13 Easy ESL Icebreakers to Get Your Students Talking

By Camille Turner
October 19, 2020
Students doing icebreakers in a TEFL class

Whether teaching in a physical classroom or a virtual one, the first day of English class is crucial for setting the tone for the whole term, so it’s important to start with a bang. ESL icebreakers are a great way to accomplish this, as they get students moving, build confidence, and set the tone for class. However, icebreakers aren’t just for day one! Throughout the term, English students might be coming to class tired after a long day or groggy and sleepy-eyed, so you want to get them engaged and energetic, and it might take a little creative ice-breaking to do that! There are tons of ESL icebreakers out there, and we’ll share details on how to effectively use the following 13 in your physical or online classroom.

  1. Would You Rather…?
  2. Two Truths and a Lie
  3. Positive, Negative, Crazy
  4. Finish the Story
  5. The Hot Seat
  6. Open-Ended Questions
  7. One Beep
  8. Interview and Introduce
  9. Balderdash
  10. Find Someone Who
  11. Show and Tell
  12. Online Scavenger Hunt
  13. Roll the Dice Speaking Activity

What are ESL icebreakers and why should I use them in class?

First, let’s talk about how ESL icebreakers are beneficial in many classroom situations.

  • Teachers often use them on the first day of class to get students comfortable with one another and to establish a relationship between them and the students.
  • ESL icebreakers are also a way to build confidence and trust and allow students to see the classroom as a safe space for practicing English, asking questions, and even making mistakes.
  • Icebreakers are a lot of fun and can also be used to give students a break from more structured class activities, whether teaching young learners & teens or adult students.
  • They can be implemented at the beginning of class or anytime during the lesson to boost energy levels and recapture students’ attention.
  • If you find you have a few extra minutes, icebreakers can also make a good, productive way to fill the time.

What makes a good ESL icebreaker?

It’s fun!


A good ESL icebreaker is, first and foremost, fun, meaning that it should appeal to your students. One of the main ideas behind icebreakers is to get students out of their shells and make them more comfortable with speaking in class, so you’ll need to use an icebreaker that interests them.

It’s level-appropriate


Make sure that the icebreaker you choose is level-appropriate and that while pushing students to share more, you don’t go overboard and make them uncomfortable by asking them to share too much or things that are too personal.

The rules are simple


Additionally, ESL icebreakers that only have a few rules are typically easier to explain to English learners and ensure that you spend less time going over instructions and more time actually conducting the activity.

It’s easy to prepare


Finally, a really good icebreaker doesn’t require too much preparation and additional materials but rather focuses on oral participation and fun.

No time for prep? Need to fill time? Check out our Last Minute Lifesaver activities.

What are the best ESL icebreakers?

Each of the following icebreakers requires little to no preparation, is easy to explain, and can be adapted to all levels and ages. These activities promote student talk time and encourage students to become more comfortable with speaking up in class.

A teacher playing ESL icebreaker games from the Bridge Teaching English to Teenagers TEFL/TESOL course


10 Activities for the physical classroom (with adaptations for teaching online)


1. Would You Rather…?


In this game, students think about two scenarios and choose the one they would rather do. The “Would you rather…?” questions (a variety of which can be found online), can range from goofy to serious, such as:

  • Would you rather be poor and happy or rich and unhappy?
  • Would you rather have a missing finger or an extra toe?
  • Would you rather find your soulmate or find a billion dollars (and never find your soulmate)?
  • Would you rather eat your favorite meal for every meal for the rest of your life or never be able to eat your favorite meal again?
  • Would you rather speak all languages fluently or be able to speak to animals
  • Would you rather lose your wallet or lose your keys?

You can play this as a whole class or put students in groups and give them a stack of cards with questions and they take turns asking each other the questions. Either way, following up by asking “Why or why not?” can lead to some fun discussions.

  • How to adapt this activity to the virtual classroom: You can simply ask your student(s) the questions or you can have your own stack of cards in front of you and draw a card for each student, reading it aloud to the class. Alternatively, you can have student(s) write down their own questions before class and come prepared to ask you or their classmates.

2. Two Truths and a Lie


This can be a good ESL icebreaker for the very first class or as a warm-up later on.

One student thinks of three statements about herself that she will share with the class. Two are true and one is a lie. For example, the student may say something like, “I have five dogs, I’ve lived in three countries, and I’m a ballet dancer.” Then, the other students must guess which statement is a lie and if they can, explain why they think so. At the end, the student will reveal whether the others guessed correctly or incorrectly.

If used on the first day, the teacher can start by demonstrating the game as a good getting-to-know-the-teacher activity!

  • How to adapt this activity to the virtual classroom: Teachers can easily play this game in a virtual setting by having everyone take turns making statements. Students can either raise their hand when they want to guess which statement is the lie or they can type their guess into the chat box.

3. Positive, Negative, Crazy


Write a discussion topic on the board (for example, food, pets, social media, or dating) and then start passing a ball or “hot potato” from student to student. As students pass the hot potato around, they must stop when they hear you say the words positive, negative or crazy.

