Game On – Using Icebreaker Games in the ESL Classroom
We must up our game as ESL teachers in the 21st century – both figuratively and literally. I use games to engage students and promote learning in my classroom for a wide range of learning objectives. Below is a short list of icebreaker games that I regularly use in my classroom, and I will discuss the learning target(s) that each game aims to facilitate and deliver as well as the context in which the game is used. Since I work with high school age and adult students, the games are geared for English Language Learners in these age groups. As learning communities become more globalized and data give more information on how people learn, one major challenge I find with gamifying learning in the ESL classroom is making the games that I use more culturally relevant and more inclusive of all types of learners. This is a challenge that I am happy and excited to tackle, however. I will also be discussing how I envision and finetune the games I use in my classroom to be more inclusive of all cultures and types of learners.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Iris Y.
A supportive classroom environment is the foundation for learning
I strongly believe that a welcoming and supportive classroom environment together with positive relationships among students are the foundation for learning. Therefore, the first thing I do at the beginning of a new class is building a strong and positive sense of learning community in my classroom by using games. Games, which in my definition include activities that involve physical movements, are great ways to get the students to mingle and break the ice.
Research has shown that movements improve learning. Even though students are not acting out specific concepts or vocabulary words in the icebreaker games that I will be discussing below, I find giving students the opportunity to get up from their seats and move around the classroom is greatly beneficial on the first day of class.
Form a Line
"Form A Line" and "Find Someone Who…" are two of my favorite games to play on the first day of class when I have a new group of students. In "Form A Line", students form a line in the order of their birth month starting with January. This game gives students the opportunity to move about and ask each other questions, such as “When is your birthday?” or “What month is your birthday?” There tends to be some “shuffling” as the students organize themselves in line by their birth month, but this gives them another speaking opportunity. Once the line is formed in the correct order, students then introduce themselves by saying a sentence that includes their name and birth month. I also participate in "Form A Line" with the students because I believe it is just as important that the teacher is seen and recognized as part of the learning community.
Find Someone Who
In "Find Someone Who", each student has a 5x5 Bingo grid. The center box in the Bingo grid is marked “FREE”, and all other boxes have a sentence that begins with “Find someone who...”. Sentences in the boxes, which are tailored to the age group and language level of the students but must be culturally sensitive and inclusive, include “Find someone who has the same favorite color as you”, “Find someone who knows how to play a musical instrument”, “Find someone who loves to play soccer/football”, and the like. Students again walk around the classroom, ask each other if they match the descriptions in the boxes, and write down a classmate’s name in the box if he/she fits the description in a particular box. When students have their classmates’ names filled out in five boxes in a row across, down, or diagonally on the Bingo grid, they shout “Bingo”.
I typically walk around the classroom, observing and noting students’ interactions and language usage when they play "Find Someone Who". However, if I notice that a few students are having trouble asking questions or too timid to speak to others, I invite and encourage them to start finding someone who… by asking me.
Games help build rapport
"Form A Line" and "Find Someone Who" are wonderful starters for students to get to know each other. I believe little things like knowing a classmate’s birthday, hobbies, favorite color, and so on, which these games deliver, contribute to building a welcoming, supportive, and collaborative classroom atmosphere. In addition, both "Form A Line" and "Find Someone Who" have the language objective of asking questions.
I like to take a brief reflection time after playing these games to go over the language objective with the entire class by asking volunteers to share example questions that they asked during the games. I also ask the students how they feel after playing these games and what challenges or joys they encounter during the games, making clear that these games build positive relationships and that positive relationships in the classroom enhance learning. After all, the goal of these icebreakers is to foster an environment where students are comfortable learning alongside and together with each other.
How to adjust games
Keeping my practice as a teacher sensitive and inclusive of all cultures and types of learner is hugely important to me. "Form A Line" and "Find Someone Who" both rely heavily on speaking and listening skills. While playing these games is a great way for students to practice listening and speaking, I can’t help but wonder how these games could be adapted for those who respond better to visuals in my student population. I am thinking of adding a picture alongside each sentence in the "Find Someone Who" bingo grid to better serve students who are visual learners.
Another idea I have is hanging up a poster with pictures and sentence stems for this game. For example, a picture of a soccer ball and the sentence stem “Do you love to...” is on the poster for the sentence “Find someone who loves to play soccer/football.” I see myself as a learner and designer in my craft of teaching. Rising up to the challenge of making my curriculum, including icebreaker games, sensitive and inclusive of all cultures and types of learners is one of my biggest joys as an ESL teacher.
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