First day of class: Set a baseline vocabulary with a word-association ice-breaker

Summer is over and a new group of learners are about to enter your room. Tentative and hopeful, they want to relax, open up and feel comfortable experimenting in English. So how can you help?

The following low stress ice-breaker is inspired by John Fields book, Listening in the Language Classroom, but it can be useful at the beginning of any skills class because it establishes some of the base-line vocabulary that learners bring with them. Because the students produce all the words, the task more or less falls within their comfort zone while allowing you to get a sense of where they are at.

The activity draws from Fields’ notion of spreading activation, which is based on the premise that we all develop elaborate connections among word meanings and forms.  When a listener hears a word that is part of one of these connected networks, it activates a number of other words that are closely associated with it. In this way, the connections among words that are likely to occur together are strengthened as well as the meanings of individual words.

Start by preparing a list of gateway words that students are likely to know and/or that pertain to topics that will be covered in the ensuing weeks. The words should elicit a strong meaning association.  For example, tourist, roommate, salad, soccer, doctor, or grandmother correspond to lexical sets for travel and tourism, housing, food, sports, medicine, and family.

Begin the activity by having class participants stand in a circle and introduce themselves. This way, new classmates can see each other’s faces and feel connected to the larger group. Next, explain that you will gesture to (or nominate) a student, say a word, and that student must say a different word that is connected to the first word in meaning, e.g. tourist. The speaker should say the new word as fast as possible.  Then that student must gesture to a second student in the circle who adds a new word and continues the process.  For example, tourist might lead to hotel might lead to swimming pool. Tell them that there are no wrong answers as long as the word is in English, but if they can’t think of a new word, they can say pass, and the round continues.

After you have explained, and modeled the process to insure that everyone understands, begin the round. Provide guidance only when necessary so that you can observe and take notes on challenging or odd words. When the lexical set has been exhausted, provide a new word and continue the game adjusting up or down as necessary.

After several rounds, allow students to return their seats and elicit or write the more challenging words on the board or screen to categorize, clarify, or collocate as you see fit. Invite students to contribute words they want to know more about and answer questions.

An alternative or extension might be to have students do their third or fourth round in smaller groups.  In this case, you might want to write the gateway word on index cards for each group. Instruct a recorder to write the words they want to discuss later so you have a record of them and can share new words with the rest of the class.




Categories: ELT

1 reply »

  1. This sounds like a great activity for the first day of class. I’ll try it in a couple of weeks when the semester starts.


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