When you say, “positive,” the student holding the potato must stop and make a positive statement about the topic. For example, If the topic is food, their statement might be “My favorite restaurant is Ichiban Sushi.”

If you say, “negative,” they must make a negative statement about the topic, e.g. “I’ve never eaten Chinese food!”

And, if you say, “crazy,” the sentence they create can be anything they like, such as “One time I ate a whole pizza myself!”

  • How to adapt this activity to the virtual classroom: Instead of passing around a ball, you can assign each student a number and then roll dice (either physical or virtual) to see who has to make the next statement. I.e., if the dice lands on six, then the student assigned to the number six has to make the positive, negative, or crazy statement.

Rachel, teaching English online

4. Continue the Story


In this creative game, first think of several half-sentences and write each one on the top of its own piece of paper. The half-sentences should be written so that students can easily finish them to start a story, such as:

  • As soon as I woke up…
  • Ana was walking to school when suddenly…
  • The teacher came into class with a…

Alternatively, put these examples on the board and then have students each think of a half-sentence and write it on a piece of paper. Then, collect the papers and mix them up.

Students will then work in groups (or you can do this as a whole class). A group is given a paper with a half-sentence at the top and the first person in the group must read the half-sentence out loud, then finish it with whatever they like to continue the story (they will write it down and say it aloud). Next, the student passes the paper to his or her right and writes another sentence to continue the story.

When everyone has had a chance to contribute to the story, a representative of each group can read the completed story to the class. Not only can the stories be very funny, but this icebreaker gets students used to being more spontaneous with English.

  • How to adapt this activity to the virtual classroom: Skip the paper and, instead, simply verbally tell the student(s) the half-sentence they’ll be working with. Alternatively, have students prepare a half-sentence before class and then assign the prompts to one another. You could also have them email the sentences to you prior to class, and you could assign them to the other students in class.

5. The Hot Seat


This ESL icebreaker is a fun vocabulary guessing game.

Put a chair at the front of the room with its back facing the board; this is the Hot Seat and a student volunteer must sit here. Then, write a word on the board (for beginners, tell them the category or theme of words, such as jobs or food – ideally vocabulary they are already studying). Then, the other students try to prompt the hot-seater into guessing what the word is by describing it without saying the actual word (fun with famous people too!).

For example, if you’ve told your beginner class the category is fruit and the word on the board is pineapple, the students can say things like:

  • It’s a big fruit.
  • It grows in tropical places.
  • It’s yellow inside.
  • It has spines.

With guessing games like this one, students are really enthusiastic about trying to get their peers to guess correctly and win the game. The desire to guess takes over, and formerly reserved students forget that they were ever afraid to speak up in English.

  • How to adapt this activity to the virtual classroom: Choose a student to be the guesser (in the “virtual” Hot Seat). Then, have them close their eyes as you hold a whiteboard up to the camera with the word written on it. Once the other students have seen the word, hide the whiteboard and have students take turns describing the word to the student who is guessing. Alternatively, if your online software allows it, you could type the word in and send it via chatbox to the students who aren’t guessing.

6. Open-Ended Questions


Have students each write down an open-ended question on a piece of paper. The questions could be something like “What is your favorite holiday?” or “What kind of movies do you like?”

Students then either fold their papers or crumple them up into balls and drop them in a box as you pass it around. Then, go around the room and have students take turns drawing a paper from the box and answering the question. (Just be sure that students answer questions from their classmates, returning their own papers if they accidentally draw them.)

Ask follow-up questions if time allows.

You can easily tweak this activity for smaller classrooms with fewer students by having them each write three questions that have to be answered. You can also impose a speaking time limit, so students know how long they need to talk.

  • How to adapt this activity to the virtual classroom: Have students come to class prepared with one or two open-ended questions. They can take turns asking their questions to their classmates, or you could ask the students to submit their questions to you ahead of class and you can ask the questions yourself.

BFITS Thailand teacher with class

An English teacher with BFITS, Thailand


7. One Beep


This is a very simple ESL icebreaker that works well for any age and is a great way to practice English numbers.

Traditionally, students alternate between saying a number and the word “beep” as they go around the room counting. For example, the first student would say, “one,” the second would say, “beep,” the third would say, “three,” the fourth would say, “beep,” and so on.

However, you can make this game as complex as you want, such as choosing to insert “beep” for odd or even numbers, on numbers divisible by three, etc. You could also bring it to the next level by creating other sounds or words they have to say for certain numbers. For example, every number divisible by three must be replaced by “beep,” and every odd number must be replaced by “boop.” For numbers that fall into both categories, you must say both (“beep boop”).

Be creative and establish the rules based on your students’ level.

  • How to adapt this activity to the virtual classroom: If playing in the virtual classroom, this game is probably best played with just one student since it’s supposed to be a fast-paced game and it might lag online if there are multiple students. The teacher and student can take turns saying the numbers and sounds with one another.

