When I first learnt French at school, aged about 9 or 10, the teacher insisted on giving us all French names. I was annoyed because mine was Renee (not Rachel). Who was this Renee, and what did she have to do with me? I think the idea came from the method of Suggestopaedia, and was intended to give us new French identities in which we would not feel awkward about speaking French. Can’t say it worked!
However, there is some truth in the idea that many students find it difficult to take the risk of expressing themselves in a foreign language. They can feel shy, or embarrassed. For this reason, activities at the start of a new course, often called ice breakers, are much more than just a way to have some fun and create a nice atmosphere. They can really help you to promote a level of trust and openness in the class which will encourage students to take more risks with language and with what they are willing to contribute.
Getting to know the teacher
Showing a willingness to reveal something of yourself will often encourage students to feel more at ease with you, and to be more open themselves.
A simple activity is to tell the students you are going to tell them some facts about yourself..but one of the facts will be false. They then have to discuss together which fact is false, and say why. After you have heard their guesses, you can tell them the truth. They can then repeat the activity in pairs or small groups.
Alternatively you could show students three personal items you carry about with you, and ask them to make guesses about you, based on these items. Again, the activity can then be repeated by the students. Another version is to ask the students to guess what items you carry in your bag (probably works better for handbags). This will encourage them to speculate on what kind of person you are, if you have a family and so on. Then you show them the contents of your handbag and explain why you are carrying these old tickets, or where you first bought this perfume etc. I love this version, because handbags are so personal that students are quite excited at the thought of getting to see what’s in there (though I have to say I do look first to make sure there’s nothing embarrassing!).
Getting to know each other
For this kind of ice breaker, you can have activities where students mingle and walk about, which can be great for getting up energy and breaking the awkward silence at the beginning, or, if your students are in fixed seats, there are plenty of activities for pairs and small groups.
Probably the most famous mingle activity is ‘Find someone who’, which dates back to at least 1983 (Frederike Klippel, Keep Talking). Students have a list of sentences such as ‘Find someone who has six cats’ and they have to mingle around asking questions until they find the right person for each statement. These can be pre-prepared by the teacher if s/he knows enough about the students, or the questions can be more random. Another way of doing this is to get the students to write the sentences, using ‘I’d like to find someone who…’. In this way they can search for people with common interests. When the activity is finished, students can feed back to the whole class, saying who they met and what they learnt about them.
Another classic activity, which I think originates from Gertrude Moskowitch’s Caring and Sharing in the Language Classroom, is Identity Cards. Students write on a large sticker their basic information ( such as their name) and also some other information about themselves, for example, three words to describe themselves, or something they do well. They then mingle and read and discuss each other’s identity cards.
Or you could try activities where students go to different corners of the room, depending on their answers to a question. For example, ‘Are you a morning person or an evening person?’ The students go right or left and then briefly discuss with the people next to them the reasons for their choice. Another version gets students to stand on a cline. This can work well with adjectives- e.g. how confident are you? (far left very confident, and far right very unconfident). You could then get them to do it again and stand where they would like to be.
If you want or need students to remain seated, a very simple activity is to ask them to find three things they have in common with their neighbour that they can’t tell just by looking (and/or three things which are different).
Or, if you have more time, or want to go into more depth, you could ask students to write down a number of questions that they would like to be asked about their life and interests. They then swap the questions with a neighbour and carry out an interview with each other. This has the great advantage that students can avoid touchy subjects and that they will probably talk at some length about what they do want to talk about.
Giving students some time to prepare before discussion usually pays off. A useful technique is to get them to draw a pie chart about themselves. This could represent how much of their day they spend on different activities, or what things they are interested in, with bigger slices of pie for those that interest them the most. They then show each other the charts and explain and answer questions.
Or you could ask students to draw a simple map of their life, with symbols along the way to represent milestones. This will work better if you do it yourself first, and, of course, has the advantage of introducing you to them as well.
The possibilities are endless, and, of course, you don’t have to do these activities at the beginning of a new year. They can work any time as a way of deepening the interaction between you and the students and between the students themselves.