Getting Real with Realia: 4 Creative Uses for ESL Classes

Getting Real with Realia: 4 Creative Uses for ESL Classes

What do a newspaper, a roadmap, and a webpage have in common?

They are all great materials for the ESL classroom. Not only that, they are authentic materials that can be used easily with ESL students. And while most of us have textbooks and other ESL materials we use on a regular basis, we also know that ESL students benefit when they use authentic English material in addition to the books and worksheets written especially for them. There are good ways to use realia, authentic English materials, and great ways to use them. Here are some ideas for your classroom to use realia in some not so typical ways.

What Is Realia?

Realia is unlike most materials used in the ESL classroom. Rather than being written with a nonnative speaker in mind, realia are materials that are written for native English speakers. Realia can refer to a large spectrum of items. Realia can be visual, such as magazine ads, maps, pictures, postcards, etc. Realia can also be aural, including movies, instructional videos, songs, and lectures. Realia can also be written such as newspapers, books, webpages, and many other items. I find that great sources of realia are all around. It just takes eyes to see and a mind with the creativity to put it to use.

4 Creative Realia Uses for ESL Classes

  1. 1

    Weather Reports

    If you are looking for a way to teach culture, vocabulary, and listening skills all at once, a weather report may be just what you need. You can easily find weather reports on your local news website, you can record a report from your nightly news, or use a weather website such as You may want to start by reviewing a few key vocabulary words with your students that will be used in the weather report. Then give your students a chance to view the report. Have them listen carefully to the meteorologist’s predictions for each area on the report. After once through, you might pause the recording so students can read the maps that are displayed and challenge another skill set. Finally, have students use the weather report to plan several activities for the next few days. Make sure your activities include some that happen inside and others that happen in the elements. Students will have to understand what weather will occur on each day and then decide how to best schedule their events. You can use weather reports from around the country to talk about activities that are popular in different regions. These activities might include sports, public transportation, and style of homes.

  2. 2

    Newspaper Circulars

    While circulars in class might be a great way to plan your holiday shopping, they are also a great resource for your students in class. Try bringing in some sales papers that advertise similar items at different stores. Have your students read the descriptions and compare the prices to decide which store offers the better deal. You can also talk about different gift giving occasions and look through the circulars to see what might be typical gifts for mothers’ day, fathers’ day, Christmas/Chanukah, or other occasions. Have students discuss how these gifts compare to those that people in their home cultures give and receive.

  3. 3

    Restaurant Menus

    Menus are useful for so many activities in your ESL class. You may never have thought to bring a menu to class. After all, there isn’t a whole lot of writing in them. But once you start to look closely, you will find many activities are right at your fingertips. Role plays are great with the menus for a prop, but don’t stop there. Have your customer ask your servers to describe a favorite dish that is served. The server will have to read the descriptions and use the ingredients to decide how the dish will taste – tangy, rich, creamy, etc. You can also have students use descriptions in menus as a basis for a presentation in which they role play the chef training a new employee to make each item. Give your students a budget, and tell them they have to order an appetizer, main dish, and dessert within the budget. Have students role-play their orders or simply share with a partner. If you aren’t comfortable asking for donations from your local restaurant, don’t worry. Many restaurants post their menus online, and many others have menus you can take for takeout orders.

  4. 4

    The Job Hunt

    If you have students who intend to go into business with their English skills, this activity will be particularly valuable. Have students start with where they can do a job search with nothing more than a location and a few key words. The site will generate a list of jobs, and your students can go through the list and choose three or four to bring to share with the class. Have groups of three or four students share the jobs they picked and why. For each job, your student's should describe the position and their responsibilities. For an extension activity, have students fill out a job application – either for those jobs or another that has an online application. Or print out a job application and have your students complete them on paper. This will challenge their reading skills and their abilities to follow directions.

Realia has many benefits for ESL students.

First of all, it gives them a boost of confidence, confidence that comes from using and understanding real and authentic English materials. It also helps prepare them for after the classroom. If students have success with real world materials before they leave their English programs, they will be able to use those same materials better when they encounter them in the English speaking world. Another benefit of realia is its inevitable inclusion of culture. Culture is subtle and hard to pinpoint, but it comes through realia without the creators even intending so.

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