Strangers on a Train Speaking Activity

Strangers on a Train – intermediate and above, high school and university

This is an activity I do at the beginning of the semester, usually as an ice breaker or to practice small talk skills. The premise is simple: students must pretend they are strangers sitting in a train having some small talk for about 5 minutes, similar to what may happen in close quarters on an actual train. However, there is one quite interesting caveat: each student has a specific word they must use secretly during the conversation. At the end of the conversation, group members must guess each other’s secret word. The caveat becomes more interesting when you see the kinds of words I actually use:

  • 200 push ups
  • UFO
  • global warming
  • runny nose
  • 48
  • stapler
  • congratulations
  • Santa Claus

The game is really fun and students usually request doing it several more times. It is quite a challenge to slip these words into a natural conversation, even for native speakers, so it gives students great practice in listening and finding ways to interject with the words and deftly change the subject so that they can use their words. I highly recommend trying this activity!

Here’s the set-up:

  1. If students haven’t already learned about small talk, you might want to combine this with a small talk activity or explain that, when in close quarters with strangers, we tend to find silence uncomfortable and prefer to have small talk or informal chit chat.
  2. Explain to students that they are going to ride a train with three other strangers.
    1. They must make conversation with these other people for about five minutes.
    2. They must also strive to include each person and not break into pairs.
  3. Break the students into groups of 4 (or three for odd numbers).
  4. Now, explain that each student will get a secret word. Stress SECRET.
    1. Their goal is to use this word once during the conversation.
    2. However, their usage should not be obvious. Stress that it should be NOT OBVIOUS, i.e. it should be NATURAL.
    3. To get you started, you can download my words lists here and here.
  5. At the end of the five minutes, their partners will try to guess what their word was.
  6. To set the atmosphere, consider lightly playing some music in the background. Or, if you want to be really cool/lame, try some train sounds.

The Best Ice Breakers

At the beginning of any course, ice breakers are like an unwritten rule. They are necessary to become comfortable in a new learning/teaching environment as well as build a sense of classroom community. There are two kinds of ice breakers which I find important: the self-intro and the student intro. I have done so many activities in both of these categories, for all levels and age groups. Here are the ones I think are the most effective and fun:


Teacher Self-Intro Ice Breakers

Teacher Bingo – All levels, all ages
Here is a quick and fun way to introduce yourself using a game everyone knows and loves. Prepare a list of words that may or may not describe you. I usually use Tagxedo to transform my avatar into a word list. Have students fill a bingo grid with these words. Explain and model that they will ask you yes or no questions using these words. If you answer “Yes” then they may mark their bingo grid. If you answer “No” they should do nothing. For higher level students I explain and model that they can rephrase the question later to try for a “Yes”. After a few bingo winners, I go over the list of words and give a little more information about myself. Games typically last a little more than 5 minutes and are always successful.

Yes/No Game – Beginner and above, elementary to high school
This is a points game, a little similar Teacher Bingo. I usually use it for younger students, though it would just as fun for adults. Explain and model that students are going to ask you yes or no questions. Usually I elicit some yes/no forms (Are you…? Do you…? Can you…?) and write them on the board. If my answer is yes, then then get 1 point. If my answer is no, they get 2 points. After a few minutes, I switch the points: yes = 2, no = 1. Sometimes I even add a maybe = 3. It’s always great fun and the students usually ask some unique questions to rack up the points.

Teacher’s Casino – Intermediate and above, elementary and above
This is a fun betting game good for brand new and returning students. I make a worksheet with 10 facts about me. Students must determine whether they are true or false. While they are doing this, you will see students eyeing you up and down trying to decided whether you can bench press your own weight or have bungee jumped. It’s pretty hilarious. Sometimes they try to ask questions, and I always tell them I can’t answer any. While choosing true or false, they must also bet on their answer. They have 100 points and must bet them all, with a minimum bet of 5 and maximum of 20. Then, I go through the facts, having students raise their hands to show who answered what. If they were correct, they receive double points. If they were wrong, 0 points. I usually use a powerpoint as a visual aid when I’m reviewing the facts.

The Big Reveal – Low-Intermediate and above, elementary and above
This is a fun Q&A powerpoint game. After asking a certain number of questions, a secret about the teacher is revealed and students must guess what it is. Usually it is a number (my age). I put different pictures up related to me, my hobbies, life, and interests. I set them to disappear when clicked on the powerpoint. Students then must ask me yes or no questions based on the pictures. If I say yes, I will remove the picture. Eventually, enough pictures will have been removed so that they see the clue or secret in the back, but I wait until all pictures are gone before they can guess. This clue can be a number, a word, or even another picture. Once all the main pictures are gone, I give them a chance to guess about my “secret”. This game is simple and always fun.

