37 Engaging ESL Warm Up Activities for Small Classes

By Editorial Staff •  Updated: 12/01/23 •  Teach Online

Starting the lesson off on the right foot is crucial to set a positive and engaging tone for the rest of the class. Warm-up activities not only help students ease into the lesson but also activate their brains and get them ready to learn.

We have compiled a list of 35 fantastic ESL warm-up activities specifically designed for small classes. These activities are simple, fun, and easy to follow, making them perfect for getting your students excited and ready to learn.

How long should a warmer be?

ESL warmers need to be quick and to the point, take up no longer than 8 minutes at the beginning of class with your warmer. Remember, it’s a warmer, not the lesson itself so you need to make the decision how long your ESL warmer will be. Typically 5-7 minutes is ideal.

Do you need to do a warm up?

While a warmer may seem like a waste of time, for ESL students, particularly young learners it’s required in order to put them in a good mood and receptive to learning. Young learners are just that, young. They are not adults and play is still quite important. More so the younger your students are.

ESL warmer round up

So what are some great ideas for warm up before your lesson as an ESL teacher? We have a nice compiled list you can take inspiration from and adapt as needed. Of course you can also come up with your own warmers that are totally unique. Consider contacting us if you have any great ideas you think should be added to the list.

Magic Bag Surprise

Magic Bag Surprise adds an element of mystery to language learning. Fill a bag with various objects or flashcards representing vocabulary items. Let each student reach into the magic bag, pull out an item, and describe it to the class in English. This activity enhances vocabulary recall, descriptive language, and public speaking skills.

Follow the Leader

Follow the Leader is a dynamic language activity that combines movement and vocabulary. Designate a “leader” who performs actions or says words in English. The rest of the students mimicked the Leader’s actions and repeated the words. Rotate the leader role to involve everyone, reinforcing vocabulary and encouraging active participation.

Emotion Charades

Emotion Charades is a fun way for young learners to express and understand different emotions in English. Write various emotions on cards and have students take turns acting out the emotions without speaking. Their classmates then guess the emotion and say it in English. This activity promotes emotional vocabulary and communication skills.

Story Sequencing Cards

Story Sequencing Cards aid in developing narrative skills and logical thinking. Create a set of cards with pictures depicting different scenes from a story. Shuffle the cards and have students work together to arrange them in the correct sequence, narrating the story in English as they go. This activity enhances storytelling, collaboration, and language structure.

Balloon Vocabulary Pop

Balloon Vocabulary Pop injects an element of excitement into vocabulary practice. Write different words on small pieces of paper and insert them into balloons before inflating. Scatter the balloons around the room. When students pop a balloon, they retrieve the word inside and use it in a sentence. This game combines sensory engagement with vocabulary reinforcement.

Colorful Language Hunt

Colorful Language Hunt is a lively activity incorporating language learning and movement. Assign different colors to specific objects or items in the classroom. Call out a color, and students must quickly find an item of that color and say its name in English. This game helps reinforce basic vocabulary and colors while keeping the energy levels high.

Animal Charades

Animal Charades is an entertaining and interactive way to reinforce animal vocabulary. Write the names of various animals on cards and have students take turns acting out the animal without speaking. Their classmates then guess the animal in English. This activity promotes vocabulary recall, creativity, and language expression.

Simon Says

A classic game with a language twist, Simon Says is an excellent way to teach imperative verbs and basic commands. Use simple English commands like “Simon says touch your nose” or “Simon says jump.” Students must follow the commands only when preceded by “Simon says.” This game enhances listening skills and vocabulary related to actions.

Story Cubes

Story Cubes are a fantastic tool for sparking creativity and language development. Use dice with pictures on each side representing different elements (e.g., characters, settings, objects). Students roll the dice and then collaboratively create a story using the depicted elements. This activity encourages imagination, storytelling, and vocabulary use.

Musical Chairs Vocabulary

Put a language twist on the classic game of Musical Chairs. Place flashcards or pieces of paper with English vocabulary scattered around the room. Play music and have students walk around. They must quickly find and stand on a vocabulary item when the music stops. This game reinforces vocabulary recall and adds a fun, active element to learning.

Memory Match

Memory Match is a classic card game that can be adapted for ESL learners. Create pairs of cards with matching English words and images. Place the cards face down, and students flip two cards simultaneously to find matching pairs. This game helps with vocabulary recognition and memory skills.

