Warmers (with a Business English flavour)

Posted: March 4, 2015 in Activities
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Update. Thanks for visiting my blog! I was very happy to learn that this post was shortlisted for Teaching English – British Council blog award. If you decide to vote for it, let them know by ‘liking’ the post on their Facebook page: http://ow.ly/ThG3m.


Last Friday we met together with a group of colleagues at EPAM Systems to share some of the ice-breakers, warmers and games that we use. Here are some of the warmers that we came up with. We teach in company, so many of the activities have a Business English flavour, but the great thing about these warmers is that they can be easily adapted to any topic, no matter whether you teach Business or General English.

Start with a picture

  • Display a picture and get the students to guess the topic
  • Do the same but reveal the picture gradually using https://tekhnologic.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/the-big-reveal/
  • Find a clipart shape connected to the topic (Google topic + clipart). Here’s a sample for ‘Presenting’:
    Source: http://www.officeclipart.com/office_clipart_images/boss_giving_a_presentation_at_an_office_meeting_0521-1005-1219-0347.html
    Once the students have looked at the picture and guessed the topic, elicit a few associations they have with the topic (this could be words, events from their personal lives). Ideally, share your own non-obvious association and get the students to ask you a bit about it (mine is ‘Germans’, because my first ever important presentation was at a Russian-German student conference). After that, distribute A4 copies of the clipart shape for each student and allow 2-3 minutes for the students to free-write their associations inside the shape. After that, allow another 3-4 minutes for the students to share their associations in small groups to compare, ask about surprising ones, and chat about them. 
  • A great warmer suggested by my colleague Olga Lifshits was to google comic strips on the topic of the lesson, distribute them and get the students to guess the topic.
  • If you teach a monolingual group, yet another idea for comic strips is to look for their translation into your students’ L1 and get the students to translate the comic strip back into English, comparing with the original.
  • Yet another alternative is to display a few memes to get the students to discuss the topic – see this post for a summary of a talk by Anastasiya Fetisova on using memes in ELT.
    YYRQKTip: have some discussion prompts based on the images ready!
  • In this activity by Katherine Bilsborough, the teacher displays a picture and provides ten answers about it. The students write their questions in pairs. Again, this activity can be easily adapted to any topic.  Here’s a business-related example, e.g. for work-life balance:The_Hoya_office1. A report.
    2. By Monday at the latest.
    3. With her colleague Kate.
    4. Because she’s tired.
    5. Not really.
    6. Yes.
    7. Saturday
    8. Since 8 a.m.

Start with a sound

  • Have you ever led into the topic of a lesson with a sound? Here’s an idea: google ‘free sound effects’ and choose a sound related to the topic (e.g. the sounds of nature for ‘travel’). Play the sound for a minute and get the students to imagine where they are / jot down their associations / or guide them by ask them questions, e.g. ‘where is this? who do you imagine there? would you like to be in that place?’, etc – then get them to share in pairs.
    This is a sound file I found for travel: https://www.freesound.org/people/rodmuzik/sounds/196627/ Maybe I haven’t been on holiday a bit too long, but I really enjoyed listening to that audio and it really jogged my imagination.

Start with a prop

  • For ‘plans’ take out a few things you’ve got in your bag / share a ‘todo list’ written in shorthand and get the students to guess what you’re planning to do.

Play a guessing game

This warmer is my personal favourite.

  • On slips of paper write some words connected to the topic. Get the s/s to explain their words (either working in pairs or in a mingling activity). Elicit the topic.
    For instance, for ‘Decision making’, you could use disagree / discussion / problem / options / argument.

Start with a word cloud

Google an article connected with your topic. Copy the text and insert it into a word cloud maker. Display the text, for the learners to guess the topic and then to race to find as many words as possible connected to the topic in 60 seconds.