Google Earth Intro – Intermediate and above, middle school and above
Sometimes I feel like wowing my students so I will set up a Google Earth presentation. I find significant places around the globe, zoom to the level I want (including 3D and street view) and then pin them. There is an option next to the pins so that the little yellow pin doesn’t actually show up on the map, so I make sure the pin box is unchecked. I also add pictures using Facebook (in Firefox, right click a picture and choose View Image, then copy and paste the url in the image box when you click on the pin). Be sure to save your trip and run through it once before hand so some things get preloaded. I make the presentation interactive by asking questions throughout, such as what they know about my home state (Florida) or anything else related. Google Earth is awesome! Try my presentation here.


Student Introductions

Pass the Eraser – All levels, all ages
I got this game from David Duebeldeiss at EFL Classroom 2.0. It’s an extremely versatile game and is great for large or small classes. You can learn a little about many students, and its really fun. Using the powerpoint (one of my versions here), students will pass an eraser (or paper ball, pencil, etc.) while the music plays. When the music stops, whoever has the object must answer the question. I like to start with simple questions, then add multiple questions or throw in strange ones like “What color is your toothbrush?”. Edit the slide advance time based on your students’ levels and the question asked.

Pass the PaperĀ – high-intermediate and above, middle school and above
This is a writing and speaking game. First, each student starts with a piece of paper. Ask them a simple question and have them write the answer. Then all students must pass their paper to the left/right or any other direction. They will write and pass for as many questions as you want (depending on class size/time). Finally, after the last question and pass, students must now walk around the room and try to find who wrote what. They can ask yes or no questions based on the answers, or the original questions. They should ask two questions and then move on. The first student to find everyone is the winner.

Snowball Fight – Pre-intermediate and above, elementary and above
In the winter, I call it a snowball fight. The rest of the time it is just a paper ball fight. Its a simple and effective activity that is surprisingly awkward yet liberating for older students. Get students to write one interesting question on a piece of paper and then make a paper ball. For higher level students I give them a pile of papers and have them write as many questions as they can in 2 minutes (one question per paper) – they end up with a lot of paper balls. Next, give them 15-30 seconds to have a paper ball fight. Encourage them, beforehand, to pick up balls near them and keep throwing for the whole time. Also, remind them its a game – no one should get hurt. After the fight is over, they should pick up whatever balls are closest to them. These are the questions they must answer about themselves. If you have an attendance sheet, call their name and then have them read and answer the question. This will help you learn their names better. If they have multiple questions, have them answer the most interesting. Depending on the class size, this game can take a while, but it’s worth it!

People Bingo – Pre-intermediate and above, elementary and above
This is a “find someone who” game. These types of games require students to move around and talk to other students in order to find ones that meet a certain criteria (i.e., ones who can answer a certain question). I make a 5×5 bingo sheet and fill it with either full questions for younger and lower-level students (e.g., “Do you like pizza?”) and question parts for older or higher-level students (e.g., “doesn’t like pizza”). For higher-level or older students, I also leave some squares blank so they can make their own questions. The questions I do make I try to I make interesting. So, for example, I have used questions such as “Have you ever yelled at a taxi driver?” and “Do you dislike kimchi?” (in Korea, there is usually one per class!). When everyone has gotten a chance to look over the bingo sheet, I let them walk and talk for five minutes. The first student with whatever bingo you set (one line, two line, T, L, etc.) is the winner. Here is an example for university students.

Expert Game – High-intermediate and above, high school and above
This is a speaking game where, first students learn about each other in small groups, and then introduce their partners to the class. First, students think of five things they are experts at. Then they choose the three most interesting. In groups of two-four, they show each other the things they are experts at. Then their group members must ask them questions about their expertise. I usually define the words expert and expertise before the activity, and then model questions after students have selected their three. I also encourage questions about why they became interested in their expertise, as well as more general questions. I usually give them 5-10 minutes to talk. Then, students must introduce each other and tell the class one or two interesting things they learned about their partner. The class gets to learn a lot about each other.

Guess Who (Writing) – High-intermediate and above, middle school and above
This activity goes really well with The Expert Game. Students write a paragraph introducing themselves. To make it more interesting then the usualy “I’m…years old. My hobby is…” I offer specific topics: something amazing you have seen, your talent, something dangerous you have done, etc. You collect the papers, then read the paragraph and let the students guess who wrote it. If you did The Expert Game (or any other ice breaker where the whole class hears about each other) they may be able to guess the writer.