A discussion about using warmers in English classrooms.

I'm a student from Latvia and a future teacher of English. I have to write my diploma paper about warm-up activities in English lessons. Your web page is a great practical resource. However, I also need some theory as to why warm-up activities are good and why they should be used. Are there any good theory books on this topic? In our country no-one has really researched this field, so there are no resources here. Thank you in advance!


Dear Silva,

I was wondering about your question ‘the theory of warmers’ and indeed asked myself if there was such a thing. As you seem to be confident with the practical side of things, what might be useful for you is to think about what the purpose of a warm up activity is - and it seems there are several worth mentioning. These may then be linked quite closely to different theories of second language acquisition. Some ideas you might want to follow up:

To create a positive atmosphere for learning

When students arrive in the lesson at perhaps the end of a busy working day or in the middle of a packed study day, their minds are full – and mostly full of other things that might distract them from the purpose of learning. It is widely recognized that we learn best when we are comfortable and relaxed – Maslow’s theory on the hierarchy of needs suggests that we need to be physically comfortable, not too hungry or cold, and importantly that we need to feel safe, loved even. No that we cannot learn when the conditions are not ideal, but that we learn best when our physical and emotional needs are satisfied. So a warm up activity that promotes relaxation and fun, that does not stress students or demand too much of them, is a good place to start.

Students can leave behind the stresses of their real lives when they are working together to list ‘green foods’ or whatever it is you are asking them to do. Krashen too, may be someone to refer to here – he talks about the ‘affective filter’ that prevents our ‘Language Acquisition Device’ from working well. What does this mean in ordinary terms? People learn best when they are comfortable, and a warm-up activity is about making them feel comfortable. Basically, if you are stressed, anxious or self-conscious, you are unlikely to learn anything. This is most particularly a feature with adult learners, as you know self-consciousness is not something that children generally have a problem with until a certain age…. You might like also to look at the work of Carl Rogers, in relation to the way humanism informs learning.

  • Maslow, A. (1970) Motivation and Personality
  • Rogers, C. (1994) Freedom To Learn 

Activating schemata

If we look at the place of ‘warmers’ in a lesson, a teacher will often use a warm-up activity at the start, in order to lead in to skills work. In this case the purpose could be linked to a cognitivist viewpoint, where learning is not passive but an active process of making sense of things. The teacher who warms up to the reading by introducing the topic and inviting students to discuss is activating schemata – alerting the student to any prior information, knowledge or experience of the topic of the text so that they can access the lesson most effectively. A schema can be said to be a kind of memory, based on our expectations of what normally happens. When we look at texts in our own language, for example, we unconsciously recall previous knowledge of a topic or skill area. We look at the pictures, the font, the page layout and make certain judgements about what we see. A warm-up activity is a way for a teacher to enable students to make these links in an additional language and thus transfer skills across – creating the memories in another language. So in terms of learning theory, the warm up plays a very important part.

Revision and recycling

Many teachers use the warm-up stage to recap on the previous lesson. They can see how much has been retained and decide where to go next. This is good for the learner too, who can measure his or her own progress through homework and revision tasks. Some learners will be able to access material successfully second time around, when it is presented in a manner that they find more appealing – visually, kinaesthetically etc. If you find this interesting, it might be useful for you to look at the many Learning Styles audits for more ideas on this.

It has been well documented that we find it difficult to retain new language unless we see it again within 24 hours, and then again within a week, a month and so on. What is fascinating is that what many good teachers do in practice – perhaps unwittingly – is underpinned by solid rationale.

Language and communication

Communicative approaches recognize the fact that a good learner needs to have ownership of language. It is now understood that restricted written or spoken exercises, where a student can manipulate language in a very controlled manner seem to have little effect outside the classroom. Many students have studied ‘the theory’ for years and years, but when it comes to it, just can’t quite bring themselves to speak. The warm-up stage, however, where students have the chance to be playful with language and create their own communication, is an important step to effective language ownership. Errors are tolerated in this stage, because the main purpose is conversational interaction. While some learners express doubts about unstructured pairwork, ‘We might learn each others’ mistakes’, there is evidence to suggest that the successful language learner does in fact improve communicative competence through such exercises. And also have fun, which takes us back to the initial purpose suggested.

So I hope Silva, that you will be able to make some links and follow up some of these ways of reconciling classroom practice and theory. Good luck with your diploma!

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