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Teaching Ideas

September 06, 2002

The Real World in the Classroom

Andy Hoodith

Saitama University

There has been considerable discussion as to how far language 'input' in the classroom should be structured to suit the competence of a given group of students. This has influenced ELT materials design and use, and led to a debate regarding how useful 'real world' texts or teaching aids are compared with those specially prepared for language learning. For example, which is more appropriate for an elementary level class, an actual train timetable, with all its complexity and untidyness, or a simplified version which enables the teacher to isolate, present, and practice specific teaching points? A similar situation occurs with maps, and it becomes clear that for some classes at some levels and for some purposes, teacher-designed or adapted materials are more effective. As usual, there is no definitive 'best' way, only options.

The lesson plan which follows is related to this issue, although it only addresses a fraction of the questions raised. Nonetheless, it is an example of using 'realia' (real world items/materials as opposed to educator-designed ones) to good effect; the aim being to promote genuine communication. The purpose is to highlight one fundamental problem with non-authentic materials; namely that students are often asked to pretend that a piece of information is authentic when it obviously isn't. Most textbooks contain many approximations of reality (as well as authentic items) in order to make the teaching aims more readily achievable. Some of these approximations are located so far from their real-world counterparts as to bring into question their validity and overall effectiveness.

The items described for use in the following lesson are simply examples, and there are hundreds of similar resources available to teachers.



To present & practice question forms related to objects & their purposes, and to use the information generated to practice the order of adjectives in describing objects.
(The two aims could be spread over two classes if the lessons are short.)


an eraser, a teaspoon, a drinking straw, a teabag, a pachinko ball, a golf tee.


Tell the class that you have an object in a bag under your seat and that they should ask you questions to find out what it is. The questions should not be content-based (for example, "What is the object in the bag?!!!"); but be ones answerable only with 'yes', 'no', or 'not important'. (This is a very old game: sorry if you've heard it before.)

As you elicit questions, write them down on the whiteboard to give students a questioning template from which to do the later activities.

Is it bigger/smaller than……?
Do you use it every day?
Is it made of ………?
Does everyone have one?
Is it valuable?
Does it cost more than Y……?

If the students guess the answer quickly, do the activity again with another object to extend the range of questions. If it's taking a long time (more than 10 minutes), give them hints to quicken the pace.

Finally, write a description of the object on the board, incorporating some of the information which emerged during the questioning: e.g. A red and white striped plastic straw.


One student in a group or pair selects an object (a real one in his/her possession) and the others ask questions to ascertain what it is. On completion, they write down the object and a brief description of it. Then another student selects an item. This should last for around 15 minutes, and the teacher should monitor, correct, and help where appropriate.


Use examples from the students' items to point out differences between similar things. For example, most students will have a pen/pencil/eraser. Elicit differences between them in color, shape, size, material, etc. This should activate already established vocabulary and serve as a slight change of pace to the lesson.


Reversing the activity, ask students to write a brief description of an object in short sentences. Use the following example if necessary:

It's old. It is rectangular. It's green and cream colored. It's Japanese. It's made of paper. It's used every day. It has numbers and writing on it. What is it? A Y1,000 note.

Give students sufficient time (depending on their level) to complete the task while monitoring and helping as usual. Then write the following headings on the board:

How much?
How many?
it like?
What is it? Origin? Made of?

Elicit descriptions from students and adapt them where necessary to fit the model.

Example: It's an expensive, square, blue and green checked, Thai silk handkerchief.


Students write brief descriptions using the model and hand them in to be checked.


As a final 'game' try to introduce an object that none of the students have encountered before, or something that has a use which is not immediately apparent – not an easy task – and get them to ask questions to determine its purpose. If this too difficult, a picture of such an object may suffice, although you're already stepping away from reality…..


  • The plastic widget in the bottom of large cans of Guinness, and Boddingtons beer. (You have to drink the beer to get the widget!)
  • A pea for a whistle.
  • A cigar ashtray.


Thanks to Bernard Hartley & Peter Viney for the table in Streamline Destinations Unit 51.

Andy Hoodith
Andy Hoodith is an author and works at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. He is also a life-long supporter of Manchester City Football Club.

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