Should I Bother With Icebreakers?

How do you start the school year? asked somebody recently.  After I said, I ask a story, somebody asked what do you do for an icebreaker to get the kids to know each other?  Another teacher wrote that she was shocked how, at the end of the year, a couple of the kids in her class still didn’t know each others’ names, and wanted to create a more caring and supportive environment.  

These are important goals!

At this point I had a flashback to when I was 13 and switched schools and had to grind through the make-new-friends-and-figure-out-social-hierarchy thing.  I knew a few kids from my old school, but most of us didn’t know each other much.

In English class, Mr Maunderson had cunningly devised a game– an icebreaker!–wherein we ended up having to tell each other names and basic personal info.  I was super-shy and wasn’t much into it; my neighbour (and future Christian, then meth dealer, then meth addict, then again Christian), Cory, was much more forthright, muttering this is fucking gay loudly enough that he and Mr Maunderson became enemies on Day 1. Not only did I have to talk to twenty-seven strangers that hour, but I had to deal with girls who had in two brief months gone from being like boys– they would ride bikes, go on expeditions, play Lego with us, etc, but also sometimes wore dresses– to another species entirely, which species had the magic power of making me feel like an idiot as soon as I even thought about opening my mouth, which I very much wanted to do, because, well, they were girls.  And I was thirteen.  Oh my God was I glad when class ended.

When the flashback ended, I realised, I never do ice breakers.  You know, the games or activities that get people to interact, share info, and, you know “get comfortable” with each other.  In a language class, this is usually the “find someone who…” worksheet & char activity, dome in the target language. Yet, oddly enough, my kids all know a ton about each other by the end of the year.

I don’t do icebreakers, and here is why:

1. If they aren’t in the target language we are wasting precious input time. Why spend an hour talking in English when you could be asking a story, or doing Picturetalk?

2. If we want TL output on Day 1 (eg class, everybody ask 3 ppl ¿cómo te llamas?) we are again wasting our time:  output does not develop speaking ability, it makes people uncomfortable, and most language learners inevitably make mistakes when they speak (bad input for other learners). What kids most want in a language class– to understand what is going on– is not something that practicing output develops.

3. There is one more problem with target-language icebreakers for non-beginner classes: they ask for output from kids at the time when kids’ output is the worst: right after they’ve had months or years away from the language.

4. You don’t need icebreakers to personalise a class.  Good personalisation has two qualities: that what happens in class is interesting to (and modifiable by) students, and that students know that teachers know (and acknowledge) them.  With TPRS (both classical and untargeted), students are driving the story, and with PQA (basically, asking students the same questions as the actors in stories) students will eventually know that the teacher knows and cares about them.

How personalisation works: when I’m asking my first story, I might ask the actor do you like dogs? and, after they answer, I would ask a random student the same question. If I’m on the ball, and I can remember, I can bring this up later:  class, does Mandeep like soccer or cricket?  That’s right– Mandeep likes cricket.  As soon as the student knows that I know (and remember) something about them, they get a bit more comfortable in the room.  As the year goes on, both I and the class know more and more about each other.

Right now, in my Spanish 1 class, off the top of my head, I can tell you that Kauthar likes Hector Bellerín, Isha watches 13 Reasons Why (and regards Profe Stolz as a total fashion disaster argh), Dalawar is dating Miley Cyrus, Avlin likes smart boys, Abdullah is an expert in kissing Selena Gomez, Ali hates X-box FIFA, Sundus dances with Chris Brown, Brian both reads and is buddies with Obama, Idris works as an assassin when not playing NBA 17, Zahra is fasting, Kajal has three boyfriends and a giant silver ring, Noor loves K-Pop, Samrina plays clarinet, can’t stand stupid boys or bad music and is dating young Leonardo DiCaprio, Taranjot has a guitar and a pit-bull, Avleen likes sleeping more than anything else, Riya likes smart boys and good books, Ravneet likes cooking but hates science…and I could tell you ten more “facts” per kid.

Note that in my class, I encourage kids to invent a “Spanish self” which can be whatever they want, (provided they are OK with others and their parents hearing about it).  And because PQA is done aloud, and because everybody has to listen, the kids get to know something about each other without straight-off-the-bat face-to-face awkwardness. Psychologists will tell you that if you can remember somebody’s name and one or two specific facts about them, they will like and trust you a fair bit.

5. Icebreakers make people self-conscious.  Nothing– nothing– is as uncomfortable for a teen as forced social contact. Ask your students: most would rather wash dishes for three hours than have to spend face-to-face time with total strangers.  Why do teens text all the time and start relationships by texting?  Because texting takes the edge off of self-consciousness. For kids with anxiety, autism or stress, or for people with limited/newer English, icebreakers are simply awful.

One question I have never seen answered is this: do people actually want to know others (or have others know them) immediately in a new social situation?  I suspect that for a few kids, the answer is yes…and those kids are going to be chatty and putting up their hands right away. The rest?  Mostly what they want is to understand what is going on, and to feel comfortable.  With time, they will “feel out” the social world and discover it on their own terms.

EDIT: teacher Jeff Brown writes this:  on the first day I have the kids take home a questionnaire in English. The last question is: Tell me something interesting about yourself, Then after reading all of them, the following day I introduce everyone in the target language knowing the little bit the students wrote about themselves in English. It’s always a blast. I love it. It’s one of my favorite days. I have had triplets, concert musicians, children of CEOs, etc. The kids love it too and it’s all target language (works for all levels). This is done on the third day to be exact.

I think Jeff’s idea is great:  kids don’t have to talk, it personalises language, and it helps people know each other without having to get in each others’ faces.

Anyway, this is why I don’t do icebreakers.


    1. I find that kids will figure each other out the way the rest of us do: we observe, and we think, “oh that guy looks interesting” or “OMG that girl is funny.”

  1. I absolutely love your honesty about icebreakers! I’ve never found that they make anyone comfortable, and I know as a teacher as soon as I see “Icebreaker” as the first item on the agenda, I audibly groan. I think they intimidate the shy kids in our class and make them hate French even more.

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