If I'm going to be honest, I really hate icebreakers. I can still remember at the start of every year when we had to do two truths and a lie... my palms would begin sweating and I dreaded my turn. Keep in mind that I am a native English speaker, and still hated these activities, so how can we make sure to plan "getting to know you activities" with our ELL students in mind? Above all else, our most important job is to create a safe learning environment for our ELL students, and for them to know it is a place they can be themselves, learn, and grow. The problem is, we could be sending the opposite message by choosing "getting to know you" games that when you think about it, could cause many of our second language students to feel very uncomfortable playing.
So instead, I have 5 icebreakers that can be used with non-English students... or all students really for that matter!
1. I have________ do you?
A quick way to set a comfortable environment is to share with your students about yourself! Students sometimes have a hard time realizing their teachers are real people too, and so building connections to them immediately sets a welcoming tone for the year. This first icebreaker can be done by having the students sit in a circle. The teacher would then say I have a dog, do you? Whichever student has a dog would stand up or go to the middle of the circle. The beauty of this is they do not have to use any words, but you are able to gain insight into your student's lives. I would recommend using pictures so that they can more easily understand what you are saying.
2. Introduction Mix Pair Share
I am a huge advocate of lowering the affective filter by mixing and moving around the classroom and allowing class discussions to occur naturally and not in front of the whole class. This icebreaker is perfect for that! To begin, you will need to show your students how to introduce themselves. "Hello! My name is ________. What is your name?" Practice it multiple times and have it written somewhere the students are able to see. Then, when the students are feeling a little more confident, have them walk around the room, mixing, and stopping to introduce themselves to one another. Taking away the spotlight on one person introducing themselves at a time is crucial for students to feel comfortable. Depending on the level of your students, you could then have different students introduce someone else in the class once you are back in the whole group. Remember though the first few weeks are meant to create a welcoming environment, so it is not beneficial to push students and make them feel uncomfortable.
Drawing is an activity that is enjoyable for most students and can also give you a lot of information. You can give your students a blank sheet of paper, or one with an outline of a body and let them draw themselves as well as things they like around the edges. This works best if you create an example about yourself, so the students know what to expect, and they get to learn about you in the process!
4. Yes/No Cards
On a notecard write yes on one side no on the other. Then, as a group, read aloud different statements (with a picture included if possible) and have the students answer by holding up their notecard yes or no. For example "do you like ice cream?" The students would hold up YES or NO. This is a fun way to get to know your students and for students to visually see commonalities and differences amongst each other!
5. Gallery Walk
Have posters up around the room with topics such as language, country, food, sports, music, tv shows... Then have the students walk around and write on the posters their answer. If they are newcomers the way to differentiate for them is to either pre-write the prompt in their native language or if you have a translation app, allow your students to use it as they walk around the room and translate the category. Have the students write in their native language if that's all they are able to or draw pictures.
You could easily do all of these activities spread throughout the first few weeks to make sure the environment you are creating is an environment every student feels accepted and welcomed to learn in.
You can create these activities yourself, but if you want to save time I have it done for you! Click here to get all 5 activities with directions and all the materials needed.