Developing and maintaining a positive classroom atmosphere is vital for language learning. One crucial factor in this is building rapport. This is held to promote student motivation, student participation, cognitive learning, and relationships with peers and instructors (Frisby & Martin, 2010). For magic to transpire in the language classroom, you need a healthy and consistent dose of solid rapport with your students and among the class.

However, while the mantra ‘fake it until you make it’ can be applicable in a variety of situations, you can’t fake rapport. What you can do though is build activities into your lessons that foster it. Setting a tone of reciprocal sharing and learning from the beginning of the course can enable a dynamic and inclusive learning experience for students and tutor alike. It is also important that while creating rapport from the start is imperative, sustaining interpersonal relationships throughout the semester is paramount. This is easier said than done, unfortunately. It is a delicate balancing act ensuring pedagogical goals are achieved, professionalism adhered to, and that the learning environment promotes being innovative and learning from mistakes.

Following are five rapport building activities that can be adapted for a variety of levels and age groups.


Expression dictations

Aim: Building and maintaining rapport by sharing favourite expressions

Resources: Bag or box to hold pieces of paper

Time: 5 minutes

Organisation: Class

Preparation: In the beginning of the semester, ask students to share their favourite English expression or an expression from their L1. Compile the expressions and put in a colourful bag or box. Check for double ups.

Procedure: Tell students that during the course, one student will lead the expression dictation warm-up for the class. One student will come up to the front of the class and without looking choose an expression from the box.

Encourage the student to memorise the expression, identify word and sentence stress, and say the expression clearly.

The rest of the students write down the expression. After repeating the sentence as required, one student writes the expression on the board.

Students then speculate on the meaning of the sentence and guess who chose the expression.

Encourage students to ask the person questions on why they like the expression.

Variation: Make this into a peer dictation by providing two expressions to the pair. Follow similar instructions as above and guess the meaning of the expression and who wrote it.

Observation: This is a different approach to standard dictation practice and students appear genuinely interested in learning new expressions that are important to the person who selected it.


Snowball fight!

This activity is adapted from one shared by high school educator Marcus Moore (Edutopia, 2018).

Aim: Maintain rapport; establishing commonality during the middle of the semester

Resources: Large classroom, with the chairs and desks moved to the side so students can make a large circle; two differently coloured sheets of paper for each student, black pen, stopwatch

Time: 20 minutes

Organisation: Class then move to groups

Procedure: Hand out the two coloured sheets of paper to your class.

Step 1: Write out the prompt:
I like English because __________________ .
I don’t like English because ________________ .

Designate one paper colour (e.g. yellow) to represent the positive response and the other (e.g. green) to represent the negative response. Students complete the prompts, writing their responses on their corresponding sheet of paper. Direct students not to include their name and for the class to use the same colour pen to ensure anonymity so that they share their honest opinions. Check to make sure students are clear about the instructions and that they do not show each other what they write.

Step 2: Get students to make a large circle. Model the next step by taking the two sheets of paper and crumple it into a ball. Check the meaning of snowball fight and tell them that they will throw the crumpled pieces of paper at each other. Set the timer for 1 minute. Yell out, ‘snowball fight’ and get students to throw their own paper ball and then pick up another one and keep throwing it until the alarm goes off. When the buzzer beeps, students grab one ball of each colour.

Step 3: Students form groups of 3–4 and read out the paper they picked up. Students share and comment whether they agree or disagree with the answers. Encourage students to develop ways they can improve on the aspects of English their classmates dislike. If time permits, you can have students share the best prompts and their suggestions for improving the class.

Variation: Using the snowball action as a template, you can ask your students a plethora of question prompts.

Example prompts:

  • What I like the most about New Zealand is … What I don’t like about New Zealand is …
  • My favourite thing about this class … One thing I would change about this class …

Observations: This is a perfect mid-afternoon activity to use when you can tangibly feel the energy in the classroom lagging. After throwing pieces of paper around the classroom for a minute, students get a bounce in their energy levels. The subsequent discussion is often stimulating and students can openly discuss their predilections and opposing sentiments. This may highlight issues that are useful for you to be aware of, potentially changing your planning for future lessons. The anonymity of the responses ensures that students share and learn from each other in a safe environment.


Who are we?

Aim: Building rapport on the first day of class

Resources: Large classroom, with chairs and desks moved to the side so students can make a large circle; PowerPoint slide

Time: 20 minutes

Organisation: Full class, then move on to groups

Procedure: The teacher prepares a list of statements (15–20) that students can answer yes or no to. If the statement is yes, the student walks to the middle of the circle. If the next statement still applies to the student, the student remains in the circle until their answer is a no. Instruct the students to walk out of the circle and wait for another yes statement to come back to the circle.