TPR Freeze

Total Physical Response (TPR) Freeze is a language-learning variation of the traditional freeze dance. Play music and have students dance around the room. When the music stops, call out a word or phrase in English, and students must freeze while demonstrating the corresponding action. This activity combines language learning with physical movement.

Alphabet Hopscotch

Alphabet Hopscotch is a fun way for young learners to practice the alphabet and letter recognition. Draw a hopscotch board on the floor with letters instead of numbers. Call out a word, and students must hop to the letters that spell out the word. This game reinforces letter knowledge and basic spelling.

Picture Bingo

Picture Bingo is a variation of the classic bingo game tailored for young ESL learners. Create bingo cards with pictures of vocabulary items instead of numbers. Call out the words, and students mark the corresponding images on their cards. This game engagingly reinforces vocabulary and listening skills.

Storytime Hot Seat

Storytime Hot Seat puts a spin on traditional storytelling. Select a student to sit in the “hot seat” while the rest of the class asks questions about a fictional or real story. The student in the hot seat responds, fostering conversational skills, comprehension, and critical thinking.

Vocabulary Twister

Adapt the popular Twister game for vocabulary practice. Create a large mat with colored circles labeled with a different vocabulary word. Call out a word, and students must place their hands or feet on the corresponding color. This game combines movement, vocabulary recall, and laughter.

Social Gathering Narration

Social Gathering Narration is an involving pursuit that enables students to showcase inventiveness and refine conversational skills. Each student envisions hosting a dinner gathering, selecting guests from any era. They elucidate the guests and respond to queries from peers, stimulating reflection on social dynamics, cultural disparities, and individual preferences.

Expressive Improv

Expressive Improv is a dynamic activity that heightens conversational skills and nurtures creativity. Partners engage in role-play scenarios, alternating between portraying characters and improvising dialogues. This endeavor instills adaptability, encourages diverse speaking scenarios, and amplifies linguistic fluency.

Vocabulary Hot Potato

Vocabulary Hot Potato is a rapid-fire lexical expansion game prompting students to think swiftly. Pass an object amid participants with accompanying music. When the music ceases, the possessor must swiftly enunciate a word connected to a specific topic. This game stimulates vocabulary recall under time constraints.

Flashcard Fusion

Flashcard Fusion employs versatile teaching aids for diverse warm-up exercises. Craft a deck of flashcards with words or images linked to a specific theme. Display each flashcard to a student, tasking them with devising a sentence or elucidating the image. This activity hones vocabulary, sentence formulation, and spoken fluency.

Anomaly Identification

Anomaly Identification is a cerebral exercise compelling students to discern incongruent items within a specified group. Present a roster of words or visuals linked to a theme, prompting students to pinpoint the odd one based on explicit criteria. This undertaking propels logical reasoning, vocabulary recognition, and categorization skills.

Orthographic Challenge

Orthographic Challenge is a lively and participative drill refining spelling precision. Initiate with a term, with students sequentially contributing one letter each to spell the word accurately. Accurate letters accumulate points, while incorrect ones incur deductions. This game sharpens focus on spelling patterns and phonetic awareness.

Spatial Navigation Odyssey

Spatial Navigation Odyssey is a physical activity that immerses students in movement and spatial cognition. Erect an obstacle course within the classroom, incorporating objects or markers. Blindfold one student at a time, with classmates guiding them through the course using prepositions of movement. This endeavor cultivates teamwork, communication, and comprehension of spatial concepts.

Collaborative Story Foray

Collaborative Story Foray is a creative storytelling endeavor fostering imagination and narrative skills. Furnish students with an initiating sentence or prompt, urging them to construct a brief story or paragraph based on their ideas. Each student sequentially supplements the narrative, engendering a cooperative storyline. This activity refines storytelling prowess, linguistic usage, and oral expression.

Alphabet Sprint

Alphabet Sprint is an uncomplicated game necessitating only a whiteboard and markers. Arrange the class into factions, tasking them with inscribing words on the whiteboard. The competitive element is introduced by having constraints, like writing a word initiated with the last letter of the preceding one. This facilitates ESL learners in honing vocabulary while infusing an enjoyable competitive spirit into the classroom.

