Activity 88: Odd One Out

Do you remember when and how you first encountered this simple task? I think to me it was before I started school, in one of those magazines for kids with puzzles on the last page (and sometimes, correct answers shared in a new issue).

Merriam-Webster dictionary describes ‘Odd One Out’ as ‘a person or thing differing from all other members of a particular group or set in some way.’

A simple search for this term brings you to a variety of images, often sets of four, but can be more, inviting to pick the one that is different. Such terms as ‘abstract reasoning’ ‘deductive thinking’, ‘fluid intelligence’, etc. come up when you start reading more about it. To me this is one of the very old (sometimes, forgotten?) activities that has always been around: in class, in course books, in tests and exams (e.g., a speaking task in YLE Cambridge Exams, etc.)

I encountered this activity twice in the past week, and as someone who appreciates synchronicity, decided that this needs to be a post 🙂

First, one of the teachers on the online course I am facilitating shared an activity he did with his learners.

He wrote these words on the board: ‘intelligent, handsome, funny, shy, kind‘, then asked students to explain which one is different, adding reasons why. I got curious about the answers students gave here, and the teacher wrote something along the lines ‘of course the right answer was ‘handsome‘ as it is the only adjective describing appearance and the other describe personality. My immediate response was ‘wait, was/is this the only reason for the answer to be right?’ I noticed, for example, that the word ‘handsome’ is the only one in the set that is not gender-neutral (you we can learn even more when we start looking for possible uses of ‘handsome’ to describe a woman’s appearance). ‘Digging deeper’ language-wise, we see that ‘handsome’ can mean ‘substantial’ and describe a sum of money or a large number, as in ‘handsome majority’. We can of course go further and check how frequent this expression is (I have never heard or seen it before, I think, and this makes me curious…)

My next question about these words was this: ‘Is this the only correct answer? Can another word be picked as ‘the odd one out’? with good reasons? It can be ‘shy‘, for example, as it is the shortest word in the set, or ‘intelligent‘ as it is the longest one. It can also be ‘shy‘ as we can see some negative connotation there, or ‘funny’ as its meaning can vary when describing a person.

The second time the activity was used as a warm-up to an online work meeting I attended. This time the presenter showed us four words and asked to work in 2 teams, pick the odd one out and explain our choice. We had only 2 minutes to do that, but we could pick different words (more than one, that is). The words we had were plate, fork, spoon, and cup.

[Here the reader can pause, set the timer for 2 min and try the task out. Then read on!]

We got back to the main room and shared our ideas in the chat. Some examples included the following:

  • Spoon is the only word with a double vowel.
  • Fork is the only one with no rounded surface.
  • Fork cannot hold liquids.
  • Cup does not have four letters.
  • Cup is the only one with height.
  • Fork is the only one with no ‘p’ in the word.
  • Fork has 4 letters.
  • Cup is the only one with a handle.

(I know we can keep adding ideas, but remember, we had time limit)

Our next set with the same task and process in the meeting had these items: New Zealand, Switzerland, Ireland and Japan.

We worked in the same teams and tried to be more creative/productive this time. Some of the ideas we came up with included driving on the right side (Switzerland), having ‘land’ in the name, etc. None of us in the whole group noticed that Switzerland was the only EU country in the list (it was on the presenter’s slide!) Again, we only had 2 minutes so could not do any reading/research, just a brief fact check of an idea we already had. I am very grateful to my colleague Brian for this activity, as we can learn so much from being in the ‘learner’ or ‘attendee’ shoes and experiencing how it goes.

Adding a bit of time to think and explore variations may bring much more interesting ideas, I think. Another thought: we can repeat both rounds with the same words, as these countries, as the more ways to ‘think outside the box’ we are aware of, the more we can explore.

Some thoughts about this activity

Choosing the right words for this task can be very interesting, and in fact, can be an activity on its own. Does it need to be a set 4-5 items with an ‘obvious’ correct answer? Do the words/concepts need to be concrete or abstract? Maybe, students can create those sets for each other (in teams or individually). Maybe, criteria for the best reason/explanation can be created (where this ‘best’ can be defined as the most creative, unexpected, humorous, etc.?)

Finally, and this is where the image of ‘Hand’ can be helpful, if a template was used for this activity: in what way(s) are the reasons we are giving connected? Are they all similar (e.g., do we count words, check the phonemic script, or do we go beyond the surface? How else can we do this?) Are the reasons I am finding or noticing telling me something about me?

I’d be curious to hear how you (can/could) use the Odd One Out activities with your learners, and how you can get more out of this seemingly small activity.

I am adding it to my list of ‘It’s in (Y)Our Hands‘ ideas because I see how much potential it holds for developing creative thinking, and how much of this potential is indeed in our hands. More about the project here.

Thank you for reading!

About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict
This entry was posted in It's in (Y)Our Hands and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Activity 88: Odd One Out

  1. Anonymous says:

    Zhenya, thank you for all these activities – and especially this one as it got me interested so much. I love the idea of differentiating items of languge since it requires brain power and it is compatible with the idea of “time on task” – the more you play with the learned material, the better connections in mind. I was also thinking about how to use this as a grammar teaching activity. Maybe we can use our hands fora syntax activity while learning question making, or we can still put the odd one out through many conjugations. Thanks for making me think!

    I totally #StandwithUkraine and wish this tragedy to be over soon. I appreciate your contribution to peace!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Zhenya says:

      Hello there, thank you for reading this blog, for the comment, and for standing with Ukraine!
      (and thank you for the follow-up in WhatsApp: I really appreciate when the colleagues we co-trained on courses read this blog and join me in my thought-(search)-process 🙂 )

      I have just looked up ‘time for task’ (always learning!) and yes, a great point to help the learners stay focused and productive. Maybe, 2 minutes is not really enough (and maybe, repeating it with a new partner/team can be efficient, especially if the L2 proficiency level is lower).

      Hm, a grammar teaching activity is a challenge, and I am curious what can be done with question formation? Or perhaps used for working out a rule (for which I can’t think of a quick example, but things like comparative/superlative forms of adjectives or adverbs, verb patterns, articles? I wonder though if this is more about Form than Meaning, but I would love to think more in this direction. Thank you for making me think!


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