Activities at the start of a lesson deserve more attention than they usually receive. In fact, the initial activities that start the class are very important for the following reasons:
1: Warm Ups set the tone of the lesson. For example, an activity that students find too difficult and/or confusing can prove discouraging. Compare a fun activity in which students stand up, mingle, and work in pairs; these sorts of activities will raise energy levels. Of course, it will be important to maximize student talk time with effective pair and group work.
2: Warm Ups get students to think in and focus on English. It may have been a few days, a week, or even longer since English was last used. A little time with the right warm up will improve productive and receptive skills elsewhere in the lesson.
3: Warm Ups can provide a transition into the topic. An activity at the start of the lesson activates pre-existing knowledge on a topic or grammar point. It may even get students to use (or consider) some of the ideas, vocabulary, or grammar important to the lesson.
4: Warm Ups allow the teacher important opportunities to assess ability and character. In a new class in which the teacher doesn't know the strengths and weaknesses of the students, the teacher can determine who might work well together and who not so well.
However, even if the teacher knows the students well, there will be good days in which students are focused and motivated. Conversely, there will also be bad days in which students are distracted and/or tired. The teacher can gain an idea of what sort of day lies ahead through the warm up activity, and then adjust the lesson plan.
If you would like to learn more about the need for effective warm ups, you can read:
Let's move on, though, to ten activities that will help get your students focused, thinking in English, and perhaps using some of the target language.
Idea #1: The teacher writes two or three questions on the board, preferably related to the topic/theme of the lesson. However, the teacher can also include target language from previous lessons as an opportunity for review.
The teacher next reads aloud the questions, and also checks comprehension for challenging vocabulary or concepts. Students find a partner and discuss the questions for the length of the warm up.
It's important that all students continue speaking until the end of the activity, so everyone will need to ask follow-up questions to generate real, meaningful conversations. A good technique to teach in previous lessons is answer, add, and ask; students answer a question, add information, and ask a related question in return. It's a simple communication strategy, but it works well to get students to participate in the conversation.
Idea #2: Prediction has the students guess what's ahead in the lesson. For example, if the lesson were to use a news article, the teacher first writes the headline from the article on the board; or, as another example, the teacher gives a four-to-five sentence story which uses the target language; or, as a last example, the teacher gives several questions to discuss. He/She then asks: "What do you think today's lesson is about?" Students then talk in pairs for several minutes, making sure to always support their reasons.
The activity allows students to meaningfully interact with a partner. Moreover, students also activate pre-existing knowledge on the topic and target language.
Idea #3: There are many websites with previews and trailers of upcoming movies, and this activity incorporates this content. Note, though, that older previews also work well to get students speaking.
In advance of the lesson as homework, students select a movie trailer in English. There shouldn't be subtitles, nor should it be dubbed into the students' first language. Then, in the lesson, students first explain why they chose the movie, show the movie on their phone or tablet, and ask two questions to their partner:
Question #1: What do you think this movie is about?
Question #2: Would you want to see this movie? Why/not?
Students focus on listening skills while watching the movie preview, but then use a wide range of grammar, vocabulary, and communication skills as part of the discussion. Expect a ten- or fifteen- minute warm up.
...activities at the start of a lesson deserve more attention than they usually receive
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Idea #4: In another activity which requires all students to have a smart phone or tablet, students take a poll created by the teacher. The poll consists of a single question with two or three choices. For example:
Question: Which is a better vacation spot?
Choice A: I think Thailand is a better destination.
Choice B: I think Canada is a better place to visit.
Students access the URL provided by the teacher, answer the question, and immediately see the results. In pairs, students then discuss the results of the class. Possible discussion questions based on the above example include:
Question #1: Are you surprised by the result? Why?
Question #2: Why do you think more people answered question A or B?
More interesting and controversial questions can be asked, with individual answers anonymously provided. And of course, this activity works best in larger classes.
You can make polls with at a free site called Poll Maker.
Idea #5: The teacher selects several pictures before the class starts, preferably ones with a lot of action and/or with something unusual happening. The teacher should consider the topic of the lesson too, as students can generate ideas or vocabulary for use elsewhere in the lesson.
Students get into pairs/groups, depending on the size of the class and how well students work together. The teacher distributes one picture to each pair/group, or posts the pictures on the board. Students then describe the picture(s), answering wh-questions as prompts. For example:
Question #1: Who is in the picture?
Question #2: Where are they?
Question #3: What are the people doing?
Several pictures allow students to have several discussions. If one picture has been distributed to each group, pictures can rotate after three minutes.
Idea #6: In this warm-up activity, the teacher again selects several pictures before the class begins. Students also get into pairs/groups to talk about the pictures, which will maximize student talk time during the initial stages of the lesson. The more students interact with one another, the readier they will be for the target language and/or skills.
With the pictures, which will be distributed or posted on the board, students speculate a conversation for the people in the picture. Students don't need to write a dialogue, but they should imagine what is being said. After a few minutes, students repeat the activity with another picture.
Idea #7: For this activity, students get into small groups to play charades. The teacher writes actions on slips of paper before the start of the class, with each student receiving one slip of paper. The students must act out the action on the paper without speaking, and their group must guess the answer. The teacher can focus on just vocabulary, so students will answer: "play soccer" or "eat" or "watch TV." The teacher can also plug the verb into a sentence, such as "You played soccer last weekend, didn't you?"
Idea #8: Students get into pairs/groups. The teacher writes a topic on the board, and students brainstorm associated vocabulary for the topic. Each pair/group should write the words in a notebook.
This activity focuses students on the lesson topic. Equally important, it requires students to brainstorm words related to the lesson topic, which allows the teacher to gloss over any already known words and instead be better able to introduce unknown material. In addition, if the teacher opts for students to write the words on the board, then the language can be used by everyone elsewhere in the lesson.
Idea #9: The teacher writes two questions on the board. Students stand up and find a partner to ask/answer each question. After both questions have been covered by both students, which may mean about three to five minutes depending on the level of the students and difficulty of the questions, students find a new partner. They then repeat the process. Because students talk to several people several times on the same topic, answers will show improved accuracy and fluency.
Idea #10: The teacher writes five questions on the board, all of which are closed questions. Students stand up, find a partner, and ask/answer one question. They want to find someone who will answer "yes" to the question. A "yes" means they can check off that question, and then ask another question from the board to another partner. A "no" means they must find a new partner and ask the same question again.
Note that this activity gets quite chaotic and competitive, especially in large classes, as students race to find "yes" answers to the questions.