R is for… Realia

The term realia is often used with a different meaning in educational publishing to the one that classroom teachers are familiar with, especially language teachers. In the classroom, the word usually refers to physical objects that are brought in to make a topic more memorable and engaging, or to help students to understand new vocabulary.

  • Subject:ELT/ESL

  • Reading Time:5 minutes

The term realia is often used with a different meaning in educational publishing to the one that classroom teachers are familiar with, especially language teachers. In the classroom, the word usually refers to physical objects that are brought in to make a topic more memorable and engaging, or to help students to understand new vocabulary. In textbook publishing, this is obviously not possible (although there is nothing to stop teachers’ notes from suggesting the use of realia objects, or exercises based around the exploitation of objects that can already be found in the classroom, where appropriate – e.g. what other students are wearing to practice clothes vocabulary).

However, in educational publishing the term ‘realia’ is more commonly used to refer to facsimile texts that are designed to look like their real-world counterparts. These could be magazine articles, newspaper reports or things that would not usually be thought of as texts at all, such as tickets and receipts.

What are the benefits of designing texts to look like they could be from another source? In the case of reading texts, the justification can have to do with text type or genre. Certain features like pull quotes – short excerpts which are lifted out of the article to give them prominence and entice the reader – are typical of particular genres and can make the text feel more authentic if used effectively. Magazine articles often include introductory paragraphs in larger font and/or a different colour. These can be useful for language learners as they give an overview of the rest of the text and help students to orientate themselves. In general, it makes sense to expose students to text types that they are likely to come across in their reading outside the classroom (as far as is possible within the limits of a coursebook).

Since much of the reading students do outside the classroom now takes place online, it is unsurprising that the realia found in coursebooks often includes common digital genres such as blogs, websites, online forums and text chats. While it is questionable how much value is added by surrounding a piece of realia with lots of tabs and buttons so that it looks like a webpage, for example, there is something to be said for adding a few contextual clues that will make the format of the text immediately recognisable for students. There are also some features of online texts that can be exploited for more obviously useful purposes. For example, blog posts often have readers’ comments below them, which can be used to encourage critical discussion or as models for students’ own written responses to the text.

There are also some features of online texts that can be exploited for more obviously useful purposes. For example, blog posts often have readers’ comments below them, which can be used to encourage critical discussion or as models for students’ own written responses to the text.

Of course, including realia in coursebooks also has its downsides. It can be space-hungry, especially if it involves squeeze a magazine article with glossy photos or a website with banners and navigation onto a page that also contains exercises and other student-facing features (tip boxes, cross-references and so on). There is also a danger that busy pages will become distracting and difficult for students with learning differences such as dyslexia. This is particularly the case where realia is placed at a jaunty angle, leading to sloping text that is harder to read. Design decisions such as placing photos behind text, while aesthetically pleasing and common in the world of magazine publishing, can also make text difficult to read.

 

Finally, a new type of realia is made possible by the increasing availability of Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR and VR), although, importantly, many students do not currently have access to the necessary equipment. With a smartphone or tablet and – in the case of VR – a headset made from cardboard, it is now possible to recreate 3D environments in the classroom, with the option to zoom in and explore physical locations or look inside objects to see how they work, creating a more immersive experience for students and new opportunities for kinaesthetic learning. Many locations and objects have already been digitised and are available online; with a quick web search, it is easy to find examples of educational applications of AR, although they sometimes feel a little over-hyped. This may be stretching the meaning of realia as it is usually understood, but what new possibilities open up for learning materials when we can recreate aspects of the outside world in the classroom?

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