Leading a student-centered class can be scary. For an instructor used to being the star of the show in a lecture-style class, relinquishing control to students can feel like letting go of the wheel on the highway.
However, dipping your toes in the water can be as easy as starting each class with a dynamic warm-up—that is, a simple, 5 -10 minute activity done at the beginning of class, which obligates students to do three things:
1. Use language to focus on meaning
2. Review material they saw the previous day
3. Physically move their bodies.
Even if you are already a pro at leading a student-centered class, read on to see how every language class can be improved with a warm-up!
Why start with a dynamic warm-up?
It builds confidence in spontaneous speech. No matter what you do with the rest of your class time, you guarantee that students spend at least a few minutes every day communicating ideas without worrying about grammar.
It reviews the previous day’s material. Any excuse to avoid the blank stares when asking “Any questions about yesterday?”
It wakes students up both physically and mentally. This is why it’s crucial not to omit the physical movement!
It gives you an opportunity to take attendance without wasting class time. As you’ll see in my sample warm-ups below, students don’t need you involved in the activity beyond the instructions, so it’s a great time to count heads!
It builds routine. After the first week, students will know that the opening minutes or class are for practicing the target language, not for texting/daydreaming/finishing homework.
It leaves a buffer for stragglers to arrive. Reshuffling group numbers and repeating yourself to Johnny-come-latelies is never fun; a warm-up routine lets you start class on time but still buy a few minutes to reach a quorum for the meatier portion of your lesson.
It reduces your lesson-planning time. Knowing my warm-up will take 10-15 minutes of my 50-minute class means I knock out almost a third of every lesson plan on autopilot!
Go-to warm-ups I rotate through in my own classes
Note that for all three, students MUST be out of their seats! Some will initially resist, but a quick prodding will set them straight.
1. Find someone who… Students have a list of yes-no questions (“Do you like pineapple on pizza?” “Have you traveled outside the US?”) and must find a DIFFERENT person who answers “Yes” to each. The first person to do so wins!
I typically just project a list of 5-10 questions, but you could do this as a Bingo board if you want to go the extra mile.
2. 2 minutes, 2 questions. Project 2 questions for students to discuss in pairs. After 2 minutes, signal for students to swap partners and project 2 new questions. Repeat for 6-10 questions total.
The key here is making the questions substantive enough to last the full 2 minutes. “How old are you?” wouldn’t work, but “Talk about the most memorable birthday you’ve had” would. Leaving previous questions projected rather than wiping the screen each time means students can always go back to previous questions if their conversation dead-ends quickly.
3. Chat, swap, switch. Give each student a slip of paper with a question (“What’s your favorite food?” “When was the last time you used Zoom?”). Students ask their question to a partner, answer their partner’s question, SWAP slips of paper, then repeat the process with a new partner until you tell everyone to return to their seats. This is my personal favorite, since unlike #1 it provides more variation in questions, and unlike #2, the timing is self-regulating: no need for you to interrupt students preemptively or for the conversation to drag out longer than necessary.
Ending the activities
Like a date, a good activity should leave students wanting more. Around 5 minutes is a good rule of thumb, adjusting as needed if the classroom energy is flagging or buzzing.
As with all communicative activities, however, these warm-ups need a purpose: as a student, why should I pay attention to my partner’s answers? After students return to their seats, spend 3-5 minutes as a class letting students volunteer interesting conversations they’ve had.
How I do this varies by the warm-up. #1 is easiest, as I’ll just start with the person who finished first and ask “What is the most interesting thing you learned about a classmate?” They’ll summarize someone’s response, after which I’ll ask at least one follow-up question of the person they indicated (“Timmy likes cake.” “Mmmm, I love cake! Timmy, what kind of cake is your favorite? Chocolate? Vanilla?”). Then, I’ll ask that person (“Timmy”) to point me to another interesting answer, and so on. After 2-3 people (again, before the repetition becomes boring), I wrap up by asking if anyone had questions about the activity’s grammar/vocabulary/etc. And then, ~10-15 minutes into class, the warm-up is complete!
Numbers 2 and 3 follow a similar pattern: I’ll project a question I know they’ll have enjoyed discussing (#2) or ask a volunteer to read the question they had in hand when returning to their seat (#3), then ask “Who talked with someone who had an interesting answer to this question?”
This approach encourages brief-but-spontaneous back-and-forths, practices a variety of grammatical forms (students don’t just report their own answers, they talk about their classmates’), and generally avoids putting students on the spot, since if a classmate says they had a good answer, no one will be called on who didn’t get to discuss a given question.
How do I make warm-up questions?
To generate questions for the above warm-ups, I just think of conversational questions associated with the material we covered the previous day. Some examples are below, with ‘target items’ in bold (something I don’t do in class, but to better illustrate here):
A vocab list on technology: “Do you prefer to print your assignments or to email them?” “What is the most interesting application you have on your phone?”
A list of irregular verbs: “What was the best vacation you went on as a child?” “When was the last time you brought your textbook to class?”
A grammatical structure: “What are you going to do when you graduate?” “How soon prior to the exam are you going to start studying?”
Depending on the target material’s conversational utility, this process can range from exceptionally quick to painfully arduous. If you’re lucky, your textbook will have some conversational questions you can steal, but frankly, I just get as far as I can in ~10 minutes and then choose my warm-up type according to how many questions I created: #1 needs as few as 5 or as many as 25 distinct questions, #2 needs 6-10, and #3 needs 1 per student in the class.
With the new school year around the corner, I encourage you to give warm-ups a whirl! Get creative and make up your own activities—the above examples work great for me, but you don’t be afraid to try something that’s a better fit for you.
Either way, I am sure you’ll find that incorporating dynamic warm-ups will benefit both you and your students. In addition, if those benefits motivate you to look for creative ways to incorporate even more communicative activities, consider having a look at my Teachers Pay Teachers page, Communicative Spanish Tasks, which has plenty of lesson plans you can adapt to any language!