Reality Not Realia - by Rachael Harris
One of the issues in EFL is how close to real life the classroom situation can be and realia, i.e. bringing in real objects – clothes, fruit, etc. can be effective. I once observed a lesson where the teacher brought in a box of soil to teach this vocabulary item to her class, the students loved running their fingers through it, although I couldn’t help feel for the teacher who then had to lug it back across town. While bringing in objects like this can liven up a lesson and provide a “hook” to grab the students’ attention, this article will suggest that reality, not realia is more useful in the classroom, and go on to suggest practical ways of using real life situations.
We often read articles and posts about how the classroom is not an authentic place and I can’t help thinking that my students, who are secondary school pupils, spend about seven hours a day in a classroom, you can’t get much more real than that, can you? Even for adults at evening classes or taking lessons within their company, surely their English class is a real part of their day or week. Why do we suggest these moments lack authenticity? If you go jogging once a week, it is still an authentic moment, so why do we believe that English lessons need something extra to make them “real”?
The answer is probably related to the materials used. Adults especially are used to different aspects of their life having a concrete use or meaning: when you go jogging you are really wearing trainers and running, when you go to a restaurant you are really going to eat the food, not just pretend to order it from a false menu that luckily only includes food items that were taught the previous week. This is a shame, because there are plenty of real opportunities to use English in and out of the classroom; and here are just a few.
Wherever you are in the world there’s probably a restaurant or tourist attraction nearby that already has a Tripadvisor review. So when you study food, travel, tourism, or anything really, then pop along to Tripadvisor. A good place to start is by searching Tripadvisor for the place where you are teaching; you’d be surprised, even the smallest places (like our village) have reviews and nearby areas of interests. Students can ask to be notified about new reviews, and they can get « badges » based on the number and variety of their reviews and whether they are read or not by other people.
Whatever your interests or the topic being studied, there is a host of blogs on the subject so get students to research and read relevant blog posts. Asking students to comment on articles that interest them is a way of encouraging them to interact with the real world in English, less passive than simply reading texts and also the possibility of replies keeps up their interest and means they can come back and develop a subject that interests them. This is a more natural development of interests. Only in the language classroom do we become interested in a topic, say sport, study it for a couple of weeks and then dump it for something completely different. By clicking to be informed of follow up comments students can keep the conversation going on subjects that have captured their interest.
Rare are the students who have not discovered amazon, but even if yours have never ordered anything online that doesn’t stop them from reading and comparing reviews on whatever object is being discussed in class. Compare items, their prices, qualities, stars given by reviewers and ask students to present what they think is the « best » and justify their choices using the website. Amazon can also be used to search for ideal gifts; give the class a list of people, teachers, politicians,etc. Kim Kardashian for example seems to be low on gifts recently! And ask the class to research the ideal present for these people and justify. Later this could form a pyramid discussion and the class can choose the final present.
This is a wonderful tool, especially if you are lucky enough to be able to take your class outside. Basically the idea is that an object has been hidden in your vicinity, and using an app (www.geocaching.com) you can locate it, add your name to the log enclosed and then leave or take items that are left with the geocache itself. Even if you can’t go out it can be fun to look where nearby objects are and perhaps students can visit them after class. Also if you are planning a class trip, be sure to check out geocaches along the way. This can form an interesting take on holiday homework, as can most of the activities suggested here.
I realize that many reality suggestions are reliant on internet and mobile devices. However that doesn’t mean that your classroom must be completely cut off from the real world without wifi. There’s nothing to stop your students writing restaurant reviews or articles for local English magazines, there is probably one near you, try searching local English press + your location to find something. Penfriends can also be a way to practise English and make acquaintances with similar interests, there are lots of sites available for adults as well as youngsters.
Finally, it seems to me that any subject that is based on students own interests will be firmly anchored in reality, even if those interests include a galaxy far, far away (why not go and see a film in English and write reviews to send to a website/English newspaper ?). One of the best ways I have found for sparking an interest that rises above simple language learning is through project-based learning. Letting the students research and present a topic of their own choosing is a sure-fire way of bringing reality into the language classroom. Last year my students chose questions they couldn’t answer as their topic. Each group spent a couple of weeks researching questions such as “Why do we have hair?” and “What would happen to the planet without humans?” Once they had the information they researched ways of presenting it, and became familiar with a variety of methods, including Imovies, cartoon animation, Tellegami and Yakit Kids.
Rachael has taught English as a foreign language for over twenty years. She now teaches young learners and teens in a secondary school where she is Head of English and responsible for the SEN statement. She is Teens SIG coordinator and joint Geneva region coordinator for ETAS (English teachers association Switzerland).