Warm-ups as strategic tools

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What is the first thing you the ESL teacher does when you start your class? How do your students react to that? How do you feel when doing it?


An introduction

I have attended language classes of several types, covering both my native language and the foreign languages I speak. One thing sets some classes apart from the majority of them: warm ups.

It seems to be something basic, but many ESL teachers tend to underestimate the powerful effect of a good and proper warm-up on a class and on its group.

A reasonable warm-up may be of good use to:

  • Engage students;
  • Switch languages;
  • Align expectations;
  • Input language;
  • Contextualize;
  • Provide students with a friendly and open-door environment;
  • be a fun moment to the class.

This article is meant to detail how warm-ups can help achieve these goals. It will also provide some examples for ESL teachers to use.


Warm-ups as engaging activities

People nowadays are much busier. They do not live exclusively for learning a second language. They may also take soccer, piano, ballet or other language classes. They are working on that complicated project at their job, or about to have a very important test at school. They may have romantic problems. There are many reasons they might be distracted. It is your job to maximize their level of engagement in your class.

Warm-ups have been an effective way of disconnecting students from their busy lives and connecting them to the class you are to give. A quick, but effective introductory activity makes your students curious about what is about to come next.


Warm-ups as a language switch and contextualization

In case you do not teach English in a country where it is officially spoken, a warm-up activity will unconsciously tell your students’ brain that another language must be not only spoken, but also thought in. According to Zane Claes, the author of Life by Experimentation, “where you are mentally makes an enormous difference” and “our brains are pattern-matching machines and one of the major cues they draw upon is that of context”. It means that contextualizing students is the only way to make them think in another language; it is a “beep” telling them the new language is to be used.

Warm-ups are usually simple tasks and definitely not the climax of your lesson. So, let’s say you did not spend five or ten minutes in a warm-up task. The language switching would happen naturally after five or ten minutes into class. However you don’t want this to happen in the middle of pair work. A warm-up would be the opportune moment for the language to be switched.


Warm-ups as an alignment of expectations and language input

Students always come to the class with expectations, be they high or low. A warm-up can (but not necessarily) be used as a way to align their expectations with your class objective. You can use a game to set the target language. Let’s say you are going to teach the Present Perfect Continuous. Broken telephone, also known as Chinese whispers, is a game that could be used to trigger students’ curiosity, specifically in how the sentence has been structured. This is an example; many other warm ups that use the target language could be used.

By using this exercise, you are subtly telling your students what is going to be taught and practiced in class. Naturally they will not expect to learn vocabulary about the human body or how to talk about regrets, for example. Furthermore, you are already providing them with language input and contextualizing them for the next task.


Warm-ups used to provide a friendly, open-door environment

Warm-up activities tend to naturally make students open. By reflecting on my teaching and by observing other teachers on their practice, I have noticed that some groups are in general more likely to speak and take risks than others. They do not seem to be afraid of making mistakes, probably because they respond more gently when someone does make an error. There is a sense of cooperation and friendship. Of course, it has to do with their personality and motivation as well, but it also has to do with the way synergy and relationships are built between them with the teacher’s support.

It is very common to see some students after class for a drink or to chat, and even creating virtual groups on the web. This is because of the environment created by the group and its teacher; warm-ups do contribute to this.


Warm-ups as a fun moment in the class

Our pupils are not only students; they may also be engineers, analysts, directors, dentists, fathers, wives or students somewhere else. Most of them run a busy life. My philosophy is to teach responsibly and effectively, but to have as much fun as possible. They already have enough heavy stuff to deal with daily. English does not have to be another one.

Starting the class with a fun warm-up makes students relax and simply have fun. What if this is the only fun thing on their Monday? You may start a vocabulary class with a “back-to-board game”, for instance. Let us say you are going to teach diseases in English based on the parts of the body. You can warm your class up by playing this game. Take a look at the instructions below.

Warm-up:                          Back to the board
Ideal group size:                6-10 people
Skills involved:                  Speaking and Listening
Language system:             Vocabulary



  1. Teacher divides students in two groups;
  2. One representative of each group sits on a chair in front of the classroom in a way they are not able to see the whiteboard/projection;
  3. Teacher writes one word up on the board;
  4. Students who are not sitting down have to explain the word, they can use any words except the one written;
  5. The students sitting down have to grasp what the word is and scream it out loud;
  6. The first one to get it right scores one point.



– You may eventually use this warm-up game for functions and exponents. Bear in mind, though, they have to be already familiarized with the game, so that they can perform it properly;

– This is an excellent way to make your students speak. The competition environment sometimes is a key-element to make them talk;

– Miming may be accepted for more elementary levels.


What is the first thing you ESL teacher do when you start your class? Do you “warm them up”? Do you have nice warm-ups to share? Let us know! Send an email to contato@caioalbernaz.com or leave a comment below.

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