Using realia in the ESL class is a time-tested and oft-used method of learning.
It has been around for years and every English teacher has used this learning technique more than a dozen times in their own classes.
It is relatively easy to do but there is more to it than just dragging some arbitrary objects into the class and letting the students pick them up and try to talk about them.
Rather than just having a glorified version of Show and Tell, you can do exercises that use everyday objects, are fun for the students to do and help them improve their English all at the same time.
Using realia can be a great way to help students learn English words and phrases without resorting to the same dull old textbooks, role plays or exercises.
I will show you why you should use realia in your lessons plus I will outline several realia exercises you can use immediately.
Let’s get started.
What is Realia?
Realia is the use of everyday objects in the classroom.
There are not many classes that can make use of realia. Science subjects often can via the use of experiments. Remember your science class where the teacher said: Today, kids, we’re going to learn all about gravity?
And the entire class was filled with excitement as the students took it, in turn, to drop scrunched-up pieces of paper and rubber balls from the fifth-floor window.
No? Maybe just at my school then…
But science classes can make great use of realia in the classroom. Geography and history lessons can have trips to museums or a field trip somewhere.
But in the fun-packed world of ESL, you can use realia in the class every day.
ESL students need to learn nouns, verbs they can connect with those nouns, adjectives and adverbs, phrases… One of the best ways to learn all of these words is through real-life situations. This is where you can use real objects — realia — and help your students to build their vocabulary at a lightning rate.
Why use realia in the class?
You use realia to make your lessons more memorable.
Memorable for two reasons — one, the students remember your class as fun and engaging. You are not using the same, boring old ESL textbooks and the students are physically doing something. And two, because the students will remember much of what they learned in the lesson.
Using realia in your class is the use of kinaesthetic learning. This means that people learn by doing something, they are tactile learners.
Not everyone learns well from a book or the teacher stood at the front of the class reeling off lists of words for the students to learn.
And when learning English, kinaesthetic learning is a great way to learn the language as the students are actively involved in the English topic they are trying to learn.
The students are using real things that they may use in their daily lives. It provides real-life context.
It also creates a great sense of fun in the class and keeps the students interested.
Common Activities to do using Realia in the Class
It is very simple — and easy — to just bring in a box of objects and teach the vocabulary of these things to your class.
One of the most common things to talk about in class this way would be something like fruit. You bring in a plastic bag of fruit you picked up in the supermarket on your way to school and then announce: Today we are going to talk about fruit.
This is great if they are beginners and need to learn the words for such things. Or if they are young children with the attention span of a hyper-active ant.
But if they are older or above beginner level, then this kind of class will get old very quickly.
Other ideas that are overused are things like bringing in a train timetable, local tourist information or, if truly desperate, just looking out the window and talking about the weather.
Using realia in the class has to be a bit more than that.
Let’s take a look at some ideas.
Popular Games using Realia
Games are always well-received by students. They get the chance to put away the textbooks and play for a while.
The following games are a great way to start the class as a warm-up or as part of your lesson plan.
Desert Island Survival
This is a great warm-up exercise or can be used as a bigger exercise in its own right.
All you need is a selection of ordinary objects. For example; a coat hanger, a shoehorn, a bottle opener, a fork.
Tell the students they are stranded on a desert island. They have to use each of the objects to survive or to attract attention and get rescued.
They have to describe the object — and parts of the object — and talk about how it can help them survive or be rescued.
Another great warm-up exercise is to do presentations with a random object. Each student talks about one of the objects you have selected for a given amount of time.
This could fit in great for Business English students who have to do sales or marketing presentations. Or for IELTS students who need to practice Part Two of the test and do a talk for two minutes.
Presentations are great for building the students’ confidence in speaking English out loud in front of their peers.
You could also practice given phrases or verbs using certain kinds of objects.
Role Play Ideas with Realia
Why not combine two fun ideas together — role play and realia?
This works with all kinds of students of all ages and levels. They get to use real English in a real-life situation using real objects.
Give two of the following ideas a try.
English Tea Party
Maybe you have introduced the idea of drinking tea, how it is important in some countries where everything stops for tea.
Or it could be the social setting of a tea shop, a cafe or the royal tea party in England.
Whatever it is you can have great fun with this exercise.
You will need:
cups and saucers
a small milk jar
a plate with some biscuits or scones
Of course, it is unnecessary to use real tea, milk or biscuits. You can encourage the students to use their imagination.
This could follow or be part of a lesson you have done on food and drink vocabulary. Or as part of an eating out lesson.
The exercise must have some context to what you have been teaching before in class and not just some random time-filler.
Make it part of your ongoing lesson plan and the students will gain a ton from it while having fun at the same time.
You can also change things around to include the theme of dinner or going out to a restaurant.
Role play parts could include:
a happy customer
an unhappy customer
Try shifting things around to suit your own lesson plan needs and goals.
Location, location, location
Using the correct prepositions of place can be something of a trial for lower level students. What better way than by the use of realia?
This is an easy exercise to set up. Simply place objects around the room and ask the students to tell you where the things are.
They will have to use all the main prepositions of place — on, in, behind, in front of, next to. Plus, they will have to use the correct form of this, that, these and those.
And that brings us nicely to…
Directions in the Town
If you are doing a lesson plan around the theme of town or city, you can make use of a map. The map could be a real street map from the town or city where you live but I think it might be a lot easier to use an online map. I have used Google Maps many times to great effect.
