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Quick Motivators and Warm Ups for World Language Classes

Thanks to everyone who joined us Thursday evening for a wonderful #langchat, and especially to our moderator, @DiegoOjeda66! Our topic was on three to five minute motivators, or warm ups, to get students ready for class — and participants blew us away with all the fantastic suggestions! We shared so many great ideas and resources for use in the world language classroom that it was difficult to include them all, but the summary is below or you can view the full archive in Google Docs. Grab a cup of coffee and be prepared to come back a few times, the amount of ideas that teachers shared is staggering!

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Quick Motivators and Warm-ups for World Language ClassesWhat Are Motivators and Why Do We Use Them?

Motivators, warm ups and bell ringers are all activities that are great ways to get the ball rolling in class (@dr_dmd). These activities get students interested, engaged and ready to study. In our chat, we used the three terms interchangeably, though “bell ringer” often refers to a warm up or activity used at the beginning of class.

As a mini poll within #langchat, @tmsaue1 asked participants why they do these activities — what purpose are teachers trying to achieve? Everyone shared their reasons, with some of the answers highlighted below.

  • @SECottrell thinks the first requirement of motivators is to have a communicative purpose to get students thinking in the target language — it can’t just be a “well, let’s transition to language class” moment.
  • @klafrench uses bell ringers to activate prior knowledge and get students comfortable using, seeing and listening to the language again.
  • @ZJonesSpanish also uses bell ringers to engage students upon arrival in class and as a class management and scheduling tool.
  • @katchiringa likes how bell ringers keep kids focused while she takes attendance and checks homework. She also uses them to recall information, transition to the day’s lesson and spot-check problem areas.
  • @lisamonthie uses motivators to check and fix problem areas and common misconceptions.
  • @dr_dmd thinks motivators are great to use not only because they’re fun, but also for spontaneity and adding energy to the classroom. They’re also quick assessments of comprehension and communication.
  • @mmebrady put it simply: “brain activation.” @lisamonthie stated the same a little more directly:

If the bum is numb, so is the brain.

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When Should Language Teachers Use Motivators in Class?

What do your students do when the bell rings?

What do your students do when the bell rings?

Bell ringers are motivators primarily used at the beginning of class, before or just after the bell rings. Motivators and warm ups are great to use at other times, as well, though. @DiegoOjeda66 thinks that we should use motivators throughout class to keep students engaged. He likes to use several short activities as transitions. In planning transitions and activities, @SECottrell thinks it’s important to remember that students’ low point of interest is 20 or more minutes. So, in a 50-minute class, students need two warm-up or motivator activities.

Most participants use short motivators, usually no more than five minutes long. Many teachers let students work in bell ringers upon arrival, but they don’t have to finish until five minutes after the bell rings. @SECottrell likes to use motivators about halfway through the class to regain momentum and focus kids on the second half. @lisamonthie’s uses one activity about 25 minutes into class and another to close and recap the lesson.

Motivator and Warm Up Ideas for the Foreign Language Classroom

Participants shared an enormous amount of activities and ideas for motivator activities, and we’ve included a list of them below. Motivators often combine more than one area of application, from speaking, listening, reading or writing. Some activities focus on student-created content, others on recall of the last lesson. All are brief, interactive assignments that can get kids engaged in class and applying the target language.

In planning activities, several teachers like letting students pick the area or content to increase engagement and target-language practice. For example, when speaking, @msfrenchteach likes to let students choose their own scenarios; when writing, @klafrench likes to let students choose a topic that they can relate to.

Several teachers use videos, readings and songs to introduce a topic or set the mood for class. @katchiringa and @ZJonesSpanish like to use songs, sometimes with dancing! For reading, try comics. @spanishplans suggests for Spanish-language comics.

For discussion with songs, @karacjacobs watches a music video in the target language and then discusses the video with students. @dr_dmd often uses short videos on YouTube — there are many available — followed by a review to get students interested and engaged in class.

In addition to introducing the topic, songs are great ways to practice listening, comprehension and even writing. @spanishplans cuts up the lyrics to songs and puts them in envelopes. Students listen to the songs and put the lyrics in the correct order.

To practice speaking, writing, listening and imagination, @DiegoOjeda66 makes class stories where each kid adds one word to the narrative. A variation is for the teacher to begin telling the story of what he did the day before and students must finish the tale.

Quite a few participants like to start each day with some small conversation and greeting practice between students to get them comfortable using the target language. Simply greeting and responding to greetings is effective, but higher-level students can also have quick, paired speaking activities.

  • For example, @katchiringa likes to use a Turn and Talk activity. In these, students get a simple question for conversation starters and must speak with their neighbors.
  • Another example by @lisamonthie is a Take Three Steps activity where students must find a partner or small group. Once paired up, students use the target language to share something they learned yesterday.
  • Many participants use quick circumlocution activities that involve students walking around and speaking with their peers, like @ZJonesSpanish’s P-P-P (Pregunta-Pregunta-Pasa). In his activity, students are given prewritten questions as they walk in. They then walk around and find a partner, ask a question, answer their partners’ question and then switch questions and find new partners. Questions get passed around very quickly and students get a good amount of repetition as well. A variation on this is to give students cards with words on them. Students have to make a sentence, listen to a sentence and then exchange cards.
Seriously, keep this post in your bookmarks & Pins to reference every time you lesson plan!

Seriously, keep this post in your bookmarks & Pins to reference every time you lesson plan!

Many suggestions focused on using prompts (best if authentic!) or other conversation topics to hold class discussions rather than pair work.