Lie and Truth

Lie and Truth Duo is a dynamic introductory game that fosters camaraderie among students. Participants jot down two factual statements and one fictitious claim about themselves. The class engages in a guessing game, utilizing strategic questions to unveil the deception. This activity encourages verbal communication and diversifies students’ lexicons in an entertaining and interactive manner.

Relay of Inquiries

Relay of Inquiries is a brisk warm-up, adaptable to various subjects, injecting vivacity into the learning environment. Select a subject, set a time limit, and initiate the relay by posing a question to one student. They respond promptly and then direct a new question to a peer. The objective is to amass as many questions and answers as possible within the stipulated time, challenging students to surpass their prior records as they traverse different themes.

Word Hunt Challenge

Word Hunt Challenge is a vocabulary-building pursuit that challenges students to fabricate numerous words from a designated term. Display a lengthy word linked to a recent topic and allocate a time boundary. Participants endeavor to formulate as many words as conceivable using the letters from the provided word. This game accommodates continuous play by appending fresh words, with points bestowed for the highest and lengthiest words crafted.

Scrambled Queries

Scrambled Queries is an amusing warm-up testing students’ aptitude to unravel jumbled sentences. Present a lesson-related question on the board, disarraying the words. Learners possess a fixed duration to unscramble the sentence, reinstating it to the correct order. This activity hones language skills and introduces the lesson engagingly and interactively.

Verbal Duel Challenge

The Verbal Duel Challenge is a conversational activity propelling confident speakers to refine their discourse capabilities. Display an array of topics, assigning each a numeral. Students sequentially roll a dice, expounding on the corresponding topic for a specified period, like one or two minutes. This activity stimulates vocabulary expansion and cultivates comfort in public speaking.

Sketch and Guess

Sketch and Guess is a modified version of the classic Pictionary tailored for ESL warm-ups. Compile a list of topic-related words, conceal them in a receptacle, and have a student extract a term, illustrating it within a time constraint. The remaining students endeavor to deduce the drawn concept. Points are apportioned for accurate guesses and expressive illustrations.

Lexical Climbing Challenge

The Lexical Climbing Challenge is an intricate yet riveting activity that enriches students’ vocabulary and improves critical thinking. Commence with a term, tasking students with altering one letter successively to formulate a distinct word. The objective is to reach a predetermined term using the fewest steps. Points accrue based on the number of steps to the target word.

Alphabetical Word Quest

Alphabetical Word Quest is a vocabulary-enhancing endeavor urging students to cogitate rapidly and imaginatively. Nominate a topic and prompt each student to proffer a word tied to that subject, inaugurating with a particular alphabet letter. Progress through the alphabet, each student contributing a word. Competitive play fosters word retrieval velocity.

Unveil the Absence

Unveil the Absence is a visual memory trial evaluating students’ perceptual acumen. Display images portraying items typical of a particular locale, withholding one. Students discern the absent item by articulating its identity or detailing its attributes. This undertaking hones vocabulary and fortifies visual recall capabilities.

Detect the Blunder

Detect the Blunder is a language-focused drill refining spelling, punctuation, and grammatical proficiencies. Inscribe sentences on the board interspersed with various inaccuracies. Students identify and rectify these errors, cultivating attention to detail and heightening awareness of common linguistic missteps.

Imagination Unleashed

Imagination Unleashed is a versatile creative writing initiation that motivates students to unleash their inventive faculties. Present a starting sentence or prompt, prompting students to concoct a brief narrative founded on that stimulus. This activity nurtures imaginative prowess, narrative aptitude, and written articulation.

Preference Dilemma

Preference Dilemma is an enjoyable and contemplative activity that prods students to articulate their inclinations and participate in animated discussions. Participants pose “Would you rather” queries featuring two alternatives with disparate scenarios. Choices are defended, cultivating critical thought, decision-making, and oral expression.

Wrap up of ESL warmers

These are just a few examples of the many engaging ESL warm-up activities you can incorporate into your small class. Remember to choose activities that align with your lesson objectives, cater to your students’ interests, and promote active participation.

By starting your lessons with these fun warm-up activities, you can create an engaging and positive learning environment that sets the stage for a successful class. Good luck!

Editorial Staff

I'm David Unwin and I head the editorial staff here at Teach and GO. I've taught as an ESL teacher in Thailand for 5+ years at all levels of education, from elementary to University. I was also one of the first 1000 VIPKID teachers. I and my team now share my extensive experience as a teacher here at Teach and GO. Learn more.

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