35 ESL Warm-up Activities for Small Classes

  1. Two truths and a lie

This is a great game to play with small classes, as it helps them get to know each other better. Learners in a small class will also be more inclined to get involved, asking more questions as they’ll have less of an audience.

For this game, all you need is a board and pen or just something to write on. Then each learner has to write down two things about themselves that are true and one that’s a lie. Then the rest of the class should ask them questions to check out which is the lie.

This game allows learners to practice speaking skills and explore different vocabulary. It’s a great icebreaker activity for the start of a lesson at the beginning of a new year, but equally, you can break it out whenever you want a bit of fun in your learning.

  1. Question relay

This fast-paced, straightforward warm-up activity is easily adapted to different topics. First, you must pick a topic, usually one you’ve been covering in class, and set a time limit, maybe 60 seconds. Then start by asking a learner a question on that topic, for example, ‘what’s your favorite sport?’. The learner then answers your question, then asks another question on the same topic to another learner. The point of this game is to ask and answer questions fast. See how many you can get through in your allotted time, and make it into an ongoing competition as you cover different topics, challenging your class to beat your record. This works well with your small class as learners have less time to come up with new questions before it comes back around to them, making it more of a challenge.

  1. Spot the word

Put a long word on the board, ideally with a topic you’ve been covering, something with at least nine letters. Then set learners a time limit to see how many words they can create from that word. The beauty of this game is that it can keep going for as long or as little as you want. Then, add another comment to the board if you’re going to pass a few more minutes. Award points for the most and the longest words found.

  1. Question scramble

Write a question on the board based on what you’ll cover in that lesson. For example, if you’re learning about pets, you could write, ‘what noise does a dog make?’. But scrambling up the words so they’re not in the correct order- the longer the sentence, the more complex the challenge for learners. Then set learners a certain amount of time to try and unscramble the sentence and put it back in the correct order. This is a fun way to introduce the lesson.

  1. Chatterbox challenge

Confident talkers in the class will love this game. Write some topics on the board and number them. Then get learners to roll a dice- whatever number they land on, they have to speak about the matching topic for a set amount of time, maybe one minute or two. They lose the challenge if they run out of things to say before the timer is up. A great activity to develop speaking skills and vocabulary.

  1. Pictionary

This is a fun warm-up game that you can use to focus on a specific topic or a range of topics. Get a list of words or phrases together and put them into a hat. Then get a learner to come to the board, pick one of these out of the hat, and give them a specific time limit to draw the word or phrase they’ve chosen. The rest of the class then has to guess what they’re trying to draw. Whoever guesses correctly gets the point, and the learner drawing also receives a point if their word or phrase is correctly guessed.

  1. Word ladders

This game aims to start with one word and aim to get to another by only changing one letter at a time. So, for example, you could write the word ‘rope’ on the board and tell learners that they’re trying to get to the word ‘pile.’ The sequence of words could go like this rope-ripe-pipe-pile. They get the point for every word it takes to get to the target word. But this game aims to bring the minor issues possible.

  1. The alphabet game

Pick a topic. Then get a learner to start with the letter ‘a’ and see if they can think of a word for that topic that either begins with that letter or contains it. Then the next learner has to think of a word for that topic, starting with ‘b,’ and so on. See how far you can get in the alphabet before running out of words. An excellent game for building vocabulary and particularly good for small classes, as everyone will get multiple turns. Finding a word that starts with that letter offers more of a challenge, so you could always start with that, and then if learners are struggling too much, switch to finding words that contain that letter.

  1. What’s missing?

A game inspired by the hangman, but it is better at giving contextual clues. First, put some images on the board (get creative and draw your own, or use some ready-made images) that belong in a particular place or room. For example, you could choose the bathroom and include pictures of a bath, a sink, a rubber duck, etc. Then choose the word for something that isn’t there- like a shower, maybe- and represent each letter of the word with a dash. The rest of the game follows the usual rules of hangman- if a learner guesses a letter correctly, you fill it in on the dash; if they guess a letter wrong, you start to draw the figure of a hanging man. Learners must guess the correct word before the man dies (less sinister than it sounds, I promise).

  1. Spot the error

An activity to help learners develop their spelling, punctuation, and grammar. For example, put some sentences on the board, each with various errors, and challenge learners to spot them. Easy!