Need another creative TEFL activity? Use Emojis to Teach English.

8. Interview and Introduce


This is an easy ESL icebreaker to incorporate on the first day of class (or later on if you feel students could get to know one another better). A benefit of this activity is that it removes the pressure of students introducing themselves at the start of class, which can sometimes cause stress for new students.

Simply break students into pairs and have them interview one another. To help students get started, give them a list of things to find out about their partner, such as where they’re from, how many siblings they have, or what their summer plans are for the upcoming year. Then, they will introduce their partners to the rest of the class.

  • How to adapt this activity to the virtual classroom: Instead of breaking students up into groups, take turns interviewing students yourself. If your classroom platform supports a public discussion forum, you can also assign students a partner and have them complete the interview for homework by using the forum or simply emailing one another the interview questions.

9. Balderdash


This ESL activity, based on the game of the same name, works well for older and more advanced students.

Introduce a strange word that you’re sure they’ve never heard before (ask them to be sure that no one knows it, and make sure nobody looks it up!). Have each student write down a definition that they believe fits the word.

Collect all of the definitions and insert your own—the correct one—into the mix. Read off the definitions and have students vote on which they believe to be the correct one. Give points for students who guess correctly.

For teaching young learners, you could use this same idea to teach new, level-appropriate vocabulary or even to review past words that you’ve taught them.

  • How to adapt this activity to the virtual classroom: Have students submit their definitions privately to you via chatbox (i.e., don’t let the other students see who sent which definition). Then, read the definitions (adding in yours) randomly. Have students vote on the one they think is correct.

10. Find Someone Who


This activity gets students up and moving around and asking their classmates questions.

Create a list of traits, such as someone who has a birthday in July, someone who owns a cat, someone who has traveled abroad, etc. Then, have the students mingle with one another to find someone who fits each category. They can write down the names of their classmates next to each one to keep track of who fits which trait.

If you add the rule that they can only use someone’s name for one category/trait, it will ensure that they get to speak with each of their classmates instead of simply talking to the one person who meets all the requirements.

  • How to adapt this activity to the virtual classroom: Assign the task as homework and have students use a public discussion forum to ask each other questions and find out which of their classmates fits each trait. They can share their findings in class.

Learn how to engage your older ESL students more by taking Bridge’s new Micro-credential course: Games and Activities for the Online Classroom (Adults).

“Describe a Toy” online activity from the Bridge Micro-credential course: Games and Activities for Teaching Young Learners


Bonus: 3 ESL icebreakers that are especially good for the virtual classroom

11. Show and Tell


Ask your student(s) to bring a meaningful object to class and share the story behind it with you and/or their classmates. If your student is a beginner, you can have them describe their object instead. E.g., “It is purple. It is big.” If you only have one student, consider asking them to bring in two or three objects total.

To get students comfortable with speaking and sharing, demonstrate the activity with an object of your own first. 

12. Online Scavenger Hunt


This activity gets students up and moving, which is sometimes hard to achieve in an online classroom!

Provide students with a short list (3-5 items) of types of objects they need to find. E.g., something purple, something cold, something that starts with the letter B, something that makes you happy, something that was a gift, etc. You can either share the list with them via chatbox, use a virtual whiteboard to write the list, or verbally tell the students what type of objects to find. 

You can then see who can collect the objects from around their house the fastest. Have students take turns sharing what items they found. If you’re teaching just one student, set a timer for five minutes (or whatever time you choose) and see if they can collect all of the required items before time runs out.

This activity is well suited to younger students and helps energize everyone at the start of class (or awaken everyone if the class starts to get a bit sleepy).

13. Roll the Dice Speaking Activity


This is a great icebreaker activity, but it can also be used to practice pronunciation or review a group of vocabulary words. 

Before class, you’ll need to create a special dice for this icebreaker. You can repurpose a large plush dice from a craft store, use a small, square-shaped cardboard box, or get creative here. Print off images that represent a certain action you want students to take, such as saying a word three times, saying it fast, saying it slowly, saying it loudly, whispering it, saying it in a low voice, saying it angrily, etc. For example, a picture of an angry emoji could represent saying the word in an angry voice.

Cut the images out and glue or tape them to each side of your cube. You now have your dice!

In class, have your student(s) say a word or set of words that you choose. Roll the dice and direct them to follow the instructions shown. This is a fun and silly way to get students out of their shells while helping them practice their English-speaking skills.

ESL icebreakers: An all-around win for the TEFL classroom

ESL icebreakers are a great way to boost students’ energy, get them excited about the class, and build an atmosphere that makes them feel comfortable. Many icebreakers are also adaptable and can be used in both physical and online classes. While there are tons of icebreakers out there, the best ones are fun and engaging, promote speaking in English, and foster confidence.

Get more fun and engaging TEFL/TESOL games for the online classroom in Bridge’s new Micro-credentials suite: Teaching English Online Games and Activities