9 Improv Activities For Your ESL Classroom

As the listening and speaking instructor at JIEI, I see great value in improv.  We can warm-up our listening and speaking faculties. We have some fun.  We engage in divergent thinking.  We stretch our creative abilities.

I’m no improv expert.  While I have three classes and countless weekly workshops under my belt, I’ve never joined a performing cast.  But when I utilized improv warm-up games in my club activity classes in Namak, I received great feedback from students.  They had fun and stretched their linguistic resources – a conversation teacher’s dream.

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Trainees, too, have found great value improv and role-playing in my class.

Before the trainees departed for England, some asked me to share resources on the improv games we played in class.

IAN:  Great idea!  Maybe I can find some YouTube links as well.

JUSTINA:  Ian, no!  Won’t that be a big burden for you?

IAN:  I mean, I have nothing but time…

Challenge accepted.

I organized these games by relative difficulty.  I list easier games first and more difficult games last.

Each activity title also links to a YouTube video that demonstrates the exact activity (or a closely-related derivative).

Name 5

This association and categorization game is an amazing improv warm-up and equally useful vocabulary exercise.  It’s simple to teach and fun to perform.

  1. Stand in a circle.
  2. Point to one student and ask them to “name five” things in a given category.
    1. e.g. “five things in this room”, “five things you wouldn’t say to a teacher”, “five fruits.”
  3. The student says five items in that category as fast as possible.
  4. Ask the student to choose another student and provide a new category.
IMG_4271
Name five injuries one can sustain in an emergency preparedness drill.  Go!

Thumper

This is a great ice-breaker that demands players to learn names, pay attention, move their bodies, and laugh.

  1. Ask each student to think of their own thumper.
  2. A thumper consists of three parts:
    1. A word that shares the same first letter or sound of your name.
    2. Your first name.
    3. An action.
  3. Go around the circle.  Have each student perform their thumper.  Repeat the thumper as a group.
  4. State your thumper and another student’s thumper.
  5. That student states their thumper and another student’s thumper.
  6. Continue to pass thumpers to random students around the circle.
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My thumper is always “Island Ian.”

Mind Meld

This game allows students to challenge their vocabulary resources, make intuitions, make choices, and become psychic.

  1. Ask two students to think of a random noun (person, place, or thing).
  2. Count “1-2-3.”  Students say their nouns at the same time.
  3. Ask other students to think of what connects the given nouns.  Wait for two volunteers or call on two students.
  4. “1-2-3.”  Students say their nouns at the same time.
  5. Repeat until two students say the same noun simultaneously.

Bop!

This game is less English-intensive, but a student-favorite back in my Namak High teaching days.  It encourages students to listen, move their bodies, and have some fun.  It can help more tense students relax and transition to more challenging acting activities like dialogues or role-plays.

  1. Make a circle.
  2. One student stands in the middle.  Their goal is to force a mistake by students in the circle.  They do that by pointing to random students and calling out rules.
  3. Rules:
    1. “Bop!” – The student says nothing.
    2. “Bitty-Bitty-Bop!” – The student says “bop” before the student in the middle gets to “bop.”
    3. “Elephant!” – The student pointed at has to make an elephant trunk and an elephant sound.  The adjacent students must make elephant ears.  The student in the middle counts to five (“1-2-3-4-5”.  If the counting student reaches five before the three students make the elephant, the incorrect student steps into the middle.  If the elephant-forming student doesn’t make an elephant sound, they are in the middle.
    4. “Bees!” – The student pointed at and two adjacent students must turn to their left in a circle and yell, “Ahh, bees!”  Any student who makes no sound or turns to the right is in the middle.
    5. “Viking!” – The student pointed at makes Viking horns on their head and yells “I am the Viking king/queen!”  Adjacent students must row the boat to the outside.  Students who row on the wrong side or say the wrong phrase step into the middle.
    6. “Hulk!” – The student pointed must jump in the air and yell “Hulk smash!”  The two adjacent students must wobble as if the ground is shaking.

There are other rules one can search online.  For an additional activity, more advanced students can create their own rules.