  • This is an activity from Five minute activities by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright. Tell the group the topic and get them to brainstorm five or six phrases connected to the topic. After them get them to choose the odd one out and justify why it doesn’t fit. Erase it from the board and repeat until there is only one word.
  • Write cards with concepts/events connected with the topic (e.g., for ‘Business travel’, you could have  things to pack / things that might go wrong / benefits of business travel over teleconferencing /  places / etc). S/s work in pairs: each turn one student draws a slip with the topic and rolls a dice to find out how many expressions connected with the topic they have to come up with. If you don’t have dice, get the students to roll online dice using their mobile phones.
  • Get the group to brainstorm input/contexts to be used later in the lesson for language work.
    Example 1: A pre-intermediate group studying ‘will’ for spontaneous reactions in the context of travel. At the beginning of the lesson I got them to brainstorm places where they can find themselves while on a business trip.
    Business travel
    Halfway through the lesson the students used the spidergram to play a game: one student in each pair (‘the boss’) picked a location from the list, imagined they were having a problem there and complained about it to the second student (‘an assistant’); the second student replied with ‘Don’t worry, I’ll + solution’.
    Example 2: An upper-intermediate group studying conjunctions (provided, unless, etc).  For a warmer, they brainstormed hopes and worries that a recent graduate starting out in their company might have (e.g. ‘I hope I’ll receive support from more experienced colleagues’ or ‘I hope to earn a lot of money fast.’) At some point in the lesson the students returned to the list, responding to the worries using conditional sentences (e.g. ‘Yeah, your colleagues will help you a lot, provided you bring them cookies!‘ or ‘That’s unlikely to happen unless you climb the career ladder very quickly.’)

Start with a quote 

This one is a classic: google an interesting quote related to the topic of the lesson and get the students to discuss it. Some tweaks could be to:

  • Get the students to complete the quote individually or in pairs (e.g. for Teamwork,  When you form a team, why do you try to form a team? Because _______ ; Teamwork is so important that it is virtually impossible for you to ________________). Board the students’ suggestions and get them to discuss them in pairs/groups.
  • Find more than one quote, get the students to match beginnings with endings, then discuss which quotes they agree with / choose one quote they disagree with and try and persuade someone else that it’s wrong / randomly assign a quote to agree/disagree with to each pair and get them to brainstorm arguments and life examples in favour/against.
    “ I love teamwork. It is about bringing out the ambitions of your team.”
    “If two men on the same job agree all the time, then one is useless. I love the idea of everyone rallying together to help me win.”
    “Leadership is not about your ambition. If they disagree all the time, both are useless.”

    As for the source of quotes, I personally quite like http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/


  • Another colleague suggested getting the students to write down 2-3 positive things going on in their life (or 2-3 positive things in their life connected to the topic) and 2-3 negative things. Get them to share in pairs / exchange tips. Works especially well as a lead-in to Problem solving.
  • If the topic is connected so some kind of event, e.g. ‘presenting’ or ‘job interviews’, ask the students to fill the gap in the sentence ‘[Presenting] could be  ____________’ (e.g. time-consuming / important for your career / stressful / a waste of time / a really nice experience / rewarding / …). After that, get the students to share in small groups which of the kinds of experiences with [presenting] listed on the board they’ve had,- encourage them to ask follow-up questions, go into detail and chat! Alternatively, play a guessing game: a student might describe an experience without saying which type of experience he/she is talking about.

