Make Your Own Icebreaker

icebreakerWhen I was working on 50 Activities for the First Day of School, I was reading so many icebreakers and getting to know you activities that I started to wonder if there was a common framework to icebreakers. Was there a standard set of steps teachers could improvise around?  How could you make make your own icebreaker, something original, but not unfamiliar to students?

I played with a lot of ideas before I came up with this Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart. The chart outlines the four major steps of an icebreaker activity, although you can usually skip or abbreviate one of those steps.

  1. Students usually acquire information from each other or the classroom or teacher. From the other side of the coin, they are sharing or giving information
  2. Then they usually have to record that information somewhere, and usually as they record it, they are manipulating it, doing something with it.
  3. Then they share or distribute the information.
  4. Finally, they use that information in someway. This step can be as simple as reporting back to the class or as complex as writing a biographical essay about a partner.

For each step, the chart has a number of examples of how that could be done. You can also think back on your favorite icebreaker and reverse engineer it to see how it accomplishes each of these steps.

You can find the Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart at Alphabet Publishing, along with other free downloadable worksheets for icebreakers and getting to know you activities. I probably shouldn’t be sharing this, as it might put me out of business! Who needs a book of activities when you can make your own? But I can’t resist sharing this, and maybe getting some feedback on it!

So how does the Make Your Own Icebreaker chart work?

Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart from Alphabet Publishing
I identified four steps that students go through in a typical icebreaker, or getting to know you activity. I’ll explain them below and illustrate them with a very simple interview-style icebreaker. I should not that not all icebreakers have these steps, or have them in this order. In fact, I’d say most icebreakers have three of the four steps here. And sometimes there’s a prep stage, where you make a worksheet or students think about what they are going to say.

I’d also note that the steps don’t always go in this order. In Find Someone Who, the teacher records information in a chart and then makes the students acquire it.  Or sometimes the steps happen simultaneously. When students are asking and answering questions, they are acquiring and recording information at the same time.

Step 1: Acquire Information

So usually the first step of an icebreaker is to get some information from a partner. It might come from asking questions or reading a name tag or a worksheet the teacher has handed out. In some cases, the teacher or student does some prep work before, in creating the information. You might have students fill in a profile.

In a simple interview-style icebreaker, students acquire information by asking their partner questions such as “What’s your favorite color?” or “What did you do over summer break?”

Step 2: Record and Manipulate

Now that students have asked their questions of their partner, or read their teacher’s profile, they have to do something with the information. Having students manipulate information helps them to remember it and evaluate it. You want students to remember what they have learned from their friends and classmates beyond the first day. You also want them to make connections–“Hey, he likes baseball. I wonder if he likes other sports, too.” Otherwise, there’s point in doing a getting to know you activity at all.

In an interview, students would be taking notes on their partner, or perhaps filling out a class profile worksheet the teacher gave them.

Step 3: Distribute

This may be the step that is most often skipped. Usually students jump from recording information to telling someone about it. In our interview example, students would now jump to step 4, reporting the information to the class or another partner.

But adding a step where students leave the information somewhere–on a bulletin board, mixed up at random, thrown in a snowball, adds an extra element to the icebreaker. It allows you to have students find a new partner by chance, as in Who Wrote That? Or students can hang a fact they have collected about their partner on the wall, and every one in the class can read about everyone else. This opens up the icebreaker so that the whole class is learning about the whole class.

Step 4: Use the Information

Finally, you want students to do something with what they learned, whether it be report back to the class, report to another pair, or go home and write a paragraph about their new friend. In Two Truths and a Lie, students evaluate the truth of what they were told. As a wrap-up to Who Wrote That, students may expand on a simple fact to tell a whole story about themselves or their partner. Students can act, sing, dance, or do interpretive dance (although that might be a bit intimidating on the first day of class).


So there you go. You have all the tools you need to make amazing icebreakers. Let me know what you come up with!

