Back to school activities – starting off right

Here we are again, my fellow teachers. The summer holidays have all but gone, and now I can almost feel teachers itching with anticipation, dread and, dare I say, a little bit of joy at returning to the classroom. I know, it’s a mixed bag, but one thing we are all in agreement on is that the start of the year is an important time for both ourselves and our learners. In my mind, these first two weeks of classes are vital in ensuring the class starts correctly, group dynamics are dealt with, and a good level of rapport is created. With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of activities you might decide to try out.

But first…

But before we get into all the ideas (I know that’s why you’re here!), I’d like you to think about last year’s first two weeks of first term. Try to answer these questions:

  • What activities did you try? Why?
  • How successful do you feel this period was at establishing good group dynamics? What about rapport?
  • How successful do you feel this period was at establishing clear classroom ground rules?
  • If you could have changed one thing, what would it have been?

Obviously, that was a while ago, so you are forgiven if you can’t remember all the details. It is important, however, to think back on these ‘periods’ in which we try new activities, techniques, routines, etc. as by doing this we can (hopefully effectively) evaluate the success of our actions whilst at the same time identifying possible areas for improvement for future periods. With this in mind, at the end of this first two weeks of term, try asking yourself these questions again!

A word on course books

I know that many teachers work from course books (I’m not here to get into a heated debate over how to use them); however, I would argue that the first (almost) two weeks of classes should be course book-free. Why?

  • Easing learners in: Learners do not want to move into the course books straight away. It’s disjointing, awkward and, straight after the summer, is going to be a little demotivating.
  • Lack of rapport building: Rapport building amongst learners and teachers is a very important aspect of the first two weeks. We know that teachers and learners play significant roles in motivating each other (Dornyëi, 2001), and one of the surefire ways that these relationships can have a positive effect on motivation is to ensure that they are well-formed. Moving straight into the course book pretty much destroys any team-building moments that could take place.
  • Incorrect levels: This is more of a management thing, but one issue that comes up every year is that new learners are placed into groups. Level tests are conducted, but there is always one (or two) learner who is in the wrong group. Perhaps they need to be pushed higher or lower, or maybe they don’t like it and will pull off the course. A number of things could happen. If we give everyone a course book from day one and start using is from day one, then we lose money when they need to get a new course book for the correct level.

Ok, now the activities…

Right, let’s get into it then. Below are a number of activities for the first two weeks. Some of these I have known about for years and years, some of them I have only recently heard about from other teachers. I am not sure who the original creators of these are, so don’t shoot me if I don’t have a reference for them!

Reverse role-play 

  1. Sit in pairs. Interview your partner for five minutes, remembering that in a few minutes you will role-play them. You will have to answer questions about them. 
  2. Change pairs. Now role-play the person you interviewed, answering as many questions as possible. If you do not know the answer to a question, stay cool and invent something that you think could be correct. 
  3. Return to your original partner. No doubt you have some unanswered questions from your role-play. Talk with them again and find out the answers to these questions. 

Making rules 

  1. The teacher asks learners to think of a list of rules for the class. She presents one or two of her own to start.
    1. Arrive on time 
    2. Bring your course books and notebooks to class 
  2. Learners work together to come up with a list of rules in pairs. After some time, the teacher asks learners their rules. The class agrees on 5 – 10 of the most appropriate. 
  3. Learners create classroom rules posters and put these around the room. They sign these, showing that they have made a commitment to the rules. 


  1. The class stands in a circle and passes a ball to one another. When they pass the ball, they need to say their name. 
  2. When all learners have said their names, the game continues – however, this time learners need to say the name of the person they are throwing the ball to. 

Questions first 

  1. Learners write down questions that they would like the answers to regarding other people in the class. 
  2. The class moves around and everyone talks to each other, finding out the answers to their questions. 
  3. A plenary is held and the group shares their information. 

Learner detectives 

  1. The teacher draws five pictures that represent something about their life on the board. Learners need to work in pairs as detectives and guess what each of the pictures means. After the teacher asks the learner detectives to tell him/her about his/her life. The teacher confirms and correct where needed, but only after the final comments. 
  2. The teacher gives learners a piece of paper and they draw five pictures on it. Learners then take turns being detectives, guessing what each others’ pictures represent. 

