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Turn Up the Heat!

6 Sizzling Warm-up Activities for ESL Classes

When you look around your ESL classroom, do you see students ready to nod off to sleep?

Do you hear a choir of groans when you ask your students to open their texts?

Are your students focused on anything besides the hour of ESL they have ahead of them?

If so, dont worry, its not (always!) your fault.

Your students brains could be cold and sleepy, and they might just need a literal and figurative stretch to get ready
for whats coming.

They need a warm-up!

Why Should We Warm Up to Start a Class?

Imagine you want to run a race. Whats the one thing that everyone will tell you to do before you start? Thats right,
you need to stretch! If you dont, you could be sore afterwards or even injure yourself while running.

Its the same with most other activities. Just think: athletes, dancers, singers and actors all warm up before their
respective activities. Why should it be any different for ESL students and even their teachers?

Besides, starting an activity cold simply turns the first minutes of the activity into an improvised warm-up, anyway.
Those first few struggling minutes are often the result of class material being inappropriate for warming up.

Thats why you need some great warm-up activities to help everyone ease into the classand you might even save
your students or yourself from a pulled brain muscle!

Fortunately for you, you can save a lot of time planning if you use any of these fun and interactive ESL warm-up

To see how and why they work, well start by looking at a few principles and general types of warm-ups. Then well
get into six real examples of warm-ups, complete with instructions about how to use them in class!

What Your Warm-up Activity Should Do

Before we get into our examples, lets take a quick look at some principles about warm-ups, and why theyre
especially important for ESL and other language classes.

Physically warm up students

Have you ever considered doing a physical warm-up before jumping into your lesson plan? Thats the kind of thing
that a football player or a ballet dancer does to avoid injury, to get their bodies ready for their physical activity.

Studying can become boring, even stressful, when its a purely sedentary activity. Rolling your shoulders, head or
hips a few times, or doing some bend-and-stretch exercises will help your students release tension and become
alert before they turn to the class material.

Incorporate instructions (and therefore vocabulary) into the exercise. For example, for a head-roll warm-up, youd
recite: front, left, back, right while the students roll their heads. You can also include other useful words like up,

down, reach, pull, push and twist.

Giving instructions while physically performing them contextualizes this vocabulary. Your students will never wonder
again which is their left hand and which is their right!

Prepare students voices

Correct pronunciation depends upon how you use the muscles involved in speech production. Its probable that
99.9% of your students will have been speaking their native language just before sitting down to study ESLand
some of them continue doing so even after youve started teaching!

This means that the muscle strength and articulation that theyll need to pronounce English words will be secondary
to what theyve just used in their native language. You need to stretch out those muscles to at least shed the native
language tensions and get those mouths ready for the muscle movements needed for correct English pronunciation.

Its important also to relieve stress. The groups of muscles used in pronunciation are very small and react very
easily to muscular stress. Though its unlikely your students will suffer vocal lesions from cold English pronunciation,
doing some simple vocal warm-ups before class will help reduce the stress theyll experience when trying to wrap
their lips, tongue and teeth around English sounds.

Awaken students minds

Students often come into class in a kind of bubble formed by their native language. Some students, even adults,
might be distracted and not mentally prepared for the work they need to do. To burst that bubble, youll want to
combine different types of warm-ups with linguistic points, which will get them mentally prepared for the days class

You can slip pronunciation, grammar and language points into the different types of warm-ups you do with your
students. Warm-ups should be ice breakers that get your students loosened up and ready to learn. While you can try
to include points from the curriculum, be aware that students will notice if the warm-up is just another grammar

Types of Warm-ups
The six warm-up activities in this post fall into three different categories:

Music with Movement: Have your MP3 ready with the song of the day; youll have your students on their
feet and everyone will be dancing around.

Sing Along with Me: Singing brings rhythm into the language and fun into the exercise.

Words with Movement: Fast-track schoolyard games combine body movement with language.

6 Sizzling Warm-up Activities for ESL Classes

Music with Movement

1. The Hokey Pokey

This well-known popular song lends itself to a fun dance warm-up for any age group. The lyrics are simple and
repetitive and the movement is obvious: Just form a circle and do what the song tells you to do. And yes, you should
dance, too! You should also make sure you have plenty of room to create a circle of students.
Invent your own movement for the part when it says you do the hokey pokey, such as spinning arms or heads
while you turn yourself around. Three minutes after laughing your way through this dance, you can get down to the
class activity.

For a variation on this activity, you can play with lighting (turn off the lights and leave a string of flashing Christmas
lights for a disco effect).

A few other vintage songs that include dance that can be used for this type of warm-up include:

Lets Twist Again

The Locomotion

2. Knee Play 5

Named after a song by Philip Glass, this hypnotic and repetitive warm-up incorporates upper-body movement and
gives your students five full minutes of relaxing, yoga-like exercise, with a secret listening exercise at the end.

Heres how to do it:

Students should stand with plenty of space to lift their arms.

Start the song.

