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5 Virtual Icebreakers

April 13, 2020

As we have all learned over recent weeks, digital platforms and video conference rooms are tremendous resources for teachers and students who are separated by distance. If you are like me, you have also discovered how different, and even strange, teaching and learning can be in a virtual classroom. Inevitably, there are bumps along the way. Students might hesitate to speak up, wondering if their microphones work—or leave their microphones accidentally on mute. There may be feedback that makes it difficult to hear someone speak. A teacher might wonder about the overall level of class engagement as some students master the technology more quickly than others. And the list goes on...

In my virtual classes, I've taken three steps to create an environment that works:

  1. Offer simple tips around the use of video, the mute button, any chat functions, etc.
  2. Practice these tips myself and be willing to pause the class to help students with technical difficulties. I have my own technical difficulties too, which are great teaching moments—and may provide humor.
  3. Use virtual icebreakers.

Of these steps, I've found that the third is the most valuable. While the first two steps increase the technical comfort of students, virtual icebreakers are key to increasing their social comfort, which is essential for virtual settings. Furthermore, studies have shown that if participants don't speak in the first five minutes of a meeting, they probably won't speak in the meeting at all. (Here's an interesting article from Business Insider that explains the importance of early engagement.) 

In an online ESL classroom, virtual icebreakers allow students to warm up to the technology as well as to greet each other and socialize. It also allows late-coming students to enter without missing out on the main lesson. And, in an ESL classroom, virtual icebreakers can also have an instructional component. Below are a few of my favorites.

1. COVID Names

This icebreaker is especailly valuable for sharing feelings during this difficult time. (To help your students with vocabulary, have them check out our previous post Expressing Feelings During the Coronavirus Outbreak.) This icebreaker also practices food words.

To make a COVID name, tell students to choose an adjective that describes how they're feeling and combine it with the last thing that they ate: Hopeful Soup, Unhappy Strawberries, Bored Ham and Cheese, Anxious Oatmeal, etc. Offer your own COVID name first.

In my classes, this has prompted laughter, but also honest sharing. For advanced classes, this icebreaker can be more challenging if students try not to repeat adjectives that have already been used, but rather use synonyms.

2. Questions & Answers

This icebreaker is straightforward: Ask the class a non-sensitive personal question, such as "What color is your kitchen?" During COVID-19, I find that students engage with questions that evoke more relaxed times, such as "What was your best vacation?" or "What is your favorite meal to share with friends?"

As a more challenging instructional follow-up for more advanced classes, give students an answer and have them form questions, Jeopardy-style (e.g., "Midnight." / "What time did you go to bed last night?").

3. Trivia

This icebreaker works best if your virtual meeting platform has a chat function that accompanies audio. A function that allows virtual hand-raising also works. Ask students a trivia question and have them offer answers by chat or by raising their hands.

To increase instructional value, use trivia from previous lessons or students' location. For example: "Which Canadian city has hosted the Summer Olympics?" (Montreal) or "Which US state contains the Grand Canyon?" (Arizona)

If you wish, you can make it a contest and award points for correct answers. From an ice-breaking standpoint, though, remember the goal is to increase social interaction and comfort.

4. Thumbs-Up or Thumbs-Down?

For this icebreaker, students should choose a view that allows the entire class to be seen at once. They can also use a voting function if one is available in the virtual tool. Students take turns stating something they like/dislike or something they've done. For example, "I like shrimp." or "I've visited Washington, DC." Classmates indicate their similarity or difference with the person by showing a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down (or by using the voting function).

To personalize the activity even more, challenge students to offer an activity or accomplishment that they think is rare or unique about themselves, and see if anyone shares it. For example, "I cleaned out my refrigerator last night." or "I was born on February 29."

5. Sharing

This is my favorite icebreaker, especially for small classes, but it is really nothing more than having a conversation. Too often in this time of social distancing, we do not have opportunities for casual conversation.

Ask students about their families or what they have recently done. Share the same about yourself. Talk about what you miss during this time of social distancing or what you are looking forward to doing again when the situation passes. Share that you are glad to be in class today and express your appreciation for students' participation. Compare notes about the best methods for buying groceries. Joke about wearing your pajamas.

There are countless ways to adapt these ideas. If you have a suggestion or have had success with a different icebreaker, please add it to Comments below—and, remember, we're all in this together.  

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Comments (10)

Jeffrey Moore(Guest)

I greatly appreciated the article's comment that if students "don't speak in the first five minutes of a meeting, they probably won't". It is something I think ESL teachers know intuitively, but in our current crisis, it is a good overt reminder of the need to get students engaged early once class has begun.
Student participation is sometimes a struggle in the best of times. Each student brings into class the circumstances of their lives. Speaking from my own experience, when I am in "student role", it is easy to ruminate on some distraction or other rather than focusing on the lesson at hand. I get distracted easily at times. Given the current situation, I think it can be especially difficult to focus for students because a) the remoteness adds a different type of distraction, and b) the mode of communication, the computer/iphone, is frequently a go-to when people are distracted.
I must admit that there have been times lately when I have been too preoccupied with administrative tasks at the beginning of the lesson. With our current mode of communication, this article was a good reminder to focus first on student involvement through icebreakers. Given the current situation, ice breakers, like the ones mentioned, might be the single most effective tool to having a successful lesson.

Signed - Ruminating Grits

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Ruminating Grits!

Thank you so much for your kind comment. I think you're right—we can't stress enough how important it is to get students talking early in a videoconferencing session. I feel it's the best way to make sure students "buy into" the lesson. Good luck with your teaching!

Maria Pia M.(Teacher)

Thank you so much for all the great material you guys offer, it's been great help during these difficult times. Furthermore, I actually didn't like teaching online but now I prefer it and I truly owe it to you guys!!
Keep safe

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Maria,
It's great to hear that you are having success with distance learning. We are so happy that ESL Library has helped with the transition. Please feel free to reach out if you need anything! Good luck!

Reply to Comment

Susan B.(Teacher)

Thank you for all the information you offer to help students engage. I have been having trouble with my beginning ELL's attending the now online class. The reasons vary, but suffice it to say they are going through a very challenging time, as we all are. I have continued to teach our curriculum, and that has been met with enthusiasm from those who do attend. However, because of the drop-in/drop-out rate, students are at different places in their lessons. We have begun to spend quite a lot of time having conversations. I will use your ice-breakers. They sound perfect! I have also used "would you rather" questions, and those work, too.

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Susan,
These are certainly challenging times! I hope you have luck with the icebreakers. My students particularly look forward to sharing their COVID names. I hope your students find it enjoyable as well. If you come up with more icebreakers that work well with your students, please let us know. We'd love to hear about them. Thanks!

Neelima Ls(Guest)

Nice Share! Your blog has always been a good source for me to get quality knowledge...Liked your blog and have bookmarked it.

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Neelima,
Thanks so much for commenting. I'm so glad you found the post useful!

Maggie R.(Teacher)

Thanks for sharing these, I love the COVID names idea! I'm going to try out some of these with my students, your ideas are good because they are adaptable to different levels.

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Maggie,
I'm so glad to hear that you will be trying out some of these icebreakers with your class. My students love the COVID Names icebreaker. I hope yours do too!

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