In my experience of teaching English, I think the most fun I and my students had was with created materials, or realia, used in conjunction with the planned lessons in the text. As a photographer, I had a number of images that could be printed out and used in games, for vocabulary lessons and also as a basis for dialogues created by the students themselves.
An article about realia by Stefan Chiarantano (2005) describes using plastic fruit, toy animals, Christmas cards, maps and other items to introduce new vocabulary to his young students. Cultural items, such as the Christmas cards, can also be used to teach students about customs in other nations. They are often very curious about other customs and their very curiosity will improve their attention spans and help them to retain the information given.
In addition to creating interest in young students, realia can be very useful for working with older students, high school and college age. These students have had more experience and are more aware of cultures other than their own. Popular music has often taught them English vocabulary through their listening to “stars” from the United States and Great Britain. I have used magazines which are devoted to entertainment and music stars and find that the students are eager to read them. They are drawn to the pictures and will want to read stories about their favorites. The sports world is also greatly admired by students of this age group. Even in China, my students knew who Michael Jordan and Ronaldo were and anything which mentioned them would capture their attention.
In an article about creative uses of realia, Simon Mumford offers a number of innovative uses for common items to be used as teaching aids. He states that he uses realia in three areas, for descriptions, props in drama and as creative thinking exercises. Particularly interesting was his use of common objects to demonstrate grammar points. He suggested using scissors to illustrate the passage of time during the present perfect tense. At first, his system appeared too complicated to use but I would presume that if it worked for him, it would work for other teachers also. He also spoke of using pencil sharpeners, ties and staplers. One of the objects he suggests is a microphone, real or imaginary, which is used as a prop to encourage students to speak. It is used much in the same way as a ball, and is passed from one person to another.
Business English students would benefit greatly from using realia which relates to the work they are or will be doing. Certainly business letters and forms can be daunting when they are in a language which is not your first and in which you are not fluent. An enterprising teacher should be able to find realia pertaining to all manner of business operations which can be utilized to familiarize the business student with materials they may be using either then or in the future.
I once taught a class of students who were planning to be travel agents. We had a wonderful time when I assigned them into groups. Each group represented a travel agency. Each travel agency was to choose a destination country and design its own brochures and paperwork involved with travel to that country. They created posters, arranged schedules and pretty much did the work of a real travel agency. They were to create dialogs involving making reservations, selling tickets, etc.. To assist them in their work, I had collected a number of travel posters, brochures, and even actual airline tickets for them to model their work after. The class was very successful. The students came up with very creative ideas and dialogues and we all had great fun.
In conclusion, realia can be a very effective agent of learning in the classroom. It can be used, regardless of the age level or language level. I have heard it taught that learning comes three different ways. The first is when someone tells you about something. You hear about it but it doesn’t have as much impact as the second which is when you hear but also see something. The seeing can be through pictures, the written word or actually observing something happen to someone else. The very best learning is when you not only hear and see, but experience something personally. A parent can tell a child not to touch a hot stove. The child can observe someone touching it and getting burned. He might forget these first two lessons. If a child touches a hot stove and is burned, it will be a lesson he will never forget. Realia can be that third lesson when used properly in a classroom.