5 Active & Motivating ESL Lesson Starters for Winter Mornings

get down no dog
(by Joanne Mitten)

The winter is drawing in, the mornings are dark and the heating is on full blast. It’s this time of year when students tend to treat their coats like duvets, their desks like beds and their coffees like an extension of themselves.

So what better time to experiment with some active, engaging lesson starters to motivate your students and give them the wake-up call they need on a frosty November morning? Launch your motivating ESL lesson with a bang using some of the starter activities below:


  1. Caption Competition:

    Find 5 or 6 funny images online. Animal or “fail” pictures are the best for this type of activity. Display the images and give an example caption for one of the pictures. Next give students 2 minutes to brainstorm some captions of their own. The students with the wittiest or most fitting captions win! This will be even more effective if you can link the theme of the pictures to your overall lesson.

  1. Eye for Detail:

    This task requires a short video clip (1-2 minutes) that contains plenty of detail. The only preparation needed is to watch your chosen clip, pick out some very subtle details and create questions based on these details. Instruct your students to observe the clip closely. Then ask them questions and see how many they get right. They’ll soon realise that they need to be wide awake and focused to complete this task!

  1. How do you spell…?

    This activity involves both physical movement and concentration; the perfect combination to wake up sleepy students! First ask students to spell their names in the air with the hand they write with. Next ask them to do the same with their other hand. Remind them that ‘T’s must be crossed and ‘I’s must be dotted! Challenge them further by asking them to put their hands behind their back imagining the pen is in their mouths. Or their ears. Or their bellybuttons. This task can be used to revisit vocabulary from previous lessons or to introduce a topic.

  1. Compare and Contrast:

    Find pictures of two well know figures (actors, athletes, historical figures, characters from literature) and instruct students to compare and contrast the people in the pictures. They should focus on aspects of the person’s life, achievements, career and physical appearance. They should make their comparisons as interesting as possible.

  1. Hidden definitions:

    Before the lesson, hide word/ phrase cards and corresponding definition cards around the room (under seats, on notice boards, behind blinds etc). Instruct students to look for a vocabulary/phrase card, then look for the corresponding definition. This activity can be linked to the lesson’s topic or text, or it can be a review of language from previous lessons. Either way, it will get students moving and wake them up for the next part of your motivating ESL lesson.

Movement and engaging the brain will energise and motivate even the sleepiest student on a winter’s morning. Link your starter to your lesson as a whole and you’re on to a winner! The activities above can also be adapted and used mid way through your lesson to battle any slumps that might occur.

Do you have any more ideas to add to the list?  Tell us about them below…..

joanneThis Week’s Blogger: 
Joanne Mitten 
Director of Studies
ATC Language Schools, Dublin.

5 Responses

  1. These are lovely! What sort of time do you suggest for these waker-uppers?

  2. Thanks for these great Ideas Joanne! I like the idea of getting them to rummage around the room first thing in the morning trying to pair up words and their definitions; perfect for the sleepy teenager. This would be a nice lead in to a topic too. I’m also a great fan of ‘just visuals’ and seeing where things go from there….so images to write captions to or compare and contrast two images are great (and projected on screen make them come alive so much more than photocopies…if you can).

  3. You have some great ideas here Joanne. I use this one from time to time when there’s a slump or alternatively to waken people up.
    Class size and room permitting,form 1 or 2 lines. Ss step to the right if the statement/ question is true/correct , step to the left if false/ incorrect. The don’t knows don’t move and not only is it a wake up call and good fun but it also has a great learning experience. Make it more competitive by forming teams. Use it for World Capitals…. ( make them difficult), European Capitals . Ss aren’t usually familiar with these words in English. Great intro for any It also works wonderfully well for make and do collocations, opposite adjectives and other ideas.Sometimes it’s even better to select a quiet student to stand at the front and call out the statements and words. It gives them a real sense of belonging while the teacher can monitor and check for cheats!!!
    Running dictation is always a winner. Incorporate recent vocabulary and/or new grammar forms which you’ve recently studied.
    And then on a different occasion just when they think you’re going to ask them to move again, surprise them with a 15 minute meditation and there the students are learning / revising the body vocabulary, the actions etc…..This works very well and you can add a great deal to this in a soothing way!
    And of course it’s all paperless

  4. Colette Diamond

    Sorry, forgot to identify myself in the last comment !! Colette Diamond

  5. Joanne Mitten

    Thanks for the feedback guys! Jo I would usually do these first thing, at 9am. It reminds students that they’re not going to sit passively all wrapped up in their coats and gets them involved in the lesson from the very start.
    Colette your ideas above are fantastic!

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