Collecting textual realia

Realia are an important part of communicative language teaching and learning, bringing real language into the classroom, providing students an opportunity to extract meaning from authentic texts, with contextual and visual cues which are lacking, or sometimes added in tokenistic fashion, in traditional textbooks. While some definitions of realia include cultural items and props that can help build the learning atmosphere, this post is looking at authentic written texts.

I love seeking out authentic resources, and would like to share some of my advice for collecting your own resources. Of course, collecting realia has become a lot easier since the days I ran a ‘Tokyo Motor Show’ unit for a class of 11-year old boys who were, let’s say, less than enthusiastic about having to learn Japanese. 3 months before the unit I sent off a letter to the Tokyo Motor Show organisers requesting any materials they had. They arrived the day before the unit started – requiring a rushed but welcome rejigging of the lesson plans. I was given booklets in the target language from a range of different car manufacturers showcasing their newest models, booklets about concept cars (this became a great classroom management tool as I showcased a new car at the end of every productive lesson), two big posters for the wall, maps of where everything was at the event, and the pièce de résistance – a one hour documentary/ advertisement about that years’ show, on videocassette!

How wonderful that we live in an age that students can instantly watch a TV commercial in the target language, or see what the week’s top 10 song is, or search the website of their favourite fast food restaurant and see how it compares to their own country, or watch a live webcam in a tourist area in the target country. These are the things that make language real, that connects language study it to a real culture, and importantly, to connect language study to their youth culture.

The internet  is a wonderful tool to collect realia, and my unit planning these days always includes a few hours looking through YouTube videos and target language websites. However, in this post I’m going to concentrate on concrete materials, and save the digital materials for another post.

My advice is to know well in advance what the topic of your unit will be. You can start searching for resources even before the planning stage, and the realia themselves can bring inspiration for your lessons. Nothing will go to waste because even if they aren’t used directly in your unit, they will add to the immersive environment of the classroom.

There is content to be found on just about any topic in target language books, magazines, comic books, and newspapers. These items are often writing-intensive, but that doesn’t mean they are only for advanced learners. Exposure to ‘heavier’ texts even in earlier years gives students opportunities to a) see language in context b) give them a goal to work toward c) feel some success in understanding even small pieces of information, and d) takes some of the fear away from written texts, and I’m thinking this is particularly important in my case teaching Japanese to Australian students, who often come to me with a fear of the Japanese writing system. Second-hand book stores are a good place to start if you’re on a budget. Newspapers are often left on trains, and depending on the area newsagents may give away unsold old magazines (although  often with the cover removed).

There are also items which are available freely and for free in the target country, and it just takes a good friend living in the target country to keep an eye out for materials, and then send them over to you. Of course, postage does cost so you might want to compensate your friend, or you may consider setting up an agreement with another teacher to do a realia-swap. For example, when I taught Japanese in Australia I did a resource swap with an English teacher friend in Japan, and we collected items and sent them over to each other twice a year. Here are some ideas for realia that is generally available for free for commonly taught topics including:

*Travel: brochures, timetables, tickets, maps, (photos of) road signs
*Environment: recycling information
*Housing: real estate brochures
*Food: catalogues, coupons, fast food menus and tray mats, empty food packages, recipes,
*Shopping: catalogues, receipts, opening hours information

There are also government bodies that may be able to assist. Consulting the consulate, embassy, and national tourism boards has in the past resulted in advocacy and promotional materials, although in my case these avenues in past years have become less and less fruitful due to funding cuts.

Corporate businesses and organisers of events may provide you with materials, with the right approach. Be clear that you are looking for items in the target language (I haven’t been clear in the past and have received English translations), and be clear that you are not after items that cost. If you know what you want, be specific, if not give examples. For example, ‘I’d really like to share information about the Tour de France with my 320 students, and would appreciate if you have any posters, information materials, maps, timetables in French, of the event, that you might be willing to give away’. Also let them know that you don’t mind older materials, you never know they may have a stockpile of last years’ materials about to go to the garbage. My experience is that even in this age of email, a letter reaps more results. Emails are easier to ignore, can get sent to spam boxes or may never get to the right person. It’s harder to ignore a letter that has been sent from the other side of the world.

So, that’s my advice to you, but I’d love to hear the advice of other language teachers, so it’s over to you!

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OVER TO YOU …

*What are your strategies for collecting authentic texts and realia in the TL language?
*What has been your best realia find?

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