When the lyrics start, youll hear a chorus counting off numbers. The numbers will be in the following
sequence, and you should instruct the students to move their arms and breathe differently for each sequence:

1 2 3 4 (Students raise their arms in front of their bodies while inhaling)

1 2 3 4 5 6 (Students open their arms to the side while holding their inhaled breath)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 (Students raise their arms above their heads and then lower them to the sides while
slowly exhaling)

Now you come to the secret part of the activity. As the singers are counting, in the background youll hear actors
reciting seemingly-unconnected sentences. And in fact, they are basically random at first, but at about 3:30 a
speaker begins to recite a charming love story!

You shouldnt tell your students beforehand, but once theyre sitting down again, ask them to remember stray words
or phrases they heard throughout the exercise.

Going further, ask them to try to retell the love story. Ask specific questions, like:

What was the mans name?

How did he explain his love for her?

Finally, let the exercise go for now and get on with your class.

Days later, do the same warm-up. This time, the students will probably anticipate that youll ask about the lyrics.
They may pay more attention. Again, dont specifically instruct them to do so.

Theres no quiz and there are no right answers. Its just a pleasant way to get ready to focus, and to have the
experience of understanding some English without having been asked to do so.

Sing Along with Me

3. English Operetta

English operetta is well-known for its happy music and snappy lyrics. Among the leaders in this genre of musical
theater were the composer Arthur Sullivan and the lyricist W.S. Gilbert. Their magical combination of popular
composition with witty word play can give you a number of different warm-up exercises.

In English operetta, the words fit in with the basic rhythm of the music, reinforcing many of the principle rhythm
patterns of English, a language accented in the utterance rather than in the individual words.

You can use the chorus from the popular song I Am So Proud, from The Mikado, to lead your students through a
tongue-twister-style exercise:

To sit in solemn silence / in a dull dark dock

In a pestilential prison / with a life-long lock
Awaiting the sensation / of a short sharp shock
From a cheap and chippy chopper / on a big black block

Heres how you can do this warm-up:

Take them through the lyrics and explain the meaning.

Have them practice each line several times, each time more rapidly.

Divide lines at the / and have them mix and match the sections.

Put on the recording and first have them listen while mouthing the words.

Finally, have them try to sing along out loud with the recording.

Other songs from Gilbert and Sullivan that work for this type of warm-up include:

I Am the Very Model of the Modern Major General

My Name Is John Wellington Wells
When I Was a Lad
As Someday It May Happen

4. Sing It Like a

For this warm-up, youll want to use a song that youve studied together before. The point of the activity is to sing the
song in different styles of voice.

Heres how you can do it:

Have the students sing the song once together, as they always have done.

Ask them to close their eyes and imagine that theyre on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New
York City, and that the song is part of a major new opera. That is, they have to sing the song like exaggerated
opera sopranos and tenors.

Now take them to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. In this case, theyre going to sing the same song, but with
a rich country-western twang.
For longer songs, change the place and style with each verse or chorus. Other singing styles you can include

A church choir (at a Southern Baptist church)

A bunch of five-year-olds (at a school function)
A heavy metal or hard rock band (at a sports stadium)
A fishmonger or vegetable seller (at a local market)
A tenth-century Gregorian monk (in a massive cathedral)
A group of over-80 senior citizens (in a retirement home)

Words with Movement

5. Rubber Chicken

Even the prop itself is pretty funny. Get your hands on a rubber chicken (or at least a bean bag). Whichever you get,
youll use it for tossing around the group.

Try doing it this way:

Tell your students which set of vocabulary words they must produce for this activity. For example, you could
use clothing, professions or past participles, or even something more specific like foods that begin with the
letter B.

When the students are in a circle, they randomly throw the chicken to one another. The person who catches it
has three seconds (or whatever time limit you set) to produce a word that fits into the vocabulary set.

If they fail, then they must stand in the center of the circle and try to intercept the chicken in order to return to
the outer circle.

If the student intercepts the chicken, he or she must produce a word in order to return to the circle.

Multiple students can find themselves in the center, competing to intercept.

6. Blind Mans Bluff

This is a good warm-up for smaller groups, since only one student will be talking at a time.

Heres how you do it:

Prepare (or, even better, have your students prepare) cards with lists of questions based on recently-studied
topics. Alternately, you can also use random trivia questions. Its easiest if questions have one clear answer,
such as:

Whats the past participle of the verb to drink'?

Whats five times three?
How many eggs make up a dozen?
Whats the capital of Canada?

One student puts on a blindfold and holds a question list, while the others wander freely about the room.

When the blind man touches a wanderer, the blind man removes the blindfold and asks the wanderer a
question from the list.

If the wanderer answers correctly, the blind man puts the blindfold on and tries to catch another wanderer.

If the wanderer does not answer correctly, he or she becomes the next blind man.

If you want to increase the possibilities of students talking, you can also bring multiple blindfolds to make several
blind men.

When you use effective warm-ups and see how they transform your class, Im sure that youll make them a regular
part of your ESL lesson plans.

Schedule at least five minutes at the beginning of each class to use warm-ups. That will help transition your students
from the outside world into the classroom ambiance, and as a bonus itll loosen them up and prepare their vocal

And if you add a bit of lexical content to the warm-up, youll have the added benefit of students who are much more
attentive and ready to take on the objectives youve planned for the days lesson.

Plus, theyre just fun for you and for your students!

Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into Teacher Training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers
insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on
ESL teaching.