Get the students to talk

  • Print out discussion questions on A4 sheets and put them on the floor. Tell the learners that the sheets are ‘islands’. Put on some music: while the music is playing, the learners simply walk around, ‘swimming’, and as soon as it stops, they stop next to the nearest discussion question, and discuss it with other learners who landed on the same ‘island’.
  • Another activity suggested during the workshop was to display 2-3 questions related to the topic, pair the students up and get one person in each pair to talk about the questions and the other one listen without commenting or taking notes. After that the person who was listening says ‘So you said…‘ and summarizes / retells what the first person said.
  • One more option is to group the students in groups of 3-4 and get them to ask ‘Have you ever…‘ questions related to the topic of the lesson. The twist is that they are only allowed to answer ‘yes’ (alternatively, they might only be allowed to answer with a lie). They have to provide a justification for their answer. E.g. on the topic of meetings, the students might ask ‘Have you ever fallen asleep in a meeting?’ and the person answering the question would have to say ‘yes’ and explain why this happened.
  • Another great warmer is ‘Fortunately/Unfortunately‘. Start the class with a sentence, e.g. ‘I was on my way to a meeting with a new customer but unfortunately..’ The students in the group take turns to add one more sentence to the story, each time starting with ‘fortunately’ or ‘unfortunately’.
  • True/False. This is probably something that every teacher has used at some point: get the students to write 3 facts about themselves connected with the topic. Some of these facts should be true and some should be false. Other students in the group need to guess which ones are false by asking follow-up questions.

Start with an improvisation

Since writing this post, I’ve discovered this great workshop on integrating improvisational theatre activities in the business classroom by Christina Rebuffet-Broadus. Some great short, creative, highly adaptable warmers there – please don’t get put off by the ‘improvisational theatre’ bit – I think they’re great for students who ‘would never do theatre’.

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLNAZ-uxiZM

Make it S.M.A.R.T

  • If you teach using a coursebook / printed materials, why not let the students look through the material at the beginning of a unit/module and get them to set goals for themselves for the next two or three weeks and share those goals with their group mates? You could support them by providing them with some questions e.g.:
    What do you already know about vocabulary / grammar /skills topics in this module? Do you find these topics easy or difficult? What would you like  to learn?
    What personal experiences related to these topics have you got?
    In what situations might you use the material from this unit in the future?
    What would you consider to be a good outcome by the end of this module?
    How and how much are you planning to work outside class?

Acknowledgement. A big thank you goes to my colleagues at EPAM Systems: to Anna Zernova, who suggested the ‘positive/negative’ warmer, Olga Lifshits, who shared ‘So you said’ and the idea to use comic strips, Evgenia Antonova and Anastasiya Chernetskaya who remembered variations of the ‘Truth or Lie’ game, Iryna
Piatrouskaya who demonstrated the ‘Discussion island’ warmer in her workshop, and Adam Howell for sharing ‘Fortunately/Unfortunately.’

We want more! 🙂
Have you used any other flexible warmers that could be easily adapted to a range of topics? Please share!

  1. Adi Rajan says:

    Lovely, practical ideas.

  2. I like using simulations: http://eslcarissa.blogspot.com/2014/04/simulations-in-classroom.html I can’t always think of one, but when I find one it works great as an ice breaker.

  3. Alex Chapman says:

    will try them next Tuesday and Wednesday, they are good ideas

    • olyasergeeva says:

      Hi Alex, glad you liked them – how did it go? I’ve been trying out the ‘Play a guessing game’ warmer, worked very well.

  4. Cool ideas 🙂 well done and thanks for sharing 🙂

  5. ann foreman says:

    Hi Olya,

    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be putting up a post about it on tomorrow’s TeachingEnglish Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil, if you’d like to check there for likes and comments.


  6. Ester says:

    Hello Olya,
    Thanks for sharing your ideas! I’m a fan of ‘warmers’. I will adapt some of them to my students, for sure.
    I share my favourite ice breaker:
    – Start with a song:
    Guess the topic, the type of music, some musical instruments, name some of the words you hear, pictures you can see, rate the song from 1-10, etc.
    Greetings from Alicante (Spain),

    • olyasergeeva says:

      Hi Ester,
      Thanks a lot for the idea, will try it out! Let me know how the other warmers worked for you!


  7. sophieisidoro says:

    Thanks. Very useful.

  8. olyasergeeva says:

    – solving a rebus to guess the next topic
    – picture pile (what picture do you associate with the topic?)

  9. olyasergeeva says:

    Start with movement
    1. Comfortable, challenging, stressful (4-5 situations related to the topic – the learners go to the corresponding part of the room).
    2. Move around if… (an example with emails: received an email yesterday; need to write emails in English)

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