Again this should be part of an ongoing lesson plan. Maybe you have talked about things in the town — library, school, restaurant, department store. Now you need to teach students how to give directions. They will use phrases such as opposite the library, at the restaurant turn right, etc, etc.
Using Google Maps you can focus down to a very detailed neighbourhood — it could be in close vicinity to where you are teaching. The students can see in a live situation how to use English they can use as part of their daily life.
Talking about our family is a very common lesson idea in the ESL class. In exercise books, they might have pictures of actors or models faces pretending to be mum, dad, Uncle John and grandma.
The students have no connection to these pictures. It means very little to them.
But if you ask them to bring in pictures of their own family, it changes the whole dynamic. Now they know exactly who these people are and how they are related to them.
Of course, the students can use pictures they may have on their smartphones. This makes things a great deal easier and convenient for you.
If you are teaching students about the vocabulary of family, this is a great exercise to do. But it could also be used with the idea of telling a story from the past. The student recounts a true story about their mum or an uncle or cousin. They have to use past tenses in the correct form but the pictures help them to provide context.
This could also be a useful exercise for IELTS students talking about their family or telling a story. And for other students practising the idea of small talk in English.
There can’t be an English school in the world that doesn’t take advantage of special holidays as part of their curriculum. Being asked to dress up as Father Christmas is the fear of every ESL teacher with a beard or being slightly overweight.
But it is also a good opportunity to use realia in your class and make it fun and interesting.
Take, for example, the Easter holiday. Can you remember the kind of things you did in school as a child during Easter? Things like painting eggs or hiding chocolate. This kind of activity could work very well for school-age students looking for any excuse not to do any boring reading or listening exercises.
Quite often, with special holidays the lesson plan writes itself. You just have to think of the things you did as a child during these times. It could even work for adults too.
Obviously, you have to take into consideration the culture of the country you are in. Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas may be frowned upon — or banned altogether. Other countries may have their own customs and practises for these holidays. It is a great chance for the students to bring in realia related to their own country and culture.
In terms of special holidays, the use of realia can be great in your English class — and as part of a bigger school project involving all the students.
This is an exercise that older students will love and find very useful. It could also work well with university students who are about to graduate and enter the workforce. It could also work in HR departments too.
You should incorporate this exercise as part of a bigger lesson plan on jobs, job hunting and interviews.
You will need an interview set-up in the class — a desk with two chairs.
One person being the interviewer, the other being the interviewee.
The realia could be an application form and/or a resume or CV.
The interviewer can refer to the interviewee’s application form and resume as they carry out the interview.
“It says here that you worked as a bullfighter for many years. Can you tell me about that?”
This is a good exercise to practice questions and answers.
You could make up an imagined job opening and design the application form yourself — or simply find a template online.
I said earlier that it is a bit of a poor show to just turn up to class with nothing prepared and then just talk about what the weather is doing outside.
But of course, you can use the weather to have a great English class. You just need to have a little more applied to it.
One fun exercise to do is to create weather reports.
You will need:
a local weather report from a local newspaper
a video recording of a televised local weather report
the voice recording app on a smartphone
the video recording app on a smartphone
Obviously, make sure that the students have prepared adequately in terms of talking about the weather. Go through all the necessary vocabulary before this exercise.
Then have the students’ role play giving a weather report. Separate the students into small groups and then each group can give their own version of a weather report.
Expect all kinds of weather — from warm sunny days to severe hurricanes and torrential rain.
A good way to practice talking about different kinds of weather and presenting information to a larger group.
Many exercises make use of real objects that the teacher brings into class. This works very well but you can just as easily use virtual realia.
Google is your friend and you can search for all kinds of things online that you can then use in the class.
If your class has a projector and screen — or just a TV screen — then you can use anything from the internet to help you in your class.
Let’s Go on Holiday
You can do this as part of an ongoing lesson plan or series of lesson plans on travel.
If you go to bookings.com or airbnb.com you can do an entire exercise on choosing hotel accommodation. You can give the students different criteria to look for in the hotel room — swimming pool, air conditioning, wifi, business lounge. The list goes on and on.
This would work well as a roleplay — one student being the travel agent, the other being the tourist.
You can also use online travel brochures to talk about holiday destinations — Rome, Madrid, New York, London — and talk about the sights to see in these places.
Again, you could have a roleplay with one student as the tour guide, the other as the tourist asking questions.
This could be part of a bigger series of lessons on travel — from booking the flight to booking the hotel and sight-seeing.
This exercise could work for all levels and ages of student.
You simply take some popular advertising images and show them in class and discuss them. You could cover up the name of the brand and the students have to guess what the brand is and why they think it is this brand.
You can do this for all kinds of products — from sports shoes to fast food to technology.
Google Earth & Google Maps
I think these two apps are great to use in class for a variety of exercises.
You can use both of these in the travel exercises I talked about earlier.
But they can also be used in giving directions and talking about the town or city.
If you have a large enough screen for all the students to see it is well worth using in the ESL class.
I think I have only scratched the surface in terms of some of these exercises. But it’s a good starting point.
Please remember, students of all ages love the use of realia in the English class as it brings a great element of fun into the room and the students can engage much more with the lesson.
It makes it easier for them to learn and they will remember your classes as being much more interesting than using the boring old textbooks.
If you have any further thought about the use of realia, feel free to add them below.
Keep it real!