Warming Up: 8 Great Warmers for Any ESL Level

Warming Up
8 Great Warmers for Any ESL Level

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 22,798 views |

You walk into your classroom and find your group sitting in silence.

Half are sleepily on their phones, and the other half are snoozing at their desks. Bringing to school the energy to revitalize such a group is one of the first challenges of a teacher’s working day.

Research recently showed that most of the world’s teenaged students are dangerously sleep deprived. They find it hard to get to sleep before 11pm, due to a combination of natural biology and the stimulating effects of TV and cellphone screens, but are required to be at school at 7.30 or 8am. Experiments with later school start times have brought startling results, including better attention and focus, higher scores, and a much reduced rate of traffic accidents caused by tiredness.

Most teachers aren’t in a position to change their school’s schedule, and so we are faced with a room full of exhausted people for the first class of the day.

Most teachers aren’t in a position to change their school’s schedule, and so we are faced with a room full of exhausted people for the first class of the day. Often, they have skipped breakfast and are low on blood sugar, and many have been up late on their computers. It’s more important than ever, therefore, to begin class with a short activity designed to wake students up. The rewards are many and varied:

  • Warmers bring a surge of focus and energy
  • They also activate the brain’s language circuitry; students traveling alone by public transport often arrive at school without having spoken a word to anyone!
  • Many warmers require social interactions, obliging students to connect with each other.
  • The activity represents a signpost, beyond which L1 (the students’ first languages) are no longer part of the environment; it’s English only from here on in.
  • Warmers are also a fantastic method of review.

Compounding the tiredness problem is that the teacher is often exhausted, too! Demands on our time, from family and work and the gym and paying bills and a million other things, often eat into sleep time.

6 Tips for Arriving in the Classroom Feeling Fresh:

  1. Fix a time by which you know you should be heading ‘in the direction of bed’, and stick to it. Mine is 11.15pm. If I’m still up by then, I simply begin navigating my body through the bedtime routine. It’s like anything else: once you’ve done it 40 times, it becomes second nature.
  2. Turn off the screen. Research is now incontrovertible with regard to the wakeful effects of cellphone and TV screens. It can take an hour before the stimulated cells calm down again. Consider having a book by your bed, and read for a few minutes before sleep, instead of using your phone.
  3. Set up your morning the night before. I arrive, groggy and complaining, in my kitchen each morning to find my breakfast bowl, spoon and tea mug already set out, the kettle filled and ready to boil, and my lunch packed and in the fridge. Doing these things in the half-asleep moments after waking takes much longer than at other times.
  4. Consider some morning exercise, meditation or yoga. 15 minutes of quiet sitting has brought huge benefits to my whole day, both at school and after hours, leaving me with more energy, a less reactionary attitude to problems, and more compassion for my fellow humans. I can’t recommend it enough.
  5. I use an application which provides bus times; I leave the house at the right moment, so that I’m not uselessly waiting at the bus stop.
  6. Plan your classes in weekly arcs, so that there are fewer uncertainties about today’s classes. Fewer decisions to be made means reduced stress and anxiety.

6 Warmer Techniques You’ll Be Using Every Day

  1. 1

    Vocab Circle

    Start with a random student and ask for a word beginning with A, then circle around the room, proceeding through the alphabet. Choose one part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) or lexical group (sports, countries, colors, animals) and change this each time you play the game. With my advanced students, I also ask for only polysyllabic answers, and if the answer is of an intermediate level, I ask for something more sophisticated. For example, I recorded this classroom moment, a warmer using adjectives:

    Teacher: OK, what’s next? G?
    Student 1: Great!
    Teacher: That’s nice, but let’s go up a level. What about... Gratifying?
    Student 1: Or... Gargantuan
    Teacher: Beautiful! Now, H?
    Student 2: Happy!
    Teacher: (Gestures with a raising, flat palm)
    Student 2: Hilarious!
    Teacher: Much better! Who’s got I?

    If a student gets stuck, classmates can help, or the teacher can make suggestions, e.g.:

    Teacher: Next is M, right?
    Student: M... erm...
    Teacher: How about that awesome adjective for a really big, beautiful mountain... or an impressive building?
    Student: M... Magnificent?
    Teacher: Great job! OK, what shall we have for N?
  2. 2


    Students quickly interview the people around them (in pairs, or groups of 3-4) and discover what’s happened in their lives since the class last met. This is a mixed listening and speaking exercise; encourage students to take notes, so that they don’t forget details such as the name of the town they visited, or the store at which they got a great bargain. Summarizing information they just heard is also an important skill, so guide students away from a formulaic answer such as, “Last night he went home from school, then had dinner, then sent an email to his father, then made dinner with his friend, then...” Help the student to use time expressions and perfect forms, rather than repetitive structures, e.g. “He’d already finished his homework before dinner, so afterwards, he played video games for an hour.

  3. 3

    Finish The Thought

    Write the beginning of a sentence on the whiteboard and ask students to complete it. My favorites are:

    • Today I’m happy about...
    • Today will be awesome because...
    • Today I want to learn about...
    • By the time we finish today, I want to have... (learned, done, found, improved...)
    • Yesterday, I wish I had...
  4. 4

    I Went to Market...

    A classic, fun memory exercise, this circle game begins with the simple statement, “I went to market and bought a (noun)”. The second student adds a noun: “I went to market and bought a plant and a bag of flour”. The third adds another, and so on. By the end of the circle, the student will be required to have memorized a dozen or more nouns. This is also a terrific way to practice measure expressions, e.g. a bag of flour, a kilo of rice, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of coke.

  5. 5

    Stand Up, Breathe and Stretch

    A singer friend from the Royal Opera House in London recommended that every day should begin with the students standing up, stretching (reaching for the ceiling, turn left and right, touch your toes) and taking a sequence of three slow, deep breaths. Oxygenating the brain, shaking off morning lethargy and performing a simple act all together seems a great way to begin!

  6. 6

    Off The Grid

    One more thing I always do is to make sure the students’ cellphones are silent, in airplane mode, or simply switched off, depending on the class. Bringing focus to the present, to their classmates and the day’s work, is much easier without this distraction.

I hope you find these tips helpful, and that your morning classes get off to an energetic and positive start!

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