Realia Activities for ESL Students
By Hall Houston
The first time I heard the word realia was over two decades ago when I was studying for a Master’s degree in Foreign Language Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Realia is a term for objects that we encounter every day – umbrellas, paper clips, hairpins, toothbrushes, coffee mugs. Realia are superb for teaching nouns and adjectives, as well as verbs, prepositions of location, and articles. They are easy to find and bring to class. They catch students’ attention and appeal to kinesthetic learners, who love to hold and manipulate objects.
In this article, I’m going to explain some simple realia activities that you can use in class. In some cases, you will need to bring a few objects from your home or office. In others, you can use objects in the classroom, including objects the students bring in. Another alternative is displaying a still image of objects on a screen or holding an image in front of your students.
In this classic activity, you bring to class a number of objects (seven to ten) covered with a towel. You show the students the objects for 5 seconds, then cover them up again. Ask students to write down all the objects they remember. Then show them again for 10 seconds. Let them write the objects down. Follow this up with a true/false quiz, with sentences such as “The eraser is next to the business card.” and “There are two blue plastic cups.” When the objects are covered, let students read the sentences and decide if they are true or false. Show them the objects again to check their answers. Next, put them in pairs to write more true or false sentences to test each other.
Objects in a Bag
Bring in a cloth bag with about 9 or 10 objects in it. Walk around the classroom and let each student reach in the bag and grab one object. Without taking it out, the student should guess what it is. Next, take each object out of the bag. Tell the class what it’s called, and describe it. From time to time ask students a question about an item: “George, do you have one of these in your house?” “Linda, how much are these in your country?” Finally, quiz the students on the names of the objects.
What I Have
Tell students to think of all the things that they have in their pockets/bag/purse/backpack. Put students into pairs Student A names three objects, two that he/she has and one that he/she doesn’t have. B tries to guess which item A doesn’t have. Repeat with Student B listing 3 objects and Student A guessing.
The Perfect Gift
Bring to class a variety of inexpensive items. The number of objects should be twice the number of students, so 20 for a class of 10 students. Ask each student to take an object and place it on his/her desk. Now tell everyone to imagine that the object is a gift for another student in class. Who would they like to give it to? Why? Give them 6-7 minutes to think of their answers. Ask each student to tell the class about their gift, using the sentence pattern “ I think this would be the perfect gift for _____, because ___________.” Allow the recipient to respond to the gift. Does the student like it?
Put a variety of objects on your desk. Cheap office supplies or snacks work great here. Divide students into two teams. Put two chairs in front of your desk, facing away from the blackboard. Call on a student from each team to sit in the chairs. Explain that you are going to describe an object, and they must listen carefully. If the student can identify the object correctly, he/she must run to the desk and grab it. Play several times, with different team members each time. You can make this more challenging by keeping your descriptions extremely vague in the beginning, or using descriptions that apply to more than one object.
Ask students to look over all the things they have in their pockets/bag/purse/backpack. Are there any things that they don’t want or need? Ask them to take out paper and write two columns, one titled I HAVE and one titled I NEED. In the first column, students write things they have and would be willing to get rid of. In the second column, students write simple cheap things they want and would be willing to trade for. Next, get students to walk around and share their lists. Is there anything they would be willing to trade for? Each time both students are willing to make a trade, they should make a note on their paper (They don’t need to actually trade the objects if they don’t want to.) When students finish interacting, ask a few students to tell you about one of their trades.
How much are they?
Bring to class twelve items that you know the prices for. They don’t need to be expensive, but they should vary in price. Write down the prices for each item. Divide them into two groups of six items, and put the prices in order, cheapest to most expensive. Make sure that there are no price tags or stickers indicating price on the objects. You will also need a bell or a buzzer, and a timer.
Tell students that you are going to play a game. They will work in two teams and compete to see which team can put six objects in order from the cheapest to the most expensive in the least amount of time. Divide them into two teams. Put 6 items on your desk, and make a quick note of their prices without letting the students know. One member of the first team will come to the front and the other members of the first team will tell the student where to move the items in English. (You might want to go over some useful English phrases “Move the ____ over to the left” “Put the _____ on the right” before the activity begins.) The team member at the desk will move the items until the team thinks they are in order from least expensive to most expensive. Then the team member will ring a bell or buzzer on your desk, and you will tell the team how many items are in the right place. The team keeps playing until they have everything in the right place. Tell the first team their time (how long it take them to finish). Play the game again with the second team, using the other six objects. Finally, tell the class which team is the winner.
Hall Houston is a language teacher in the Department of Applied English at Kainan University in Taoyuan, Taiwan. He has a Master’s degree in Foreign Language Education from The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several books about language teaching, including Provoking Thought and The ELT Daily Journal. His practical articles have been published in English Teaching Professional, EFL Magazine, IH Journal, and One Stop English. His professional interests include second language listening, materials development, creativity and critical thinking. He is a Cambridge English teacher trainer and presenter.