23 Really! Practical ESL Classroom or Online Teaching Icebreakers

Updated:  October 21st, 2021

If you are teaching an ESL language class…..in the classroom or online …it pays to have a good set of icebreakers ready to go ! Just having something ready to go can make all the difference when you walk into a classroom ( sometimes I’m really blank…and it’s actually me that needs the icebreaker!). Or online, having an engaging, accessible way into a topic is essential.

1 Making decisions

If you are teaching language for deciding and choosing, this is a nice way to start.

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2 Gerund brainstorm

This is a good way to get into a discussion about gerunds.

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3  Icebreaker: brainstorming meanings/examples/situations

Another good icebreaker technique is to brainstorm aspects (good, bad etc.) of a particular topic. My topic here  is “taking risks”. So I tried to brainstorm many  kinds of risks. This is a  good icebreaker for adjectives and/or vocabulary associated with safety and danger. (see page 2 for example answers) This exercise can be adapted for any level and could be used 2 or 3 times  a term before it comes boring (I think!?).

Brainstorming different kinds of risks worksheet

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4  Job and career icebreaker/brainstorm

This brainstorm exercise can also be done as  preparation  for a job interview speaking activity.

Icebreaker brainstorming job and career vocabulary

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5  Humor icebreaker

There probably couldn’t be a much easier way to start a class than brainstorming things that make you laugh!

Humor icebreaker for talking about things that make you laugh.

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6   Are you honest?

An almost failproof icebreaker is the survey. Surveys that relate to students’ personal  lives easily engage their attention. It works as a comprehension and short discussion exercise. It’s a great way to introduce topics that relate to honesty.

Easy honesty survey for students.

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7  Ranking icebreaker: 

What would you do if you won one million dollars?”

Ranking icebreakers are a surefire way to engage students. They can be used for a whole range of topics. One good topic is  money and spending preferences.

Ranking icebreaker for an ESL class.

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8  Ranking icebreaker: 


Another  good  ranking topic is ways to be successful.

Ranking ways to be successful exercise for ESL students.

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9  First impressions icebreaker (for adjectives or past tense)

This is a fun icebreaker than can be applied to certain topics: describing people, branding (business), the past tense adjectives etc.

First impressions icebreaker for the ESL classroom.

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10  Brainstorming advertising likes/dislikes

This doesn’t look like much but it’s cool! Students’ these days have strong opinions about online advertising and will come up with lots of examples (see the second page of PDF for a sample of student answers).

Classroom or online icebreaker/brainstorm for advertising likes/dislikes.

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11  Social responsibilities icebreaker (and a student’s answers)

This is a good icebreaker for more advanced students studying social issues. The example shows how it challenges their knowledge of vocabulary.

Brainstorming social responsibilities exercise for students.

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12 First day icebreaker: personal information

“Getting to Know You” is a pretty obvious idea. It’s a personal information exercise and allows the teacher to assess the student’s abilities. The only trouble I’ve had with this exercise is matching the questions to the student’s level of ability. The questions below seem to me to be suitably generic and have worked flawlessly in any elementary class I’ve taught so far (Thai students, Chinese students).

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Getting to know you icebreaker or first day activity for elementary ESL classes.

13 Brainstorming verbs and basic collocations: icebreaker for present simple and routines

This is another exercise that can be used with a variety of present simple exercises. I can be used to elicit language for making present simple questions or talking about routines. It helps to give the teacher a idea of the range of the students’ vocabulary. And it’s a useful way to get some vocabulary on the board for question writing activities.

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Elementary brainstorming icebreaker using verbs worksheet

14 What do you do on Mondays ?: icebreaker for parts of the day/days of the week

This exercise is another great exercise for really elementary students that doesn’t demand too much of them. It’s a good way to get into teaching the days of the week and prepositions.

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Elementary exercise for teaching days of the week

15 Everyday brainstorm: icebreaker daily activities and routines

This brainstorm activity explores vocabulary associated with routines and time. I walk around the class asking students “What do you do everyday in the morning?” , “What do you do once a week?” etc. It’s a nice, friendly way to start a class.

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Brainstorming icebreaker for every day routines or daily activities

16 Circle of frequency: icebreaker for adverbs of frequency

Following on from the previous exercise, this icebreaker can be used used to introduce and familiarize students with verbs adverbs of frequency. You might ask students questions like “What do you sometimes eat at a department store?” or “What do you often do on weekends?”.

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Elementary ESL exercise for practicing using frequency adverbs in short conversations.

17 Pictures icebreaker: icebreaker for present continuous, routines and daily activities

For me, activities using pictures are perhaps the most consistently successful of anything I do in the classroom. They can be used in so many ways. They force students to think and use their imaginations. And they are open to interpretation which can often lead to unexpected discoveries about meaning or culture or individual differences.

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Elementary English as a second language teaching exercise for daily routines and activities.

18 Shopping brainstorm word map: icebreaker for talking about shopping

Shopping is a pretty fundamental topic in elementary textbooks. And it’s pretty easy to get students engaged and bring out some vocabulary with the exercise below.

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Brainstorming fashion and shopping vocabulary icebreaker for elementary ESL classes.

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19 Types of food: sorting icebreaker for introducing the topic of food

Sorting icebreakers work well for many topics. This is the  most elementary and popular icebreaker for introducing the topic of food.

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Elementary food sorting vocabulary and icebreaker exercise

20 House and furniture: icebreaker for discussing where you live/your house

Some icebreakers are so simple you might feel a fool for not having thought of them before. I certainly have. Brainstorming things…furniture …items…adjectives ..etc that might be used for parts of the house. What a no-brainer! But I didn’t think of it for 30 years of teaching. Icebreakers like this are great for setting up question writing exercises. Once the board is full of vocabulary, you can give a couple example questions, “What kind of furniture do you have in your living room?/ Do you have a big bed?/ Do you have a microwave in your kitchen etc…..” and ask students to create their own questions around the vocabulary.

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A house and furniture vocabulary icebreaker

21 Kinds of jobs brainstorm and icebreaker

Another really straightforward and easy brainstorm is a jobs brainstorm. This works with pretty much any level as even the most elementary students can name jobs. A really, really easy way to start a class.

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22 Colors and their meanings

Brainstorming about colors is an easy icebreakerl. You could almost use this icebreaker anytime but perhaps it could be good for introducing adjectives or for topics like fashion and advertising.

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Brainstorming the meanings of colors classroom icebreaker.

23 Brainstorming places around town

Another useful and east brainstorming and icebreaking activity is brainstorming places around town. Like “Colors” this exercise is painless and usually fun and often leads you down some interesting paths.

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Brainstorming places around town for English language learners.

24 Brainstorming for tourism, travel and culture

This one is interesting and fun.

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