Maximizing Every Second of the Lesson: Warming Up Adult ELLs

By Thomas Tischler

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

As both an administrator and an educator, there is nothing more that grinds my gears like observing a class that does not start on time because they are “… waiting for others to arrive.” This not only devalues one’s time, but also wastes valuable learning moments for those ready to go! In adult education, tardy students can be expected due to their familial obligations or work schedules. However, this does not mean that we cannot squeeze every moment of our time with those who are in attendance when the clock gets to that time.

Here are just a few warm-up activities that will get your students ready to be using the target language:

  •  “Your Daily Idiom!”: If you teach a course such as American Culture or Speaking, try out this idiom activity that involves drawing the actual idiom. It is something that you can do throughout your term. Students have to draw the idiom literally, and then make a guess at the actual meaning. Afterwards the group can compare and discuss the actual meaning through example situations. (Here is a site that provides a daily one:
  •  Conversation Starters: One goal almost every adult ESL student shares is gaining the ability to speak English with others around them. They want to speak English as well as they speak their own native language, so what better way to speak English like their native language than to speak about the very same things that they speak about on a daily basis? Conversation starters can review or introduce grammar, a class (or lesson) topic, real-world scenarios, provide cultural sharing, and discuss “hot button” issues. (This site offers many topics to get your learners talking:
  •  Brain Teasers: This activity allows our learners to activate those neurons before the lesson! Beyond students practicing their English comprehension, these mental exercises have many positive health benefits in order to boost brain activity, memory, and improve concentration. (This site has many examples to use in your class:
  •  Tongue Twisters: I am sure that we can all identify particular sounds of the English language that our learners struggle with, and with a list of tongue twisters at the beginning of class, we can literally warm up the language speaking muscles! (Here’s a list of a 150:

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

  •  Describe the Picture: Student A gets a picture. Student B takes out a blank sheet of paper and something to write with. Student A describes the picture to Student B, and Student B has to draw the picture. Student A cannot use gestures to describe the picture. Student B is allowed to ask questions about the picture. After five minutes, the class votes on whose drawing is the best and most resembles the picture. Extra Challenge: For advanced students, difficult-to-describe images can be used.
  •  Describe the Word: The teacher writes vocabulary words on small pieces of paper. Students work in pairs. The pieces of paper are placed face down in front of the students. Student A starts by picking up a piece of paper and describing the word to Student B. Student B has to guess the word. Once the correct word is guessed, the students switch roles. The winners are the two students with the most correct guesses after 10 minutes.

Extra Challenge: Students have to guess abstract nouns, phrasal verbs, adjectives, and adverbs (words like “clever,” “determination,” “come up with,” etc.).

  •  Word Ladders: In this activity, a word must be transformed step by step into a target word. To illustrate the idea, write the word run on the board and explain that the target word is fit. For each turn, only one letter can be changed. See if the class can find a valid sequence together. Some possible sequences are: run -> fun-> fin -> fat , head -> bead -> beat ->boat. *Students will need access to a dictionary in order to check if their words are valid. If you want to find possible word pairs, this site has a word ladder generator (
  •  Proof-Reading: Teachers often struggle to find time to provide error feedback on a daily basis. I personally use examples from students on the board and have them fix “my” mistakes in each sentence. This allows an opportunity to review the rules of sentence structure, grammar, and spelling issues that always seem to arise.
  •  Scrambled Sentences: Teaching and learning grammar doesn’t have to be the most tedious thing ever. Incorporating a mixed-up sentence activity makes it slightly better than the mind-numbing stuff from a textbook. It works well as a review for a previous class, or to sum things up at the end of a session (Here is a helpful site for generating them: ).
  •  Scrambled Vocabulary Words: Similar to the previous activity, this can apply to as an introduction or review to the target vocabulary in class. You can put up the scrambled words on the board and have students try to reconfigure the letters to create vocabulary words (Here is a website that can help to create scrambled words or other puzzles: ).

As we know, a lesson can fly by! Therefore, it is vital for us to provide ample practice time and not miss any opportunity to grow! Warmups provide structure, focus, and allow us to grab the attention of our students through interaction in the target language. Feel free to try some of these tomorrow!

Happy Teaching!