  • A few participants suggested an easy speaking exercise that lowers kids’ barriers: put on funny hats or wigs and discuss a topic.
  • @DiegoOjeda66 projects the front page of a target-language newspaper and discusses the news with students.
  • If you use Edmodo in your class, @lesliedavison suggests pulling up the comments from the night before and discussing in Spanish. Students usually are interested to read what their classmates have written. Similarly, @msfrenchteach has students who like to listen to the previous day’s Google Voice messages.
  • @tiesamgraf uses the site Awkward Family Photos as a writing or speaking prompt — be sure to preview and select some pictures before class!
  • @SECottrell made a short authentic discussion activity from trending topics on #4palabrasqueduelen for students; check it out at her blog.
  • The M&M Game is great for warm ups, according to @klafrench. In this game, students can take as many M&Ms as they like from a jar — but they owe you one sentence for each. Students can write sentences or produce oral statements. This can be really fun if you explain the rules after students take their candy! For variations, try different candies, culturally appropriate candy, toilet paper (don’t eat!) or healthy foods such as baby carrots.
  • @mmebrady suggests using a beach ball as a quick speaking activity for students. Each color represents a different topic; students toss the ball around and use the color that is touching their left thumb.
  • Some teachers use polls to get students talking and discussing ideas. @mmebrady suggests using a quick text message poll from a poll service such as Poll Everywhere. @lisamonthie uses

Several teachers use short bell ringers to review with students. Some like to use this for lower-level students only, while at higher levels students can do more free writing. These questions are often written, and students begin working on them when they enter the classroom. Oral review questions are also great, but make sure that all students are involved rather than a few volunteers.

  • @lisamonthie does a variant called Find the Fib. Students create several sentences reviewing the previous lesson’s content, one of which is false. @SECottrell likes Two Truths and a Lie.
  • @DiegoOjeda66 uses past projects to create Trivial Pursuit questions with students; they then play at the beginning of class as a fun review activity.

Written bell ringers don’t have to be only for review, though. Many participants use writing to get students comfortable thinking and using the target language rather than to test what they remember from the previous lesson.

  • @dr_dmd and @msfrenchteach like to show a picture and ask students to write quickly about the image. Students can describe what they see or what they think happened before and after the picture was taken.
  • @tiesamgraf plays instrumental music and asks the kids to write a narrative while imagining the story of the song.
  • @mmebrady will play short videos with no sound, and students have to write the soundtrack.
  • @lisamonthie uses a quick activity where students write everything they know about a concept within one minute, then meet in pairs and discuss and share their information.

Cloze activities are great listening exercises for warm up and review. Check out @ZJonesSpanish’s site for some Spanish ideas. Cloze activities work well with commercials, too; check out @SECottrell’s list of Spanish commercials on Google Docs. Add your own, if you’d like.

Bell ringers are commonly used to review vocabulary. @DiegoOjeda66 suggests that these are best suited for before class to review content, rather than as a motivator in the middle of class or to transition to new activities.

  • To practice as a class, @lisamonthie lines students up and asks them to spell words together. One student, one letter.
  • Another vocabulary activity is to give students a number and they must come up with words in the target language that have that many letters — this activity, suggested by @DiegoOjeda66, has many variations, such as requiring words to start with a particular letter.
  • To keep students excited, @lisamonthie writes vocabulary on sticky notes and attaches them to a Frisbee. Students toss the Frisbee around class and pick words to define. If they define a word correctly, they keep the note; the student with the most at the end of class wins.
  • For a speaking vocabulary activity, @alenord likes to use Taboo as a model and have kids define words without using the word.
  • Another interactive idea is to have students roll a die to determine the action they use to define a target word to the rest of class. Actions can be explaining, drawing or acting.

Icebreakers are also great to start or transition class. These activities put kids at ease and allow them to practice simple sentences. An example suggested by @alenord is the classic no-smile, no-laugh response. Students ask one of their classmates questions in the target language and their classmate — who can’t smile — can only answer with a humorous word, such as “queso” in Spanish. @dr_dmd likes to pin a picture of a well-known individual on the back of a student, who then has to ask the class yes/no questions to guess who he is.

@louvre2012 likes to involve kids in bell ringers by letting students play as the teacher. A student comes to the front and asks the others questions.

For other ideas, @alenord says that sometimes a great warm up is just a rapid-fire version of a previous activity. If students make skits, for example, have them repeat the skit to the best of their memory the next day.

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Activity Resources

Several teachers provided links to lists of additional ideas, tools or resources, or blog posts describing bell ringer and motivator techniques.

  • @spanishplans posted about using bell ringers in level 1 classes on this Web site.
  • Check out the @Musicuentos Brain Break Pinterest board.
  • Several teachers recommend the Fruit Machine tool from to assist with short motivators in the classroom. This tool allows you to input a list of names, words or sentences and then it will randomly choose an item from the list for your use.
  • @ZJonesSpanish just released a collection of 15 bell ringers for Spanish-language classes.
  • @mmebrady suggests using for students to create a newspaper using RSS feeds or Twitter.
  • @LevansHHS recommends Quia for lots of different activities and tools, from Jeopardy to flashcards, battleship to Web quests.


Thank You!

Wow. Thanks again to all the participants of Thursday’s #langchat, which was one of the most furious and engaging chats we’ve had. There were some terrific resources and games shared, and this summary or the archives is most certainly worth bookmarking to come back and review over and over again. I’m sure everyone can take something away from all the fantastic ideas.

Be sure to check out our wiki at, and monitor the #langchat hashtag for news about next Thursday’s topic — don’t forget to vote and choose the subject you’d most like to discuss!

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Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.


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