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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Introducing yourself to the class a different way
A technique from the 1980's

Leslie Bob Wolff, Universidad de la Laguna, Canarias, Spain

The first day of class often begins with the teacher saying something like the first part of the title of this article, introducing herself to the class. The icebreaker I am going to describe and comment on is an alternative to this traditional presentation. It is called 'The Answers' and was initially inspired by an activity of the same name from Frank and Rinvolucri's Grammar in Practice. I have used this version with every level of students, from total beginners to very advanced ones and on teacher courses as well. It can take as little as ten minutes or an entire class period, depending largely on how much time you want to invest. As a way to non-verbally tell the class, from the first moment, that this course may not be what they expect, I have found nothing better.

The way to begin is by writing 'The Answers' in the center of the board and underneath it, answers about yourself. The degree of ambiguity of the answers depends on the language and cognitive levels of the students, and also on the degree of mystery you want to have.

The next step is to tell the class that these are answers about yourself but that one problem with answers is that they do not make sense most of the time if one does not know the question. Therefore they need to ask questions to understand the answers.

Here is an example of what I mean. The questions that correspond to each answer are in parenthesis after it.

1 Leslie
2 Bobb Wolff
3 in the next town after Las Canteras going towards Tejina
4 near where Bruce Springsteen was
5 since March '91
6 since 1971
(What is your first/Christian name?)
(What is your surname/last name?)
(Where do you live?)

(Where were you born?)
(How long have you lived here?)
(How long have you had Spanish citizenship?)

Before the students begin to think about the possible questions, I ask if they can understand my handwriting on the board and if there are any words they do not know. Then they are asked to get into groups of three to four and to discuss and write what they think the questions are. I give the class a few minutes, sometimes walking around a bit to see how far they have gotten with their questions. With four to six answers, five minutes may be enough time for the students to work out the possible questions in small groups.

Then you stop the small group work and ask for their questions. As questions are asked, grammatical or pronunciation correction can either be done by repeating the question with a mistake correctly, or with finger / hand / gesture correction, or making a face to the class, asking for help to improve the question. I think that it is important that the teacher not correct overtly any mistakes of form.

If a question does not respond to an answer, what I say is something like one of these: "That's a fantastic question for that answer but unfortunately it's not the right question.", "That's getting close." "Thank you for that wonderful question but I'm afraid not." When students do have the question that matches my answer, I try to congratulate rather wildly with something like, "Brilliant!", "Fantastic", "Obviously the best students I've ever had", etc. I do this especially with the first two answers, which are pretty obvious, so as to impart a more game-like atmosphere.

If this goes on for more than five to ten minutes and some answers do not get the right question, I either start giving hints or just leave them with some remark in the line of "well, that will just be a mystery about me that you can't solve yet!"

Note that these answers are personal information, not about the subject we will be doing during the term. I think that it is a good idea to give students a bit of information about oneself; it needn't be very personal, as can be seen in mine. When working with teachers, I tend to mix personal answers with some related to the specific course we will be working on together.

As an example from a beginners' level with 11- year olds, on their third day of class, their first with me, these are the answers I put on the board:

1 Leslie
2 in Madrid near the Rastro
3 in September
4 in Alcalá de Henares
5 in the USA near Bruce Springsteen
6 in 1966

First I had the class read over my answers and we checked for words in English they couldn't understand (the only ones are "in" and "near"). The class asked the questions in Spanish except for "What's your name?" - the only question they knew in English at that point.

A second step or an alternative

Once the students have worked through the questions to my answers on the board, I often add another step and ask the students, staying in the same groups, to write any other questions they would like to ask me; either about myself or about the course we are beginning together. I give them another five minutes to discuss and write these questions and then, again as a whole class activity, let small groups take turns asking me their questions, which I try to answer more or less briefly.

With students of an intermediate and above level, instead of me writing the answers on the board, I have tried starting by having the class, in small groups, write the questions they want to ask me. I give them some five to ten minutes (keeping an eye on them after five minutes to make sure they don't get bored).

Then, with the whole class, we go group by group, each one in turn asking one of their questions. After all the groups have asked one, we start a second round. This can go on 10-15 minutes (or the whole hour if you're not careful). Correction of their questions is done the same as above.

What's the difference?

The first way of working (I put my answers on the board) gives me more control of what I can be asked. With the second (the alternative) I must be prepared to answer whatever I am asked, and, therefore, this is somewhat more of a risk for me as a teacher. Up to the present, however, I haven't been asked any "indelicate" questions.

The only drawback I've found with the alternative, with classes who haven't worked with me at all, is that sometimes they only center on questions about the course. I tend nowadays to prefer doing first my given answers and then additional questions they want to ask me.

