The warm up of a lesson often receives less attention than it should. Teachers spend a lot of time preparing explanations and worksheets to introduce and practice the target language, for example. They then enter the classroom unprepared for the first five or ten minutes. "Let's do something fun" usually constitutes all the planning that goes into this stage of the lesson. Planning then gets done on the way to the classroom, with the teacher pulling a game out of his bag of tricks.
Every teacher with more than one month's experience is guilty, including myself. But a well-planned, effective warm up offers more towards the lesson than just a bit of fun.
Because it's the first activity of the lesson, the warm up sets the tone for the next hour. An activity that students find too difficult, or even confusing, results in a class of disinterested zombies. Similarly, a writing-based activity won't get the students communicating. This then translates into a quiet class session in which you have to prod and push the students to volunteer examples or simple answers.
A fun warm up, on the other hand, raises energy levels. Fun activities also produce relaxed, less inhibited students. With the right warm up, you'll have created a positive atmosphere to practice and experiment with the language.
The lesson's warm up gets students into "English mode." If you teach EFL in China or Japan, the lesson may represent the only chance for students to use the language. In other words, they might not have spoken English since the last session, be that two days, one week, or one month ago. Even if your students encounter and use English every day, it still takes some time to prepare for the intensive ninety minutes of classroom time.
To fully get into "English mode," as I like to call it, a warm up should last about ten minutes. I'm assuming your lessons meet for ninety minutes, so a sixty minute session can shave a few minutes from this figure. Without enough time to get warmed up, though, students will continue to make mistakes during the early stages of the lesson - important time needed to present and drill the new material. Students may be slow to understand, too, again because those wheels aren't turning yet. As a final comment, if the warm up takes too long, say fifteen minutes, then valuable time gets lost from the main focus of the lesson. Students have less time to acquire the new material.
...because it's the first activity of the lesson, the warm up sets the tone for the next hour
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An effective warm up serves as a springboard into the topic or target language of the lesson. If the lesson focuses on how to make hotel reservations, then a few lower-intermediate questions will get everyone thinking about the topic. The warm up activates already held information, in this case about hotels and hotel reservations. There's the chance, too, that students may even inadvertently produce some of the key language, which you can make note of and use to present the target material.
A conversation-based warm up between the students allows you to sit back, observe, and assess everyone's ability. Assessment proves especially important if you see different faces each session. But even a class with regular attendance will catch students on good and bad days. Let's say everyone is a bit tired and unfocused, in which case you'll have to scale back the lesson objective. On the other hand, you may have to expand the scope if everyone uses the target language correctly from the get-go.
You can also assess who will partner well together, and who won't. Strong students may not want to work with weak students, or a middle-aged housewife may feel most comfortable with a woman her age. Although you won't be able to fully determine abilities or personalities for later pair and group work, assessment here will signal any potential problems or conflicts at the very least.
Here are some final comments about warm ups:
Don't correct the students. Assistance is fine, especially if some people have difficulty participating in the activity. But remember: your students still aren't in thinking in English, so they'll make mistakes even with familiar material. If you have ever studied a foreign language, do you remember how far into the conversation you began to feel comfortable? Which point is easier, the first few exchanges in a conversation, or five minutes into it? For more information about correction, read:
- ESL Article: Correction and Feedback: Four Ways to Handle Mistakes
- ESL Article: Correction and Feedback: Mistakes, Errors, and Correction
In addition, correction not only interrupts the flow of the activity, it also generates a teacher-centered lesson. As mentioned, the warm up sets the tone for the next ninety minutes. If you participate in the activity, especially in a small-sized class, it turns the focus towards you, too.
...the lesson's warm up gets students into "English mode"
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To offer an example, in a class of two, you first talk to a student one-on-one for a few minutes, then do the same with the second student. In so doing, you've established yourself as a participant rather than a guide. The students won't be as quick to volunteer information or participate in conversations unless you initiate and run them. This steals valuable talk time from the students, and creates more hesitant speakers inside and outside the classroom. Compare an activity in which you write three questions on the board, and instruct the students to pair up and sustain the conversation for at least five minutes. Always strive for an atmosphere in which the students take responsibility for the language they produce. I often use the following to measure my involvement in the class: If the students are in the middle of an activity when I write info on the board for the next step of the lesson, no one even notices until the activity begins to wind down.
Because the warm up opens the class session, it sets the atmosphere and expectations of the lesson. It also allows you important assessment opportunities, which will later determine the type of activities, who will partner with whom, and the scope of the lesson. Always give equal consideration to the warm up as to other steps of the lesson. The result will be a more focused and positive group of students performing to your expectations.