I Am A Tree!

This is a game of gesture and association.

  1. Stand in a circle.
  2. One student steps into the middle and says, “I am a tree!” while raising their arms to resemble a tree.
  3. Two more students step into the middle and act out things associated with a tree.
    1. “I am a leaf!”
    2. “I am a bird!”
  4. The student who starts pulls one other student to the outside.  The student left in the middle begins a new trio of associations.
    1. “I am a bird!”
    2. “I am a knife!
    3. “I am a napkin!”

Oracle

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Typical set-up for the Oracle improv game.

This game is a bit more challenging, but can effectively challenge students’ listening skills and grammatical resources.

  1. Ask three students to stand in front of the group.  They are the oracle.
  2. One student asks for advice from the oracle.
    1. “How can I find a girlfriend?”
    2. “What should I eat for dinner?”
    3. “I have a big test tomorrow.  What should I do?”
  3. The oracle forms a response, but can only speak one word at a time.  The three students must form a sentence word-by-word together.

AUDIENCE:  Oracle, I want to ask this girl out.  What should I do?

ORACLE 1:  You

ORACLE 2:  should

ORACLE 3:  buy

ORACLE 1:  flowers

ORACLE 2:  and

ORACLE 3:  chocolate.

ORACLE 1:  The

ORACLE 2:  oracle

ORACLE 3:  has

ORACLE 1:  spoken.

That final sentence (“the oracle has spoken“) concludes the advice and provides easy practice of the present participle.

Fortunately, Unfortunately

This activity challenges students’ creativity and storytelling skills.  It also mirrors how people can use resilience-based mindsets in real life.

  1. Students stand in a circle.
  2. One student begins by making up an event.
    1. “Ian was hungry as he walked down the street.”
  3. The next student introduces a complication with the tag “Unfortunately…”
    1. “Unfortunately, it was midnight and all the restaurants were closed.”
  4. The next student turns the tide with the tag “Fortunately.”
    1. “Fortunately, there was a mandoo stand open around the corner.”
  5. Continue until all students have spoken or the sequence runs out of steam.  Then restart if necessary.

Blindfolded Story

This activity challenges students’ listening abilities and stretches their creative faculties.

  1. Three students sit in a line and close their eyes.
  2. The teacher (or another student) is the story-master.
  3. The story-master taps one student on the shoulder.
  4. That student starts the story.
    1. “Once upon a time, there was a man named Gyeong-su.  Gyeong-su was walking down the street and realized he felt hungry.”
  5. The story-master taps that student on the shoulder at a sentence break to stop them.
  6. The story-master then taps a different student on the shoulder to continue the story.
    1. “He noticed a kimbap restaurant, went inside, and sat down.”
  7. Continue tapping shoulders and passing the story until the story reaches some kind of conclusion.
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Speaking of being hungry…

Gibberish Trial

This activity is more challenging but presents a hilarious opportunity for students to use and interpret gestures.

  1. Choose two students to stand up.  One student is an attorney, and another is a defendant.
  2. Choose an “improv crime” for this trial.
    1. An “improv crime” is a behavior that is annoying, but not super illegal (e.g. “changing lanes without signaling”, “leaving gum under a table”, “chewing with their mouth open.”
  3. The teacher serves as an inquisitor.  Ask the student a question related to the crime.
    1. “Why were you chewing with your mouth open?’
    2. “We have a security video of you sticking gum under the chair.  Explain yourself.”
  4. The defendant answers the question using only gestures and gibberish (nonsensical speech).
  5. The attorney then “translates” the defendant’s gibberish into English.
  6. The students in the audience can serve as a jury and vote to either convict or acquit the defendant of the crime.
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It’s gotta be illegal for a dog to look that cute.  Or wear that much make-up >_<

In Conclusion

These are only nine of the infinite permutations of improv games one can use in class.  Improv allows students to role-play, have fun, laugh, and practice their English.  Not to mention improv has numerous other benefits like enhanced social confidence, listening skills, situational awareness, presence, and acceptance.  In a club activity or after-school class, improv makes a fun addition to anyone’s English curriculum.

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