A third step with methodology students and sometimes with teachers

With methodology students and sometimes with teachers, I ask the students to work five minutes more in the groups to think about and write the objectives of this activity, then ask the groups to present their ideas. I find this useful as a first time of pointing out that they will have to be not only doing activities in class with me but always also thinking about the objectives of what we do, why, how they could be varied, etc.

And after the teacher's Answers?

Once you've finished with your answers, you can, of course, then use this activity as described by Frank and Rinvolucri, giving the students five minutes to write their answers individually on good - sized pieces of paper and then another ten minutes to walk around the room asking each other questions to figure out their answers. When I have used this, I have suggested that the students, when deciding on their 'answers' think about what they want to tell others about themselves and what they would like to know about others.

Objectives or why bother?

The reasons for starting a course with this activity are many. One linguistic objective of this activity is that it helps me begin to see the students' level. If you analyze the questions you can see that they go from linguistically very easy to more complex. Another reason is that it is good practice for students to have to formulate questions rather than just answering them.

A further objective is related to treatment of mistakes. From the first moment, working this way introduces the concept that teacher will not correct mistakes but will sometimes point out that there is one, but that it's the class's job to do the correcting. (Again, this is not stated explicitly but through actions - much more powerful.)

However there are also several non-linguistic objectives. One is related to classroom dynamics. This is an unexpected and surprising way of introducing yourself to your students; you are transmitting nonverbally that this class may not be the same as a traditional one. Surprising students is not a bad way to get them motivated right from the first day of a term.

Another objective, related to classroom dynamics, is that the students begin, from their very first activity, to work in small groups, helping each other to figure out the possible questions to match the answers on the board and then thinking up and deciding more questions to ask.

A third objective, also related to classroom dynamics, also shown but not verbalized, is that of who is doing the work: it is mostly the students. A good deal of the time the teacher is silent and apart, letting the students get on with their work. This happens while they are figuring out the questions and then while they are discussing and writing the second set of questions. Furthermore, students have an active role in the introduction of the subject. Especially with the second part, where students formulate their own questions, they are resolving their doubts, not the ones I, their teacher, think they might have.

Another reason for using 'The Answers' this way is related to something Jane Honka wrote, that of teacher "being 'real' in class - "laying yourself on the line". It also reverses the typical roles of student and teacher, instead of the teacher choosing and asking all the questions, now it is the students doing so.

What do students say about 'The Answers'?

In some of my subjects, students are required to keep journals about the classes. Here are a few comments from them about using this activity.

"Instead of coming into the room and talking all the time, the teacher asks us what we want to know. This first activity makes us think we are important for the teacher and we are going to be taken into account."

"The first activity was a surprising and shocking way of starting. The usually thing is that the teacher just tells us what he/she thinks is relevant to us. But in this way the teacher gives us an opportunity to decide what questions we want to ask."

"This exercise surprised me because I expected the teacher to begin the class by giving us the program and a sort of presentation. Instead we got completely involved in an activity that stimulates our minds in terms of the purpose and the objectives of this subject."

I think a teacher should know what her/his objectives are for each activity done in class, that is, 'why am I doing this?', 'why am I asking my students to put time into this?', 'how will this advance these students towards the objectives they have for this course?'. Some years ago, writing about icebreakers I commented that some might seem, at first glance to be a waste of time. 'The Answers' is a good example of this possibility. As a teacher, you may think that it's so much faster to simply introduce yourself to the class and give a bit of background information. However, I still believe that this investment of time is one of the best you can make. Showing, rather than saying, what type of class you plan to have is essential to start out right. Students are often not convinced by nice words or promises from a teacher concerning 'a class where we're all working together' or 'a class where everyone will listen to everyone not just to the teacher' or 'a class where the students take responsibility'. Doing things that show that attitude is far more convincing.

I must confess that another reason I have for starting with 'The Answers' is that, working within a paradigm of learner autonomy, I want to introduce the idea of what this means as soon as possible, although, here, not explicitly. Learner autonomy, in my opinion, is largely about getting students to think for themselves, to take some control of their learning. As can be seen from the objectives above, 'The Answers' begins this work.


Bobb Wolff, L. 1991. "Why use icebreakers?" Practical English Teaching, 11/4:25.
Frank & Rinvolucri 1991. Grammar in Action Again. London: Prentice Hall. p. 15
Honka, J. 2001. "Teacher/learner metacommunication: reversing roles for learning" In Karlsson, L., F.
Kjisik & Norlund, J. (eds.) All Together Now. Helsinki: University of Helsinki Language Centre. 116-121.

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