Female teacher talking to student

How to build rapport in the ESL classroom with engaging icebreakers





Date Published

28 March 2022

While building rapport is essential in any classroom, it is especially important in ESL classes. For students to freely express themselves and be willing to make language mistakes, teachers need to foster a comfortable environment. One way to build rapport is by including icebreakers, or interactive activities, designed to create a welcoming environment.

In this post, I’ll explain why rapport building in the ESL classroom is especially important for learners today and how ESL instructors can utilize the information they gain from icebreaker activities to continue to create a positive and engaging classroom community the entire term. I’ll also highlight three specific rapport-building activities you can use with your own ESL students.

What is rapport, and why does it matter for today’s learner?

In Jeremy Harmer’s (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching handbook, he defines rapport as “the relationship that the learners have with teachers and vice versa.” He explains that a class with good rapport is “a class where there is a positive, enjoyable, and respectful relationship between teachers and learners and between learners themselves” (p. 113). In order to build rapport, we need to know who our learners are. Many ESL students today, especially those studying English for higher education purposes and those preparing for proficiency exams like IELTS, are Generation Z students. Gen Z students are “digital natives.” They have never experienced life without the internet, social media, or smart phones.

In a keynote address, acclaimed generational speaker, Jason Dorsey, explained that Gen Z students communicate differently from other generations and that if we understand this difference, we can engage with them. He explained that with these students, the first 5 – 10 minutes of class sets the tone for the entire term and that “if you get it right, you set the trajectory for the rest of the class.” This is why it is incredibly important for teachers to incorporate rapport-building activities that engage and inspire students right away.

How to Build and Maintain Rapport in the ESL Classroom

There are hundreds of icebreakers that can be utilized in the ESL classroom that both build rapport and reach our Gen Z students. I have found that utilizing multiple and diverse icebreakers that reach both introverts and extroverts throughout the term engages students and builds a positive classroom community. Here are some of my favorites:

Speed friending:

Have students stand up and face each other creating two lines. Pose a question or topic for students to discuss (e.g. share your 3 favorite foods, find 3 things that you have in common), and give them 1 – 2 minutes so that each student can share. Then switch partners by having the students in one line take a step to the right and have everyone move over so that each student has a new partner. Do it again with a new topic or question.

Figure 1: Image of students in two lines

Scavenger hunts:

Scavenger hunts can be used as fun, energetic activities that build community. In case you aren’t familiar with them, a scavenger hunt is a game in which the teacher creates a list of items for students to find or actions for them to complete. Scavenger hunts are competitive, timed, and conducive to creating positive interactions. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • If you are teaching a virtual class, you can separate students into Zoom rooms and have them work together to find as many items in their homes as they can from a list given by the teacher.
Figure 2: Example of Zoom scavenger hunt list
  • For virtual or in-person classes, you can assign a syllabus scavenger hunt, which requires students to skim and scan the syllabus to answer specific questions about the course. This activity encourages interaction and helps them learn more about the course.
  • For in-person classes, I like to have students work in teams and go outside of the classroom for engaging interactive tasks. For example, for one scavenger hunt task, you could ask students to leave the classroom and find the ESL tutoring coordinator’s office. You could require students to complete a task like getting a signed tutoring schedule flyer from the coordinator. This type of task gives students an opportunity to collaborate while learning about university resources.

Self-introduction letters and videos:

Posting a personalized self-introduction video or letter that may even include pictures of your family, pets, favorite dishes, hobbies, or travel destinations gives students the opportunity to quickly learn about you. And, asking students to do the same gives you and other students the opportunity to learn about them. This activity can also serve as a diagnostic tool. I like to take the time to respond to each letter with a follow up email or written response, which shows students that I took the time to read their letters and to get to know them.

Chat channels:

Creating a class group or channel by using tools like SLACK, Microsoft Teams or WeChat is an excellent way to build rapport and reach Gen Z students. These channels give instructors the opportunity to interact with students faster and more frequently. Questions can be answered immediately, and even documents, announcements, feedback, and reminders can be shared. In addition, faculty can build rapport and community through entertaining and relevant posts and engagement tasks or questions.

The information you gain from your ice-breaker activities can be used to maintain rapport the entire term. To keep track of the information, I like to use index cards. On the front of the card, I include the student’s name. On the back of the card, I add information I learned about the student (such as hobbies, interests, favorite foods, etc.) during rapport-building activities. I keep adding to the card throughout the term and even add specific feedback for the individual student (for example, strengths and areas of improvement) so that I can better connect and support the student during the term. The cards also serve as great tools to call on and group students!

  • How do you build and maintain rapport in your ESL classes? We’d love to hear about it on the IELTS LinkedIn Page.

About the author

Alison Camacho is the Marketing and Outreach Manager for English Language Programs at Georgetown University. She has worked in international education for 23 years as a teacher, supervisor, project coordinator, curriculum developer, and teacher educator. Her pedagogical interests include materials development and design and interactive language teaching techniques.

  • The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the guest contributing writer. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of IELTS.