Then and Now

This is one of my go-to activities for having students compare verb tenses. It’s really nice in that it allows for a lot of flexibility on which tenses you want to practice. You can limit it to the present and past simple or throw in the present perfect and continuous tenses. You could even work the future in.

The activity involves students sharing details of their lives from the present and another time period. This requires them to pay attention to meanings of various verb tenses as they relate to times of events, changes or lack of changes, and how verb tenses relate to each other.

Then and Now- The Differences Between Past and Present Lesson Plan

Listening and Speaking Activities for Adult ESL Learners

I love large compendiums of activity ideas. Resource books full of simple, easy to adapt activities are the lifeblood of teaching in my opinion. And if there happens to be a free resource, available on the Internet so I can access it anywhere, that’s even better!

So here’s a really nice one put out by the Colorado Department of Education: Listening and Speaking Activities for Adult ESL Learners 

The resource also shows how the activities align to the BEST Plus Assessment and CASAS Listening Basic Skills Content Standards. Fortunately, as a private teacher I don’t have to worry about that stuff but it’s a nice way to get an idea of what exact speaking or listening skill is involved.

It's Not Mine, It's His: 3 Powerful Possessive Activities

When I was looking for an exercise on teaching possessive pronouns, I came across this page with some really nice ideas. I like Busy Teacher because it has some nice generic adaptable ideas for activities like this one:

It’s Not Mine, It’s His: 3 Powerful Possessive Activities

I really liked the Goofy Cards. But then I love any activity that has students making sentences or stories with minimal prompts. And if those sentences turn out to be silly, so much the better.

Free Getty Images

Getty Images’ embed feature lets you share images on blogs and social media. Embed photos and get attribution links already formatted for you.

Source: Find Images for Blogs & Social Media with Embed | Getty Images

I was not aware that Getty Images gives you access to their images, photographs and pictures if you want to use them non-commercially. I wouldn’t try to use them on my blog as I do sell some lessons here. The other limitation is that you have to embed them, so you can’t download them and use them.

However, you can download a small, comp image of any Getty Image if you want to spec an image and have your editor see what you have in mind. This might not work perfectly if you need the image to be quite large . The comp images are pretty small and stamped with a watermark. Obviously you are expected to buy the actual image for proper use.

Still it’s nice to have another resource of quality, free images for bloggers.

Teaching There is/There are 

A nice activity I came across while searching for a way to teach There is/There are/There isn’t/ There aren’t. I can’t use this one as I’m trying to stay in the context of clothing. The activity below is in the context of creating a country, which I find students really enjoy (see my discussion lesson on creating a new country)

I found a really fun way to teach There is a …/ There are some …/ There are many …/ There aren’t any … . The first thing i do is elicit and write on the board 20 things you can find in a

Source: Teaching There is a/ There are some/ There are many/ There aren’t any… – ESL Games and Activities – eslHQ

Tailor Made English – Tailor Made English – 5 Tips for Using the Transcript

I love tips for exploiting resources we already have and making routine tasks more interesting or productive. In digging around Tailor Made English, looking for that lesson plan competition link, I saw this recent post: 5 Tips for Using the Transcript, referring to the listening transcript in the back of the book. Great ideas. I’ve done them all and they all work really well.

Transcripts are great for language in context in particular and students seeing all those function words as Stephen points out. But also spoken language, more than written language, is full of implications and inferences, in my opinion. Small things like the way we start sentences assume a lot of shared knowledge and understandings!

I remember a transcript for a listening once that began:

“Thanks for coming in so early. Right, let’s get started..”

which tells you the participants are 1) at work 2) at work earlier than usual  3) in a meeting 4) the speaker is the boss 5) the meeting is starting now.

All that from a few words. When listening it’s hard to catch all that but reading students can see those nuances. Giving them the transcript and pointing out these small throw-away phrases that have a lot of meaning is really helpful.

Other ways to use the transcript?