If you Google the phrase ‘warmers and fillers’, you’d find page after page of material with titles like ‘1000 warmers and fillers for the classroom’ on sites all related to ELT (English Language Teaching).
Sometimes, they come with ‘coolers’, and sometimes with ‘ice-breakers’.
On many teacher training courses and teacher development programmes, you might find an entire slot dedicated to these ‘warmers and fillers’, usually accompanied by 50-page handouts with ideas for them.
And without fail, I’d find myself getting irritable and quite irate.
Now, before I go on, I’d like to acknowledge that you might be someone who uses such activities, and you might even be someone who has taught or even written teacher training material encouraging the use of warmers and fillers. And if so, I’d like to first apologise for any offence I might cause, and I’d like to urge you to keep reading and see why I might have an issue with warmers and fillers.
But let me first define and quantify what I mean when I refer to ‘warmers and fillers’.
Warmers and fillers are usually short 5-10 minute activities, often in the form of a game, which is introduced at the start of a lesson (warmers) or in between the stages of a lesson (fillers).
They are meant to be fun, motivating and should encourage students to wake up and communicate to each other in English.
They include activities like the following:
- Unscramble the following anagram with a partner: MRAWRES;
- Think of as many words as you can that start with the letter T and end with the letter R;
- Find the word that is the odd one out;
- Tell a story without using the letter F;
- Guess Who I Am/Twenty Questions;
- Word Association games, e.g. I say ‘music’ and you say ‘songs’;
- What’s the opposite? e.g. I say ‘tall’ and you say ‘short’, I say ‘expensive’ and you say ‘cheap’;
- Brainstorm things that share a common property, e.g. things that fly; things that are round; things that are shiny;
- Tell a story as a class – one student starts with a sentence, the second student continues with another, etc.;
- Running dictation – one student runs to the text, memorises part of it, runs back and dictates it to their partner who then writes it down;
- Divide the classroom space into two. Point to one side and say ‘Netflix’ and the other side and say ‘cinema’. Have students stand in the side that they prefer;
- Charades, i.e. I act you guess;
- Pictionary, i.e. I draw you guess;
And the list goes on…
I won’t fall into the trap of making this post a list of warmers and fillers that you can easily find on the internet (although I do want you to get a feel of the kind of activities that I am talking about) especially when it is my aim to dissuade you from using them randomly.
And the key word for me here is ‘randomly’.
It is the very randomness of warmers and fillers that I take issue with.
Let me be very clear here. I don’t have an issue with charades, Pictionary or any of these activities being used to recycle language and revise previous lessons.
But then I’d call them ‘recycling activities’ or ‘review activities’, and not ‘warmers and fillers’.
I am a huge fan of any activities that aim to recycle and review language learnt. In fact, I spend a third of my lessons recycling and reviewing.
And I don’t have an issue with asking students to choose ‘Netflix’ or ‘cinema’ by standing on the respective sides of the class, or with a game of Guess Who I Am/Twenty Questions, or running dictations if the activity is relevant to the lesson of the day and/or introduces the students to the topic or the language point in a personalised and interesting way.
But then I’d call these activities ‘lead-ins’, and not ‘warmers and fillers’.
I also don’t have an issue with activities that require students to unscramble letters, spot the odd one out or group words into categories, as long as the task raises awareness of a lexical set and teaches students about the language they are learning.
But then these would simply be stages of language clarification and language practice, and not ‘warmers and fillers’.
So what is it that irks me so? Is it the term ‘warmers and fillers’?
‘Warmers’ to me suggests activities done for the sake of warming the students up and getting them in the mood for class. And this concept is reinforced by many of these websites and teacher training materials that promote the use of warmers and fillers. One site states that we should use warmers and fillers to wake students up after a hard night and/or relax students after a hard day’s work.
Although I recognise the need for a change of pace when one enters the English classroom and the benefit of having a bit of fun within it, I wonder if this is the role that a ‘lead-in’ stage of the lesson should already play.
Arguably, the difference between a ‘lead-in’ and a ‘warmer’ is that a ‘lead-in’ is often relevant to the topic of the lesson and the language that will be taught. Warmers and fillers on the other hand often seem to be random ‘fun’ activities plucked from a list of 100 ‘fun’ activities and have no relevance to the lesson whatsoever.
But why is this relevance so important?
Linguists and cognitive psychologists have found that we store and organise information and knowledge in our brain in the form of units, a.k.a schemata.
For example, if we look into our schema for an office, we’ll probably find knowledge and information about the things in an office, e.g. desks, computers, hole punch, pens, etc.; people who work in an office; departments in an office building; events that take place in an office, e.g. meetings, phone calls, hirings and firings, etc.; facilities in an office, e.g. lifts, toilets, pantry, etc.
We would also find types of offices, e.g. offices in buildings, virtual offices, home offices, open plan offices, etc., and our concept of offices in larger contexts, e.g. the office as a part of a multinational corporation, the office as the backstage operation of a retail outlet or a customer-centred service, etc.
In our schema of an office, we would also store feelings and emotions that we have about offices, e.g. offices are places where parents are reluctant/relieved to go off to when their children are at childcare; offices are cold, grey, places; trendy and modern offices like the Google office makes for cool workplaces, etc.
But what is important to the language teacher and learner here is the fact that schemata influences the way we notice information, the way we take in information, and the way we store them as memories to be recalled when needed.
In short, information and knowledge would be more noticeable and more easily absorbed if they are presented within a connected and relevant context that the learner can easily slot into an existing schema. And when stored within this context, they would then be more easily accessible and more easily retrieved in the future.
So perhaps words like ‘paper clips’, ‘pencils’, ‘pins’ and ‘post-it notes’ would be better absorbed and retained when presented to fit the schema of ‘office stationery’ as part of a lesson on ‘offices’, rather than in a random ‘warmer’ when students are asked to name things starting with the letter ‘p’ and ending with the letter ‘s’.
But there is no term that vexes me more than ‘fillers’, for it immediately conjures up images of teachers popping on a full-length feature film to fill up class time while they have a snooze at the back of the classroom.
For me, a filler is something you do to fill the time. Perhaps I have a good idea for a lesson, but I know that it’ll only take up half of the class time. Instead of thinking of useful ways to add value to my good idea, I decide to grab a random filler from the list of 100 warmers and fillers and bulk up my lesson that way.
Maybe a filler is something you use to fill in the cracks…so that our students don’t see that we are actually at a lost for what to do next.
So what is it about warmers and fillers that I take issue with?
Seeing them occupy entire slots on teacher training programmes and reading entire lists of ideas for warmers and fillers leads me to think that teachers are being actively encouraged to pick a random activity from these lists just to fill time. It legitimises teacher-centred teaching that is disguised as being learner-centred, just because the activities seem kind of fun.
A wise professor once said to me, “If you have a 3000-word essay to write, you should read broadly and have enough ideas to fill a 10000-word essay. You can then pick and choose the best part of this 10000-word essay, the cream of the crop, and put it in your 3000-word essay. However, if you have a 3000-word essay to write, and you read and have enough ideas for a 2000-word essay, then you’ll just be filling the rest of it with junk.”
Perhaps the same concept could be applied to lesson planning. Using a motivating and relevant context as a starting point, could we select activities and tasks that are fun, but also useful to the learner and the learning process? Or are we simply seeking to while away the time before that school bell rings?
For further reading about schema theory in organising knowledge, see this paper by Coastal Carolina University.