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Teaching Ideas

March 31, 2003

A Surprise Box: A Resource that Engages the Young L2 Learner

Johannes C. Razenberg

TESOL teacher

When I was a child, I was crazy about boxes, especially ones that had something inside for me to discover. Thus, it occurred to me back in 2000 that incorporating a box as a teaching resource to aid discovery in my early childhood classes may very well work. And it did.

Making something meaningful and important in a child's world is no easy task. In the L2 language and learning relationship, it is essential that a child engages with the learning task to bring about learning according to ideas of early childhood education presented by Emmitt and Pollock (1997) and Maltby, Gage and Berliner (1995). A surprise box engages a child with both language and learning by drawing upon a child's natural curiosity in his/her immediate world, and requiring a child to produce the L2 in order to achieve a clear meaningful goal (discovering what is in the box).

Furthermore, in keeping with the purpose of incorporating a resource in an educational program, a surprise box:

  • helps to gain and maintain interest in a lesson;
  • encourages mental involvement;
  • encourages the use of various learning styles;
  • makes learning more meaningful by linking in with previous knowledge;
  • makes previous abstract ideas concrete;
  • caters for students who learn best through different senses;
  • reinforces, integrates, and extends classroom instruction;
  • helps in the recall of information;
  • makes previous explanations of difficult concepts and skills clearer; and,
  • provides immediate feedback and knowledge of results.

(adapted from Barry & King 1993, pp.136-7)

In short, a box of surprise discoveries engages the young L2 learner with the task and provides him/her with a context which s/he will want to use the L2 to communicate because the task is meaningful to her/him. I believe you will find a surprise box to be a valuable teaching resource in your classroom too.


  • Early childhood to elementary

Number of Students

  • Whole class

Suggested Time

  • Up to 15 minutes

Learning Objectives

  • A surprise box will allow and encourage students to cooperatively work together and combine their knowledge, skills, and abilities in a discovery activity.

Proven Successful Lexical Areas

  • Classroom objects
  • Belongings
  • Sports equipment
  • Household objects
  • Clothing
  • Fashion accessories
  • Food
  • Toys
  • Musical instruments
  • Animals (a real puppy is quite a surprise)
  • Class rewards


  • Guessing
  • Predicting
  • Problem solving
  • Synthesizing
  • Gathering information
  • Describing

Proven Successful Exponents*

  • What could it be? It could be _____.
  • It's ____.
  • What do you think it is? I think it's _____.
  • What does is look/feel/taste/smell/sound like? It looks/feels/tastes/smells/sounds _______.
  • Can you guess what this is?
  • YES/NO questions.

* You are in the best position to decide the appropriate language for the age and level of your classes. These exponents are only intended as a guide.

Other Benefits

  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to incorporate into a lesson plan
  • Removes competition by fostering cooperative learning


  • A big bright multicolored box
  • Objects (real ones when possible) to put in the box.


  • Place the objects in the box before entering the room.
  • Form students into a group in front of the box.
  • Guide students towards the language they need to discover what is in the box.
  • Give guidance (e.g. make a sound, offer clues, reveal the object a little each time) so that the sense of enjoyment and success will be maintained.
  • Reveal the answer by showing the object.

Important Notes

  • Avoid letting one student guess the answer as cooperative learning is to be encouraged.
  • Be careful not to lose control of the box or leave it where it can be reached by children when they are playing in the school before or after class because it quickly becomes a toy boat, a game of peek-a-boo, etc.!
  • The contents of the box should not be given to the class without a firm control of class discipline -- there's no getting that ball back once it becomes a fun way of disrupting the class!
  • If you want to involve the students in revealing what is in the box, simply add one object each time away from the group, return to the group, call on a student to act as the teacher, and follow the same method.

Barry, K. & King, L. 1993, Beginning Teaching: A Development Text for Effective Teaching, '2nd edn', Social Science Press, Australia.
Emmitt, M. & Pollock, J. 1997, Language and Learning: An Introduction for Teaching , '2nd edn', Oxford University Press, Australia, Ch. 11.
Maltby, F., Gage, N.L. & Berliner, D.C. 1995, Educational Psychology: An Australian and New Zealand Perspective, JohnWiley & Sons, Brisbane.

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