Do you use realia in your classroom? What are benefits of using realia?

According to Wikipedia, ‘in education, realia (pronunciation ree-ah-lee-ah) are objects from real life used in classroom instruction by educators to improve students' understanding of other cultures and real life situations’. Some people would include authentic texts in this definition, but, for me, realia has to be a physical, tangible object.

Using realia is one of those classroom techniques that new teachers often adopt enthusiastically. Sometimes TOO enthusiastically. What about the trainee teacher who struggled into the classroom carrying a massive satellite dish (true story)? Or another one who brought in a huge knife (also a true story). Or, and this is my very favourite, the trainee teacher who brought in a beef pie and a chicken pie to try and elicit the word ‘opposite’.
The key thing to remember with realia, is that you need to weigh up the benefit of bringing the object(s) into the classroom against how much time and effort it takes up (and whether it causes a security alert).

With children, there are lots of possible activities. Teaching animals? Take in some real animals (no, I’m joking). Take in soft toys and play games where the children pass them round while saying the names, or close their eyes and guess the animal, or describe the animal (if you want to focus on colours, body parts etc).
Teaching clothes? Take in some clothes to illustrate the words, and later in the lesson, the children can put on a fashion show and give a running commentary. ‘Sadia is wearing a beautiful blue scarf and a striking pink hat.’

Food is another common area where realia can work well. But, remembering the rule about usefulness vs time and effort, I wouldn’t bring in the contents of my store cupboard to teach flour sugar etc. Pictures would work much better for that. However, to teach sweet, sour, bitter, fresh, tasty, disgusting, and so on, real food could make for a very communicative and memorable lesson.

And, it doesn’t just have to be with younger learners. For students living in an English speaking country (ESL or ESOL), realia can be a great way of helping students with everyday tasks they have to carry out in English. For these students, I might, in fact, bring in the contents of my store cupboard, so that they could learn how to find the information they need (best before date, nutrition etc) on food labels.

Personal items can also work well. A favourite ice breaker of mine (apologies if I’ve mentioned this before) is to have a new class guess what I am carrying in my handbag. This means they have to make guesses about my personality and lifestyle, and they are always very keen to be nosy! A similar activity, without the personal slant, is to bring in a bag or wallet with various items in it (such as shopping, receipts and photos) and ask students to investigate what is in there, and make guesses about the person who owns it.

Realia may seem a rather old-fashioned technique in these digital days, when we have easy access to video, images and authentic texts. However, the engagement students experience when relating to a real object seems to be quite universal. I recently ran a workshop on ideas for teaching writing. For one of the activities I pulled out my bag of realia. This is a bag of various strange objects (a crocodile, a take-away leaflet, a spider, a dwarf, a birthday badge etc), mainly belonging to my children (who have no idea where their things disappeared to) that I keep ready for use. The teachers in the workshop had to pick out an object and then create a story with others at their table. I had great difficulty in stopping the activity, they were so engaged.

And, who knows, very soon we could be able to provide our students with virtual reality realia. A talk I saw Nicky Hockley give last weekend, referred to Google cardboard, an inexpensive way of adapting your smartphone into virtual reality goggles. The possibilities this opens up are amazing. How about conducting a café role-play, where you feel you are really in a café for example?

Do you use realia in your classroom? What do you do with it? And has anyone tried virtual realia yet?

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