would probably have students discuss the questions in small groups, and then report back to the rest of the class.) For example, for this picture I might ask:

  • Have you ever travelled alone? Tell us about your trip.
  • Do you like traveling alone? Why or why not?
  • Did you ever get lost while you were traveling?
  • Do you usually feel overwhelmed when you go on vacation? Why or why not?
  • Do you prefer to travel by train, plane,  bus or car? Why?

Of course, the questions would vary depending on the level on the class and the topic of the lesson.

Strategy #2: The Tense Practice Prompt

After teaching a new tense, you can put a new grammar structure into action by describing and analyzing photos. For example, to practice the present continuous, I might show students the curious vintage photo below, which was taken in a doll factory:

Doll Head Thought Cloud

I might ask:

  • What do you see in the photo?
  • What is the man doing?
  • What is he wearing?
  • What is he thinking?
  • What is he planning to do this evening?

I find that creative students tend to enjoy this type of activity. Less creative students, however, may look at you blankly, and say, “…uh…I don’t know…” In response to the questions about his plans for the future. That’s something that you may want to keep in mind when planning.

Strategy #3: The Storytelling Prompt

Some pictures tell a story. By asking a few good questions, you can help students use their imagination to flesh out that story and make it their own. Take a look at the prompt below:
This photo can be used to tell a story and practice mixed tenses. What happened before and after the accident?

This picture tells a simple story and can easily be used with lower-level ESL students. A young woman looks up at the camera, distraught, while an ice cream cone melts on the concrete near her feet. What exactly happened?

After my students fill in the thought bubbles on this photo, I ask the following three questions, which give students the opportunity to practice present, past, and future tenses:

  1. What happened just before the photo was taken?
  2. How does the woman feel in the picture? Describe what you see in detail.
  3. What happened next?

My favorite approach is to write the first part of the story (Questions 1 and 2) as a whole class. After we’ve come up with a detailed story together, I either divide students into small groups, or have them work individually to write the end of the story. After they finish writing, everyone shares their endings.

Comments, Please!

Have you used thought cloud prompts in your classrooms? Would you like to see more of these in the future? I’d love to hear from you! Please leave your comments in the box below.

My Favorite Prep-Free, Interactive Speaking Activities for ESL Classes

My Two Favorite Prep-Free Speaking (1)

While googling around for new classroom activities, I often find myself thinking, “That sounds like a great idea, but who has time for all of that preparation?” Like many adult ESL teachers, I’m not paid for the time that I spend planning my classes, so I’m kind of obsessed with simplicity when it comes to preparation. I’m always looking for fun, effective activities that are super-simple to set up to add to my teaching routine.

I’ve chosen a couple of my favorites. I like them because they are communicative activities that really get everyone talking. They can both be used at any level, and with mixed-level classes.

So, here you go:

1. One Question Walk-and-Talk:

Tell your students to think of one single question that they could ask their classmates.
For example, What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?, What was the last thing you bought? or What’s your favorite place to visit in this city? (You could leave it open-ended if you’re using it as an ice-breaker, or you might have students ask questions on a specific topic or with a specific grammatical structure.)

After everyone has one question in mind, ask your students to stand up, walk a bit, and then grab a partner. They should take turns asking their question to their partner. After about a minute or two, call out “Switch partners!” Students should grab a new partner, and ask the same question again. You can have them switch partners several times.  It helps to have some kind of bell or whistle around to signal that it’s time for a partner switch.

If you want to add a little more structure to this activity, you might consider asking the questions yourself, instead of asking students to think of them. For example, you might ask students to walk, grab a partner, and then say, “Ask your partner: What’s your favorite food?” And then have all students ask the same question at the same time.

At the end of the activity, I ask students to share one thing that they learned about one person in the room. We go around the classroom, round-robin style, and everyone shares a single sentence about someone in the class.

2. Speak for a Minute:

Before class, cut up some blank scrap paper into little squares. (Or, if you don’t have time to cut them yourself, tell students just to tear a  little piece of paper out of their notebooks.) Give each student one or two slips of paper. Then ask each student to write down a random topic that someone could talk about. The topic should just be a word or two. I usually tell them that it could be something general like “food,” “sports,” or “shopping” or it could be more specific, like “watermelon,” “trash cans,” “monkeys,” or “Justin Bieber.”  After they’re done, ask them to fold their papers in half and give them back to you.

Once you have all of the slips, tell students that they will each take turns choosing a topic from your pile. Their challenge will be to speak for 60 seconds about the topic without stopping. (If your class is more advanced, you might give them 2 or 3 minutes.) If they choose watermelon, for example, they might say, “I love eating watermelon, especially on the beach in the summer. Watermelon reminds me of barbecues in my grandmother’s backyard when I was a child, etc, etc….” If time allows, I usually allow a couple of classmates to ask questions after the speaker finishes.

This activity works well for me because I teach small classes. If you do it in a larger class, you might consider dividing students into smaller groups of 4 or 5, and have them time each other, instead of doing it as a big class activity.


Those are my two simple go-to activities. What are yours? I’m always looking for new ideas, so please, please, please, leave yours in the comment section below. 🙂

Hello teachers

I’m an adult ESL teacher at a little school with big glass windows and views of the city that make new students “ooh” and “ah” as soon as they walk through the elevator doors. We have small classes, and students come from around the world, so I hear lots of anecdotes about life around the world on a daily basis. I’ve been teaching English as a Second Language for close to ten years, and every day is still pretty interesting.

I’ve decided to start this blog as a resource to help other teachers make their classrooms more interactive. I plan to use this site to organize my own teaching activities, and give advice to newer teachers.  So teachers, please follow me, check back soon, and feel free to comment or say hello. 🙂