There are plenty of ESL teachers who advocate the use of realia in the classroom – and for good reason.
Over the years, they have brought an assortment of authentic city maps, brochures, restaurant menus and coupons to class, and have had tremendous success. Students connect to these authentic materials they can touch and manipulate, which enhances the overall language learning experience.
But, what is virtual realia? Essentially, virtual realia is any item from the target culture that is presented in a digital format. So, if the local city map is realia, a scanned copy of the very same map is virtual realia. It’s still very real – only digitized. Now, you’re probably wondering: why would we have digital copies of things we can simply pick up and take to class? Virtual realia certainly has its disadvantages, the obvious one being that students can’t touch or manipulate these items. Also, you need to have a computer, laptop, or at the very least, a tablet or Smartphone to show these images to the class.
The Advantages of Virtual Realia
- It can be easily reproduced and shared. You can email each of your students a copy they can use.
- It can be used in interactive formats. You can use virtual realia in the class blog or website, and even create quizzes or tests with this authentic material.
- Students may have access to material from different cultures across the globe. Thanks to the ol’ World Wide Web, you can probably find all kinds of things you would not normally have access to due to geographic limitations.
- Digital copies may be altered without damaging the original. Did you bring a menu or flyer from a recent trip to the UK? Chances are you don’t have many of those lying around. You can scan a copy of the original and alter it for gap-filling exercises – your souvenir will remain intact!
- Virtual realia can be easily stored, carried and accessed. No need to bring a big bag of brochures or heavy catalogs. No need to sort through a box of flyers to find the one you need.
So, as you can see, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. If you’re an ESL teacher living outside the US or UK, you will be able to open a window into the target culture, something that is of tremendous value to ESL students.
10 Examples of Virtual Realia and How to Use Them in an ESL Class
Brochures and pamphlets are probably the most versatile, as you can cover a wide range of topics. For example, show the class the scanned images of several travel brochures (you will find loads in Google Images, just make sure the print is large enough to read or clear enough after you zoom in). Discuss what you can see and do in each location. Ask them which place they’d pick for a vacation and why. Finally, give them a Travel Brochure Template and have them create their own.
Maps are especially useful for asking for and giving directions. There are plenty of maps available online. Choose a city your students would like to visit – like New York City. Have them make a list of the sights they want to see and help them locate them in the map. Students take turns asking each other how to get to the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty ferry and many other attractions.
Invite your class to an exclusive American or British restaurant! To practice ordering a meal at a restaurant, show them a digitized restaurant menu to order from.
What does an American library card look like? Or a Driver’s License? Do you know anyone in the US or UK who might be able to scan one and send it over? Some people are very careful about sharing documents, but you can ask them to blur or cover specific information like the license number or other details. Documents like these are great to practice talking about age, birthdays, addresses, etc…
Tickets and Receipts
Supermarket tickets, theater stubs, hotel bills… all of these provide a lot of information you can talk about with your class.
“When does the next train to Boston leave?” Students ask each other this and more questions, and check the train schedule.
Show your class an ad like this one, but cover the text. Ask them what they think the ad is for. If it’s a company, what kind of company is it? Reveal the text below the picture and discuss.
Put your students’ math skills to the test! The coupon says that they may get two dollars off any large pizza. If the pizza costs 20 dollars, how much would they pay with the coupon? Practice conditionals!
Look through an assortment of packaged food images from boxes of chocolate to frozen dinners. Talk about which seem to be healthy foods and which do not. Why are some not very healthy? What do they contain?
Theater programs provide a lot of information about the play and performers. Playbill has an amazing website called Playbill Vault which has hundreds of digital copies of past Playbills. Look at this one for the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast. You can look through the digital copies of the original 1994 program!
Gap-filling exercises, reading and comprehension questions, role plays…there are so many things you can do with this material. You can browse as many images as you like online, but if you download them and reuse them for your own purposes, please be mindful of copyright. Scan your own and use them as you please!
Have you ever used virtual realia before?
I’m dying to find out!