Note: this article is for both teachers and learners. If you are learning on your own or in a small group, you can easily adapt the ideas for your purposes.
How many things can you say in your target language about the item in the first picture? What kinds of things can you say? What things do you wish you could say? What things seem like you should be able to say them, but you realize you’re not sure how?
The first time I did this activity with students, I had been introducing them to a lot of my friends, either as guest teachers or simply as interesting people to talk about, so I decided on a whim to tell them that I would be introducing them to one of my most fascinating friends, Rando Mitem.
This is a picture of that very friend, Rando Mitem. In fact, all the pictures in this post are of Rando Mitem, who appears in an infinite number of guises.
The activity itself could hardly be simpler: ask a student to pick a random item in her possession or lying around the room. Then let students see what they can say about the item in the target language. It’s purple, It’s glass, It’s a butterfly,… There’s always something to say, because, even if no one knows how to describe any properties of the item, we can say Lana picked it, Lana is holding it, It’s there, I like it,…, or we can circumlocute. Alternatively, start asking questions about the item and Circle students’ responses.
More proficient students can talk about the item at a higher level: It appears to have been made out of glass, I wonder if it’s Venetian, The antennae curl back on themselves, The craftsmanship suggests it’s expensive,…
Note that the speaker’s comments themselves aren’t improving their proficiency, but they may spark ideas fruitful for continued conversation or storytelling, and I’ve found that students like just seeing what they can say every now and then. Once students are fresh out of things to say, the teacher can say some more things about the item, starting with things that will be immediately or almost immediately comprehensible to the particular group, adding personalization and perhaps even asking a story involving the item or a personalized detail.
Variations and comments:
1. Rando Mitem can involve only language students already know or can be used as a way to introduce new language.
2. Rando Mitem can be not so random: either plant an item or simply choose an item yourself if you want to target a particular linguistic structure.
3. Rando Mitem is a great way to practice the skill of circumlocution.
4. Students can sit in table groups and each use a different Rando Mitem, then move to a new group to discuss the new item.
5. Rando Mitem can be used for question-asking as well as question-answering: Instead of “What can you say about this?”, try “What can you ask about this?”
6. Students can be asked to bring in their own Rando Mitem for a particular day, creating even more buy-in than letting students pick an item from around the room.
7. Rando Mitem can be used as a filler activity between other parts of a lesson or at the end of class.
8. Rando Mitem can be used in pop-up fashion during any other activity that involves a concrete item. Simply pause the main activity for a moment to talk about one of the items involved, then return to the main activity. This makes for good recycling or for a bit of a brain break.
9. Rando Mitem can be used to reveal what things one thought or wishes one could say about an item, but can’t yet.
10. Rando Mitem can be used as a writing activity: “Write as much as you can about this item,” “Write a story in which someone is on a quest to find this item,” etc.
11. You can use the same Rando Mitem at intervals—even over the course of several years—to observe and celebrate your or your students’ advancing proficiency.
12. Rando Mitem is an output-heavy activity, so students won’t always acquire much new language from it, although they might well acquire something if their classmates or teacher say things about the item that they understand, but hadn’t fully internalized.
I hope Rando Mitem becomes as good a friend to you as to me!
For more ideas about using random items, pictures, and stories in language activities, see the articles in the “Whatever” Works series.