There is no doubt that every ESL class is different.
Different students. Different skills. Different backgrounds. Different interests. But there is also no doubt that all ESL classes have one thing in common – a need to use real language in the classroom. You can bring real language into your class in several ways. One of those ways is by using realia for reading activities. Realia is real life material written in English for the use of native English speakers. It is different from materials created specifically for ESL classes, and the more realia you can use in class, the greater advantage your students will have when they encounter English in the real world. But how does a teacher determine what realia is best or what will work with her students? Here are some suggestions for real life English materials that work well in English as a second language classrooms.
Discover 7 Places to Start in Choosing the Right Realia for Your Students
Comics, comic books, and graphic novels can be a great source of realia…for the right students. Most kids will enjoy the three to six frame shorts, and they may get a few laughs from them as well. But not all adults will receive comics favorable. For some, particularly survival English students and business English students, comics may feel too childish for the classroom. If you want to keep things short for these students withough giving them the feeling of being patronized, try political cartoons. They are still short, sweet, and to the point, but they have a deeper message that may encourage your students to take them more seriously.
Maps, Schedules, and Charts
Not all reading happens between the pages of a book, and that’s no less true for your ESL students than it is for anyone else. It is important that your class members be able to read things that are not organized by paragraph and chapter. Great sources of practical and short reading are maps, schedules, and charts. They are information packed and use minimal language, which makes them well suited to lower level students.
Articles and Books
Consider what your students already know or have learned in their first language. You might think it strange to give students a reading selection that covers information they have already learned, but for ESL classes it can actually be a shortcut to comprehension. When you give your students informational material in articles, books, and the like, sources that covers material they have already learned, they focus less on the information contained in the passage and more on the language that is used to express those ideas. This also holds true for encyclopedia entries and newspapers.
Have you ever given your ESL students a recipe to read? It’s great fun, especially when you can let them try the recipe in class or you have them present their own recipes to the rest of the class. Recipes are great if you are teaching the imperative form in English or if you are talking about ordinal transitional phrases (first, next, after that, etc.). They can also be very useful if you are teaching measurements used in the U.S. or are talking about count and noncount nouns as many ingredients are noncount (flour, milk, rice, etc.)
And while we are talking about food, think about bringing restaurant menus into your classroom. They are great when you are doing a food unit. They are jam packed with vocabulary, and when your students can read them successfully they will be more prepared when they go out to eat in their favorite restaurants. Not only that, but they make great material for comparing and contrasting, role playing, and inspiration when you have your students write their own menus. The small descriptions after each entry are super small reading passages and can be used for comprehension checks and to teach the passive voice.
Okay, riddle books might be most popular in elementary school libraries, but they are great for using in ESL classes, too. What makes riddles a unique and interesting piece of realia to use in class is their dependence on the multiple meanings of words and idioms as well as puns. Take for example, this classic riddle: Why did the man throw the clock out the window? He wanted to see time fly. To understand this riddle, a person must know the meaning of the idiom time flies. He must also know the literal meaning of the verb fly. Putting those two pieces together is what makes a riddle funny – a literal representation of an idiomatic expression. Understanding riddles is advanced work. Puns create a similar challenge. To understand pun, you need to have an extensive vocabulary as well as a knowledge of pronunciation. If you are looking for a challenge for your higher level ESL students, try bringing in a riddle book and see how well they fare with these tricky phrases.
I will never forget the unit I taught on companies’ values. The reason why? I brought in a container of Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream for my class to share. It was fun and engaging, and of course they loved the ice-cream, but we didn’t stop there. I had my students read the packaging. On it they saw a nutritional information guide, the company values, a pun in the ice-cream name, and a list of ingredients. Have you ever noticed just how much information can be packed into such small packaging? Bring in your own favorite food packages and you’ll be surprised at how much you can do with them in class.
The key to finding the best realia for your classroom is keeping your eyes open.
If you look around you in everyday situations, if you are more aware of the materials you read and interact with on a daily basis, you will find sources of realia everywhere. Of course you can and should tailor them to the interests and skill level of your class. The most important thing about using realia in your classroom is making a point to do it. Materials that have been written for native speakers will be challenging to your ESL students, but they can still have successful experiences with these reading materials if you are intentional about selecting the right ones for your class.