5 Literacy Uses for a Mystery Box



Last week I wrote about using food to build vocabulary, especially descriptive language. Another good way to get your kids talking in more than monosyllabic grunts is to make use of a mystery box.

I’m pretty sure I first found this idea in Fountas and Pinnell as a possible literacy center. It works excellently as a literacy center, although it can also be used for whole-class activities.

What you need:

A good size box – a large shoebox, like you would use for boots, or a medium-size shipping box. You need to have a sizable hole cut out of one side (that the kids can slip a hand through) with a cloth draped over it.

Stuff to put in the box – preferably stuff with interesting textures and smells. It could still be food items – broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke (with any sharp bits cut off), all make good choices. Or anything old-fashioned that will be hard to guess – cassette tapes, an old style egg beater, a lint roller, a sonic screwdriver.  You can make the items easily guess-able or difficult, depending on your goals.

How to use it:

  1. As per Fountas and Pinnell (I think – seriously, I haven’t looked at the book in more than a decade), make it a literacy center. Change the item in the box every week, and during center time, students can go to the mystery box, shake it to see what sound it makes, put their hand through the curtain and feel the object, sniff it (I would discourage tasting), and have them write on an index card their observations and a guess. At the end of the week, reveal the hidden object. If you wish, put the index cards with the correct guess in a lottery and offer a small prize.
  2. Again a literacy center, but this time with partners. Have a box of stuff available for the game (preferably switching out the box every week), and one student secretly chooses what to put in the mystery box. The other has to use their senses of smell, touch, and hearing to guess what their partner has put in. To encourage more language, have them either fill out an index card as they go, or have them read from a script (“How does it feel? How does it smell? etc.). Or both. Then they switch.
  3. Whole-class game: You put a mystery object in the mystery box. Have a student come up and describe it using ONE of his/her senses (not sight obviously). They may NOT guess what it is, or the class loses a point. They may only describe it. The next student comes up and describes the object using a different sense. After at least two students have described it, you may start calling on students to guess what it is. But if a student guesses wrong, have the next student come up and describe the object using another sense. Continue this, even repeating the use of senses, until you’ve exhausted all the possibilities. If they guess the object, the class gets a point, and they can play again, time permitting. Make the points cumulative over days, and they get a prize of some kind at a certain number. Or not, maybe it’s bragging rights only. This is a great way to kill 5 minutes before lunch.
  4. Whole-class game 2 – Play a Mystery Box version of Traveler. You’ll need to have a box of stuff available to put in the MB, or you can send a letter home and have students bring something from home. One student goes into the hall or closet or wherever is sufficiently private and chooses something to put in the mystery box. Then students take turns passing it around. Students must describe the object using at least one sense before guessing what it is, or else the guess doesn’t count, even if they guess correctly. If they describe the object and correctly guess it, they get to be the next student to choose what goes into the box.
  5. Riddles – Have students bring something from home for the MB. You can keep a large black plastic bag behind your desk where they can surreptitiously save their objects (with their name on it) for when it’s their turn to stock the box. For homework, make each student write a riddle describing their object using all 5 senses and tape the riddle to the object. Then put the mystery box in a literacy center and rotate the object every week or few days, making sure to display the riddle that goes with the object within. Students can agree or disagree with the description given in the riddle, and they can try to guess what the object is.

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