Breaking the Ice Everyday (by Mark Kulek)

I work in a small English conversation school for children. At the beginning of each class, I have my students sit on the floor in a semicircle facing me. I am also seated on the floor. This is the signal to start an activity to break the ice. Through no fault of their own, as the students enter my school they are leaving their comfort zone, where people speak Japanese, and entering an alien place where English is spoken. To bridge this transition, I want the beginning of each class to be easy and safe for my students.

In breaking the ice, I ask my students how their day was, what they had for breakfast or lunch and if they have any good news that they would like to share with the class. This is also prime time to review vocabulary and preview future vocabulary in a relaxing way.

New and recycled vocabulary should be presented in a context of themes and situations for better acquisition. I like using vocabulary picture cards for these ice breaker activities. I never found any flashcards that  met my expectations for presenting vocabulary in natural ways, so I made my own vocabulary cards.

Eventually, I decided to produce and sell them so other teachers could use them, too. My vocabulary-based conversation cards have three main components: a conversation starter card, a prompt card and related vocabulary cards. The cards are grouped into everyday themes. For example, pack one contains greetings, family members, rooms, items and actions in the home, 55 cards in total. The cards are gloss-coated, heavy-duty, measure 7.3 x 11 cm and are made in Japan.

Here’s a short video of me using the cards with my students:

While I hope teachers in Japan will choose to use my cards, it’s certainly easy enough to make your own conversation cards, and there are a lot of ways you can use conversation cards to break the ice in your own classes.

Activities with conversation cards

Language Review

Stagger the cards like a conversation. Place the conversation starter card on top. Then place the prompt card below it and to the right. Next to the open slots, related vocabulary cards are placed. The cards are read aloud by the class as the teacher substitutes the related vocabulary cards in the open slots. Basically, this is drilling, but I like to call it practicing. A conversation might go something like this:

A: Where is … (the pillow, the telephone, the soap, the towel, etc.)?

                                 B: It’s in … (the bedroom, the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, etc.).

conversation cards 1


conversation cards 2









The pattern is simple and easy to understand so that the students can succeed and build confidence to communicate in English.

Items That Go In A Room

This is a popular activity at my school. The teacher places the four room cards on one end of the classroom and the students are at the other end of the classroom. Divide all the item cards among the students (the students shouldn’t look at the cards). Once all the cards are passed out, the students can look at their cards. The teacher then calls out, Items that go in the bedroom, for example. The students run to the bedroom card and place the correct vocabulary cards next to the bedroom card. The teacher then continues onto the next room.

Brainstorm On The Whiteboard

This is a nice follow up activity, without the cards. This tests their recall of items and improves long term memory. Students try to remember as many of the vocabulary words as possible from a thematic group. They tell the teachers, who writes the words on the board, or older students can work together to remember and write.

Thank you for letting me share my ideas and my cards with you. There are many other creative activities that can be done. If you use vocabulary and conversation cards in your classes, I’d  to hear about some of your activities, too!

Note: This article by Mark Kulek originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.


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7 Responses

  1. Jane Rocha says:

    Dear Mr. Mark Kulek, thank you for making, sharing and posting great materials for us students and teachers of English worldwide. Your work has been extremely helpful for us to improve our vocabulary and pronunciation, and most of all, to feel motivated about expressing ourselves in a foreign language.
    Right now, we public school teachers in the Federal District, Brazil, are on vacation from work, and most schools in our country aren’t working due to the Carnival time celebration over these past 5 days. Regardless of that, I do thank you for your articles on the tips and ideas on how to break the ice in class and activities with conversation cards, as they will be very useful for us when we start our own classes soon!
    May you be very happy and successful in your personal and professional projects. Wishes of a lot of peace, good health, joy, harmony and happiness to you, all yours and everyone else everywhere. Have you all a great day!:)

    • Mark Kulek says:

      Hello Jane! Thank you for your kind words of encouragement. I feel very humble reading your comment. Have a great break and please enjoy yourself during Carnival!

  2. Guadalupe diez Viñayo says:

    I would like to purchase some of your conversation cards, but as all the info is in Japanese I can’t do so. Where could I find a translation?
    Many thanks.

  3. Greg Crawford says:

    Nice post Mark and some good new ideas for using the cards at our school. Thanks 🙂

    • Mark Kulek says:

      Hi Greg! You are very welcome. I also want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to read this post and then to comment. Thank you for your kind support. I will see you soon in Nagoya. Until then, take it easy 🙂

  4. SmileTutor says:

    I have to say, your articles are very informative and practical. When conducting language learning classes, it is imperative to conduct effective ice-breaking activities to help learners warm up and get comfortable socializing and talker. I constantly emphasize that to my Singapore tutors when conducting language classes.

    One favourite ice breaking activity of mine is called “Bring Back My Bonny”

    Get the group into a large circle.

    The idea of this game is that every time the leader says a word beginning with a B the group stands up or sits down, depending upon if you are standing or sitting at that time.

    The leader should make sure the group understands and then starts to sing the song “Bring Back my Bonny”

    My Bonny lies over the ocean. My Bonny lies over the sea.
    My Bonny lies over the ocean. Oh bring back my Bonny to me.
    Bring back, bring back, bring back my Bonny to me, to me (sing the line 2 times)

    This is a great game as participants get to improve their hearing and recognize the English alphabet better. Perfect ice breaking game for language classes!