  1. Creative writing exercise

This one is great for getting learners to practice their writing skills. It’s not as upbeat as the others, but an excellent warm-up exercise. Give learners a starting sentence, such as ‘my favorite holiday ever was…’ or ‘last summer, I went…’. Encourage learners to be as creative as possible, allowing them to make up any bizarre scenario their imagination can create or write about an authentic experience if they’d like.

  1. Would you rather?

This can be a funny one guaranteed to have your class in stitches. Go around your class, asking each learner to come up with a ‘would you rather’ scenario to ask the person next to them. This could be anything from ‘would you rather be a fish or a bear?’ to ‘would you rather never eat chocolate again or have to eat a slug every day for a year?’. This can be a fun getting-to-know-you activity to help your class settle in and grow more comfortable with each other.

  1. Dinner party

Ask your learners to think about who they would invite to their house for dinner if they could invite anyone in the world, dead or alive. Then each learner gets a few minutes to explain their choice. After that, the rest of the class can ask them questions, like what food they would serve, what games they would play, and things like that. Again, this is a valuable icebreaker for learners at the start of the year.

  1. Quick-fire role play

Role-play is an excellent way for learners to develop their conversational skills. So as a quick warm-up activity, put your class into pairs (if there’s an odd number, one learner can work with you, how lucky are they?) and pick different conversation starter scenarios. This could be anything from one learner being an alien who accidentally flew to Earth, and the other learner asking about their home planet, or one learner being a painter doing some decorator, and the other complaining about the work they’ve done on their house. Give learners a few minutes to get into character and see what weird and wonderful conversations you can hear.

  1. Hot potato

In this game, you pass around an object- this could be a potato, or equally, it could just be a rubber or a pencil sharpener, anything that you have to hand. Set up a timer in your classroom. As each learner passes around the ‘hot potato,’ they must think of a word or phrase for a particular topic you’ve chosen. They can give the’ hot potato’ on as soon as they’ve thought of one, and you approve. Whoever is holding it when the timer goes off is out. (No potatoes were harmed during the making of this activity.)

  1. Flashcards

Flashcards- are a super helpful tool for every educator. Find an array of flashcards on different topics with various words. Then go around each learner, give them a time limit of like 60 seconds or so, then hold up a flashcard with which they have to try and make a sentence. Once they’ve spoken a sound sentence that includes the word on the flashcard, you can hold up another. See how many sentences learners can create within the time limit.

  1. Odd one out

This activity is great as it allows learners to be creative with their answers and use logic and reasoning. For example, put three or four words on the board; these could be ‘banana, lemon, apple, custard,’ and then children have to decide which they think is the odd one out. This could be an apple because it’s not yellow or custard. After all, it’s not a fruit. The possibilities could be endless. See what ideas your learners can come up with together.

  1. Spelling game

This fun spelling challenge can help learners develop their spelling and vocabulary skills. Start with a word and pass it to the first learner in the circle, who has to say the first letter, then the next learner has to tell the second letter, and so on. Every time your class successfully spells a word, they bank a point. If a learner gets a letter wrong, they lose one- see how many points your class can get to by the end of the activity.

  1. Obstacle course game

This excellent team game helps children develop their prepositions of movement. Set up an obstacle course in the classroom- this could be a series of arrows on the floor or a series of commands like ‘jump to the next cone.’ Learners take turns to be blindfolded and try to make their way through the obstacle course using the directions of the rest of the class.

  1. Tell me a story

Write out a story using a few sentences. It could go like this:

‘Little Red Riding Hood walked through the woods. She picked some fruit from the trees for her grandmother. When she got to the house, she saw a wolf. She ran away and screamed!’

Break up this story into sections, giving each learner a different section. Each learner then has to try and draw what is happening in the section of text they’ve been given. When learners have finished, they should put together their pictures in order and see if their classmates can try and write out what their picture represents, working together to rewrite the story. Using familiar stories in this game can make it easier, and new, made-up stories increase the challenge.

  1. Write a story

Staying on the story trend, we have another fun activity to try. Write a short sentence on a piece of paper, like ‘the girl entered the dragon’s cave,’ and hand over the paper to a learner. Then the learner has to add their sentence but folds over the paper so the next learner they hand it to can only see the sentence they’ve written. Then each learner, only ever seeing the sentence written before them, adds another part of the story. You can go around the class however many times you want to create this story. Then at the end, unfold the page and see what magical tale your learners have managed to weave!