Snowball fight 

  1. On the board, the teacher writes: name, age, family members, likes, dislikes. 
  2. Each learner has a piece of paper and writes the corresponding information. They then take their pieces of paper and stand against the wall. 
  3. Learners crumple their pieces of paper and then proceed to have a snowball fight. After some time, the teacher says stop, and then learners pick up a snowball. Learners read out the information on the snowballs and introduce the next person to speak. 

Course book quiz 

So, I know I said not to move straight into the course book (which I still stand by whole-heartedly!), but there will come a stage when you will want to introduce it. This activity gets learners to explore the course books and understand what is actually contains.

  1. Before class, the teacher prepares a list of questions for the course book learners are going to use (e.g. Where can you find information about grammar? When do we learn about Australia?). 
  2. Learners are given the coursebook and the quiz. They then work together in pairs to complete the quiz correctly. This may or may not be a competition. 

This can then be extended – why not carry out a small ‘wants’ analysis?

  1. Ask learners in pairs to look through the course book map and rank the units in terms of interest.
  2. Bring group to plenary and have them agree on the order they would like to do the units and which topics they would like to ‘leave out’.

Learner pathways

This is actually an adaptation of the career pathways activity from Wright and Bolitho’s (2007) Trainer Development. It aims to show that everyone’s journey is a little different, and that there is a lot of worth in having a pool of diversity to work with.

  1. Ask learners to think about all their language learning experiences (e.g. the schools, exams, friends they’ve met, teachers they’ve had, etc.) Ask them to visualise this in their mind.
  2. Provide learners with an A4 piece of paper and ask them to draw and write what they saw in their mind. Give them the prompt: Start from the start and draw your pathway until now. Provide them with time to get creative and put their thoughts on paper.
  3. Once learners have finished, have them share in pairs, encouraging them to ask questions about each others. After have them place them around the room.
  4. In pairs and on another piece of paper, learners are tasked with create a profile of the class by reading the career pathways. The profile can be in the form of ‘We have x number of people who have studied here’ or it can be more creative (let me know what you try!).

Class plant

I have to give a shout out to Harry Waters from Renewable English for this one. This is something I want to do with my learners this year as I feel this is a good step in raising awareness of ‘being green’.

  1. Have learners look at a number of seed packets. They need to choose one to plant as a class.
  2. Have them create a plan of who is going to water it and what needs to be done to it.
  3. Have them plant their seed into a pot plant, name it and place it in a good sunny spot.
  4. Every class, the ‘rostered’ person needs to take care of it.

Thinking about appropriateness

You will notice that I haven’t put ages or group sizes in the above descriptions. I will leave that up to you to decide. It is important, however, to think about how these activities might be implemented and with whom. Some of them (e.g. class plant) may not be appropriate for class sizes of more than 30. Some are certainly not appropriate for certain Young Learner groups. Here are some questions to get you thinking:

  • What materials am I going to need?
  • How many learners will I have?
  • What are their levels?
  • What difficulties are likely to arise?
  • Will I need to follow up on anything?

Final notes

This post really is just a short list of activities to try out in the first few weeks of term. Like I have said before, take the time too build relationships with your learners, and for them to build relationships with each other. This will pay off in the long run. There is no reason why you can’t do a number of these activities of different days. If you do try out any of these activities, please let me know how they go! And perhaps you have your own first-day activity – let me know what it is in the comments.

Note: When I say the first two weeks, I am referring to private language academies (generally) in which learners attend two or three times a week. If you work in a private or public school, then this would be different.


Dornyëi, Z. Teaching and Researching Motivation. Pearson Education Limited.

Wright, T. & Bolitho, R. (2007). Trainer Development. Wright and Bolitho.

Featured image: pixel photos.


  1. Rachel Tsateri says:

    Learner pathways..! Nice! 😉 What a book.. It will keep inspiring us for years to come!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am always going back to it! One that every trainer needs to read in my mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The blog is well-written and useful. I’m hoping you’ll start posting more posts soon. Continue to share!

    Liked by 1 person

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