Example statements:

  • I have been in New Zealand for: 1 week / 3 months / 6 months / 1 year / 5 years+ (prepare a slide for each time frame).
  • I am from: Africa / Asia / Europe / S. America / N. America / Oceania (with homogeneous cohorts prepare different locations within the country).
  • I have travelled to: 1 country / 5 countries / 10 countries+.
  • I: am the only child / have 1 brother or sister / have more than 2 siblings / and so on.
  • Range of activities: I like to dance / cook / play basketball.
  • I won an award for: sports / music / study / and so on.
  • I prefer to study alone / with a partner / with a group.

Variation: Get students to write a statement about themselves and get them to read their questions to the class. This activity can lead into a subsequent discussion activity about what they found interesting about their classmates. Encourage students to get into groups of people that they do not know.

Observations: This is a fun and interactive ‘getting to know you’ activity that enables students to connect quickly to their similarities and instil a sense of curiosity about the differences. By taking a mental note of student responses, the teacher can identify potential topics to later initiate one-to-one conversations, thereby further building rapport.


Whose photo is it?

Aim: Sustain and renew rapport; generating curiosity about one another

Resources: Handout/PowerPoint slide

Time: 40 minutes

Organisation: Pair or groups

Preparation: A couple of days in advance, ask students to send a photo that has special meaning to them. The photo should not have the student in it. Ask the students to also provide a description of why it is special to them. The tutor compiles the photos and numbers them at random without any names. Under the photo make room for students to answer the questions: Whose photo is it? Guess why it is special to them. A handout with the photos can be prepared or the tutor can put all the photos on a PowerPoint slide.

Procedure:

Step 1: In pairs or small groups, students speculate on the owner of the photo and predict the reason why the photo is special.

Step 2: As a group, share the predictions of whose photo it is and the reason why they think it is special.

Step 3: Reveal who took each photo. If it is a small class, go around the class to share their reasons. In larger classes, project the answers on the board and get students to compare their predictions and the actual meaning behind the photo.

Observations: I find that students really start to talk without overthinking or preplanning. The language pours out as the focus is about themselves. In choosing to share a particular photo, the learners assert their agency. I like the broadness of the photo topic as students can interpret what is special for them. A variety of motifs unfold in one lesson.


Expression dictations

Aim: Building and maintaining rapport by sharing favourite expressions

Resources: Bag or box to hold pieces of paper

Time: 5 minutes

Organisation: Class

Preparation: In the beginning of the semester, ask students to share their favourite English expression or an expression from their L1. Compile the expressions and put in a colourful bag or box. Check for double ups.

Procedure: Tell students that during the course, one student will lead the expression dictation warm-up for the class. One student will come up to the front of the class and without looking choose an expression from the box.

Encourage the student to memorise the expression, identify word and sentence stress, and say the expression clearly.

The rest of the students write down the expression. After repeating the sentence as required, one student writes the expression on the board.

Students then speculate on the meaning of the sentence and guess who chose the expression. Encourage students to ask the person questions on why they like the expression.

Variation: Make this into a peer dictation by providing two expressions to the pair. Follow similar instructions as above and guess the meaning of the expression and who wrote it.

Observation: This is a different approach to standard dictation practice and students appear genuinely interested in learning new expressions that are important to the person who selected it.


My favourite things

Aim: Sustain and renew rapport; generating curiosity about one another

Resources: Padlet or similar online bulletin board site

Time: Self-access

Organisation: Individuals

Preparation: Set up an online bulletin board that allows students access outside of class. Padlet is a free (up to 3 boards) and user-friendly platform that enables students to share, collaborate and communicate outside of class time.

Procedure:

Step 1: Generate topic ideas from the students that they are interested in (i.e. favourite English/L1 song, favourite food, favourite restaurant, favourite place).

Step 2: Once the class has agreed on the topic, create the online bulletin board with the topic headline. Set a week for students to make contributions and get students to comment and ask questions to at least three students’ images or videos.

Step 3: In class, ask each student which image or video they liked the most and recommend others to revisit the board to check it out in their own time.

Observation: Students have reported how much they like sharing videos and interesting photos as a communicative tool outside of the class. Students that may be slightly reserved in the classroom have shared fascinating posts that incite engaging conversations online.

References

Edutopia (2018) 60-Second Strategy: Snowball Toss [online]. Available at: https://www.edutopia.org/video/60-second-strategy-snowball-toss

Frisby BN & Martin MM (2010) Instructor–student and student–student rapport in the classroom. Communication Education 59 (2) 146–164.

Leslie Forrest was raised in a bilingual home outside of Tokyo, Japan. She caught the teaching bug after facilitating health promotion workshops in Fiji as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji from 2008 to 2010. She has been an academic staff member at the Waikato Institute of Technology in Hamilton, New Zealand since 2012. Her interests lie in experimenting with Conversation Analysis findings to develop authentic speaking materials for the ESL classroom.