  1. Job interview

Nominate one learner to the front of the classroom and sit in a chair facing the rest of the class. Then show the rest of the class a specific job role for which they are interviewing this learner without showing the student facing them. Then the rest of the class has to ask the student sitting at the front questions as if they are in an interview. In the end, the learner has to try and guess which job they were being interviewed for.

  1. Vocabulary builder

Similarly to the last game, one learner has to go up to the front. However, this time, instead of showing the rest of the class a job, you can show them any piece of vocabulary. The class then has to try and describe this word or phrase to the learner at the front for them to guess it.

  1. Shout it out

A noisy but fun game for your classroom. Ideal for smaller classes as fewer children is shouting over each other. Pick a topic, pick a letter, and write them on the board. Then learners have a set amount of time to shout words beginning with that letter for the topic. See how many they can get!

  1. The rearranged game

Give each learner a different word from a sentence on a piece of paper and stick it to their back or forehead (sticky notes are ideal for this activity). Then, get learners to line up and try and rearrange themselves so that the sentence is in the correct order, without each learner ever seeing which word they have. This is a great teamwork game.

  1. Yes or no

This is a great way to test learners’ memory on different topics and vocabulary. Dedicate one side of the room to ‘yes’ and the other to ‘no.’ Hold up different images, like a car, a skirt, or a dog. Then ask questions asking, ‘is this a car?’ and see which side of the room learners go to.

  1. Don’t say yes or no!

Give learners a token amount- it may be fake coins, counters, or even small pieces of paper. They should walk around the classroom and, when they bump into another learner, ask them a question. If you’re asked a question, you can reply in any way you like, but you can’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If you do, you have to give one of your tokens to the other learner. See who has the most tokens by the end of the game.

  1. True or False?

It is a bit like the two truths and a lie game, but this allows learners to further develop their truths or lies. First, each learner tells the class a story- this could be entirely made up or accurate. Then the class has to guess whether it’s true or if it’s a lie.

  1. What’s the Question?

In this game, learners write down an answer to a question about themselves. The aim of the game is for the rest of the class to try and work out what the question is. For example, if the answer is ‘strawberries,’ the question could be ‘what’s your favorite fruit?’, ‘what’s your least favorite fruit?’ or ‘what did you have for breakfast this morning?’.

  1. Whispers

A whispering communication game. Start with a sentence- this could be on a specific topic you’re studying- and whisper it to one learner. They then have to whisper it to the next learner, and so on. The last learner then has to say out loud what they think the sentence they heard- this is often completely different from the sentence you started with and can be incredibly funny and nonsensical.

  1. Speed speaking

This is an excellent way for learners to practice their listening skills. Find an article or blog and read a section of it- but at supersonic speed (you may need to practice before learners arrive to get around any tongue twisters). Learners then have to try and write down as much of what they hear as possible and rewrite their version of the article. Award points for the most accurate.

  1. Brainstorm

A creative activity to get children to solve problems by using their imagination. Come up with an entirely made-up, bizarre scenario. This could be ‘a man is stuck on the moon, how do we get him down?’ or ‘my dog won’t stop eating my homework.’ Then, get your learners to devise a ten-point action plan to solve the problem- this could be as creative a solution as they can dream of.

  1. If I were in charge for a day…

A scary thought, I know, students ruling the school, but it’s what this activity is all about. Give learners around ten minutes to write precisely what they’d do if they were in charge of the school for a day, then let them present their ideas to the rest of the class.

  1. Getting to know you

This is another excellent getting-to-know-you activity. Task learners with going around the class and finding out three facts from each learner by asking them different questions. This is a perfect way for a new class to get more familiar with each other. If you’re not dealing with a new class, you can still use it and change it so that learners have to find out three things that have happened to each learner between their last lesson together and now.

  1. Describe the picture

Put the class into pairs. Show one-half of each team a picture- make sure it’s a picture with lots of detail. Then that learner has to try and describe the image to their partner in 30 seconds. Their partner then has to try and draw and recreate this picture based on their partner’s description. Award points for the closest matching picture.

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