Adult Ed
Getting Real: Using Real Life Materials


Activity One: Background Knowledge Discussions
Activity Two: Reading Something Hard
Activity Three: Searching for Information
Activity Four: Real-Life Projects

Activity One: Background Knowledge Discussions
Remember that your job is to help students learn about real-life materials, not necessarily to master them.

Step 1Background Knowledge

Decide what the real-life material will be. You can pick something yourself or have the students pick. If you pick, make it something that has come up before, or something that you know your students have an interest in. For this activity, we will use a food label on a box of crackers as an example.

Step 2 After you have chosen a material, decide what topic or topics to discuss to begin the background knowledge discussion. For the food label, it could be "nutrition," "food," "snacks," "shopping" or anything related to the product. You might want to talk about more than one of these topics.

Depending on the population you work with, this can lead in different directions:
  • ESOL students might want to learn the vocabulary words and talk about how food and shopping are different in their country.
  • Literacy students might want to do a language experience based on the discussion, and practice reading and writing words that are new to them.
  • More advanced or confident writers could be asked to free write given a prompt like "Food," or "What I like to eat"
Step 3Have students write what they know about one of the topics after the discussion. Give a prompt such as . . .
  • "What do you know about nutrition?"
  • "What is your favorite food and why is it your favorite?"
  • "What food do you dislike? Why do you think you dislike it?"
  • "What did you learn today?"
  • "What ideas came up today that we need to research more about?"

Activity Two: Reading Something Hard
Sometimes you don't want to read something hard. A lease for renting an apartment is too long, too hard, and too boring to make a good lesson. You also have to be careful about real-life materials that have real-life consequences. Remind students that you are not a doctor or a lawyer if it seems appropriate. Don't do anything that comes close to giving legal or medical advice.

Sometimes you have to show your students different ways to read. You don't read a bus schedule, a phone book, or a food label the same way you read a newspaper or a novel. Discussing different ways of reading for different purposes can be a good lesson in itself

But other hard materials can make good lessons. Magazine and newspaper articles are good examples. Remember if you find yourself thinking, "this is too hard for them," you might be better off thinking, "I need to provide more support for this assignment."

Step 1 Preview the material and decide what the topic is. Have that background discussion first.

Step 2 Introduce concepts or vocabulary words that will help the students when you get to reading. Just a few words will do. If you go over a dozen words, it will probably all be forgotten.

Step 3 Talk about the publication first. What kind of magazine is "People"? What kind of newspaper is The New York Times? What section of the paper do you have? What kinds of things are likely to be in that section?

Step 4 Read parts of the text. Don't overwhelm your students with more print than they can handle. For real beginners, you might only read the headline or the title. Reading the first paragraph might be enough for some others.

Step 5 Provide the right amount of support. Here are a few ways to support students reading a hard text.
  • Have lots of background discussion.
  • Provide previews of concepts and vocabulary.
  • Read the whole thing to them first.
  • Read the first part and have then finish it on their own.
  • Have students read along with you. They can do this the first time through or after hearing you read it to them.
  • Read part of the text to the students, have students read a part silently, and then you read some more.
  • Read something more than once and read it more than one way. You can read to students, have them read along with you, have students read aloud to each other, trade off reading with your students, working up to silent reading.
Step 6 Have post-reading discussions. Techniques to use include:
  • Summarizing
  • Reviewing (I liked it because, I didn't like it because, I liked this partů.)
  • Discussing experience related to the article
  • Agreeing or disagreeing with the article
Step 7 Provide the right amount of support. Here are a few ways to support students reading a hard text.

Students can write opinions, responses, stories related to the article, summaries, or new essays inspired by the piece. Students can also write about what they learned or tell the story of the class reading the article.

Activity Three: Searching for information
Some real-life materials are not really meant to be read from start to finish, they are meant to be used to find information. For example, most people don't really read the phone book. They use it to find one piece of information that they need. The same is true for train and bus schedules. Some people might actually read catalogs, starting at the beginning and looking at every page. At another time, that very same person might only be looking for one item or one type of item in that very same catalog. Here are a few examples of activities to do with different materials to help students improve their ability to use texts in different ways:

Part One: Food Labels

Step 1 If possible, have students bring in some food products with labels on them.

Step 2 Discuss some basics about food labels and nutrition. Why read food labels? What do we learn from reading them? What do we know about them already?

Step 3 Tell students that the first three ingredients on a label are what the product is mostly made of. Have students find those ingredients and read them to the class.

Step 4 Find out how much of something each product has. For example, ask each student to find out.
    How much sugar is in their product?
    How many servings are in the package that they have?
    How many calories are in the package?

Don't try and cover everything. If you get caught up explaining just what a carbohydrate is, the difference between mono- and polyunsaturated fat, and the definition of every ingredient on the label, you are likely to be a front runner for the most boring teacher of the year award.

Part Two: The Phone Book

(Don't do this one if your students don't know the alphabet too well. Also, it's best if you have lots of phone books. You can do it with just one or two, but it's better if everyone gets lots of practice)

Step 1 Once again, use the background knowledge discussion.
  • Ask your students the difference between the white and the yellow pages.
  • Ask your students how they are organized differently. (Succinct answers in case they don't really know: The white pages: people's home phone numbers listed alphabetically by last name. Some white pages have a second part that lists businesses alphabetically by last name. The yellow pages list businesses in alphabetical order by categories.)
  • Ask your students to give examples of when they would need to use the phone book
Step 2 Practice looking in the phone book. Look for . . .

  • Names in the white pages. First just a last name: Smith, Jones, Zimmerman, Knapp, Shabaaz, and Vasconcelos. Their first and last names: Bill Smith, Joe Zimmerman, and Barry Knapp.
  • Categories in the yellow pages: Restaurants, Dentists, and Pet Stores (This could necessitate a mini-lesson in synonyms or categorizing.)
  • Specific names of businesses in the yellow or white pages: Sal's and Carmine's -Pizza, a dentist named Marian Schwarz, a pet store called The Urban Gerbil.
  • Businesses in specific places: a Japanese Restaurant on Main Street, a veterinarian on Merrick Boulevard. (Have students come up with the names and businesses to look for after you give a few)
Part Three: A circular for a grocery store or a drug store

Step 1 Look for specific products

Step 2 Give the name of a product and ask students to find the prices

Step 3 Give students a problem to solve using the circular. Examples:
  • You have twenty dollars and you have to make dinner for your three best friends, or make a romantic dinner, or have a party for a three year old and six of her friends.
  • Shop for those dinners/parties again with one hundred dollars.
  • You have a bad cold. What would you buy if you had ten dollars to spend?
  • After they finish solving their problems, have students share in pairs, small groups, or as a whole group
Activity Four: Projects
One of the best ways to use real-life materials is developing a real-life project. If you are really going to the aquarium or you are really going shopping, there is more motivation to use the materials and more satisfaction in having figured out how to use them to navigate the outside world. Here are a few ideas of projects:
  • Plan a field trip using maps, schedules, and brochures.
  • Plan a meal using grocery store newspaper ads and circulars, and food labels.
  • Design a dream house or decorate an apartment using catalogs and circulars.