August 2014
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Wendy Taylor Wampler, Literacy Coalition of Central Texas, Austin, Texas, USA & Dawn Allen, Pendleton, Oregon, USA

Wendy Wampler

Dawn Allen

Introduction and Background

The community-based literacy sector is known to be a resource-strapped learning environment, a fact no less true in Central Texas, which includes the fast-growing Austin metropolis. As a coalition, the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas supports a large network of 70, largely volunteer-run, literacy programs by providing new teacher trainings, professional development, and classroom resources. In 2013, volunteer ESL instructors in Central Texas served more than 1,800 adults. Our students are typical of the adult education field, coming to us from diverse backgrounds and cultures, with varying levels of education in their home countries, and with any number of life challenges that keep them out of class on any given day.

From research, we know the importance of contextual relevancy to student learning. According to Wrigley (2003), “Students learned more, as measured in movement on standardized tests, in classes where the teacher made the connection between life outside the classroom and what was learned in the classroom than in classes that did not” (p. 15). For years in our new teacher trainings, we’ve emphasized the importance of bringing the outside world into the classroom through the use of authentic materials, or realia. “Adult learners in classes using real-life (authentic) literacy activities and texts read and write more often, and use a greater variety of texts, in their lives outside class” (Purcell-Gates, Degener, Jaconson, & Soler, 2000, p.1). We know that if we can hook them and engage them with something that is tangible and that is tied to their interests and goals, our students will be more likely to succeed both inside and outside the classroom.

New teachers just starting out look first to textbooks for lesson content and likely overlook the things in their everyday environment—authentic materials at their fingertips—which they could use instead. Even veteran teachers get stuck in a rut, or are strapped for time and energy, and could benefit from using more authentic materials in the classroom. In response to these challenges, we developed the Teacher Toolkit Creator, giving our volunteers a tool that would decrease their lesson planning time while increasing student engagement through the use of free authentic materials readily available in their local communities.

The Teacher Toolkit Creator

Just as the literacy programs we work with are strapped for funds, we also did not have an unlimited budget to develop the tool. We chose to design the Toolkit Creator using simple Excel and Word documents to keep costs low and ensure it would be readily available to teachers.

Because the goal of the Toolkit Creator is to make instruction more engaging and relevant to students, it is important to start by eliciting students’ feedback rather than making assumptions about their needs and interests. This is where student assessments come into play. The Toolkit Creator includes two assessments—one text based and one image based—for both lower-level and more advanced students. The assessments ask students six key questions:

  • What are your hobbies?
  • What kinds of classroom activities do you prefer?
  • Why are you learning English?
  • Where do you speak English outside of class?
  • Where do you work?
  • What community services are in your neighborhood?

Once a teacher has collected feedback from students through the assessments, it is entered into the Realia Generator (.xlsx). The Realia Generator is a program configured to take in information about your students and generate a list of corresponding realia. (For more details, watch our demonstration video outlining how to use the Generator). Depending on your students’ feedback, you will receive a list of 50–100 authentic materials from the Generator. From this list, you can then assemble your own classroom toolkit.

When completing the student assessments, students are a given a choice of up to 10 items to select from. We understand the limitations this puts on student responses. The Creator does not reflect all needs and interests, and the goal of the Toolkit Creator is not to fully represent all students. Rather, the Toolkit Creator is meant to help teachers move toward more relevant and engaging classrooms. To address the limitations of the Creator, we also designed the Supplemental Teacher Worksheet. This worksheet encourages teachers to reflect on the results of the Generator and any student interests not addressed, and to think of ways to incorporate these interests into the classroom.

As the world is becoming more and more dependent on technology, it is important to integrate technology into our classrooms. Nonetheless, we kept in mind the limitations of many adult education classrooms. While we included a number of digital options such as websites and phone apps in the Toolkit Creator, we also designed filters to screen out any equipment unavailable to specific classrooms such as computers, Internet access, projectors, and so on.

Other adult ESL classrooms are limited not by access to technology but by the literacy level of students. For these classrooms we created a filter to screen out realia containing large amounts of text inappropriate for the low-literacy level classroom.

Classroom Implications

As we developed the Toolkit Creator, we asked our local instructors to complete the Realia Generator based on their current students. We wanted to get a feel for the interests of the local community. Among the results, common themes and their corresponding realia included:

  • Work (work schedules, pay stubs, cleaning supplies, photos of food and drink)
  • Local entertainment and activities (live music schedule, local map, community newspaper)
  • Civics (citizenship application form, images of U.S. historical figures)
  • Children and children’s school (report card, behavior notes, school calendar, school supply list, children’s books)
  • Health (health history form, intake form, empty medicine bottles)

The next step is to turn the realia into relevant and engaging lessons for students. Here in Central Texas, with Austin known as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” a schedule of live music is a great representation of something that is both engaging and representative of our local community (see Figure 1).

Wampler Figure 1. (click to enlarge)

Working from the schedule in Figure 1, teachers could focus on the Wh- question words (specifically, “who” and “when”) and either do an information gap activity with students working in pairs or a line dialogue activity in which students form two lines facing each other. Line A asks Line B a question, and then Line B rotates by one person so that each person has a new partner after every question. Another option is to focus on practicing days of the week and prepositions of time (specifically, “at” and “on”) and do a whole class True/False activity to test students’ comprehension. To practice numbers, the teacher could cut up the schedule by date, give each student one square, and do a “line up” activity by having them form a single line in order by date. The culminating activity would be a class field trip to see a free live music performance.

Other general ways to include realia in the classroom, regardless of the lesson topic, include:

  • Activating Background Knowledge – Realia related to the lesson for the day can be the basis of a warm-up discussion as a way to help students connect their background knowledge to the lesson topic.
  • Role Plays – Role plays that are situational and use realia integral to the conversation are especially effective (e.g., ordering from a menu or a discussing a health history form with a nurse).
  • Predicting – Students guess what a lesson will be about based on the realia you bring in for class.
  • Sorting Realia Into Groups – This works well with smaller realia and images. Students can sort realia into groups set by you (e.g., Sorting different over-the-counter medications into groups by the symptoms they treat), or they can select their own groups for sorting based on the realia you give them.
  • Think-Pair-Share – In this case, the realia serves as the basis for individual, group, and then full-class discussions on a topic.
  • Matching – Students match up realia with vocabulary words. For more advanced students, realia can be matched with related sentences, paragraphs, or definitions.

Check out a video of one our local teachers using a number of these strategies to make a health lesson on symptoms and medication come alive.

How would you use these ideas in your own classroom? What is unique about your city, town, or state that you use as the basis for a lesson? Download the Toolkit Creator and try it out. We’d love to hear your feedback.


Purcell-Gates, V., Degener, S., Jaconson, E., & Soler, M. (2000). Affecting change in literacy practices of adult learners: A NCSALL Research Brief (Research brief #17). Retrieved from

Wrigley, H. (2003). A conversation with FOB: What works for adult ESL students. Focus on Basics: Connecting Research and Practice, 6(C), 14–17. Retrieved from

Wendy Taylor Wampler has been working in adult education for 10 years. Her experience includes ESL instruction and assessment, program development and management, curriculum development, and training design and facilitation. She enjoys spending as much time outdoors as possible—hiking, swimming, paddleboarding, or just lounging with a good book.

Dawn Allen started teaching in 1995 and has taught Pre-K through university level students. Her research has focused on ESL instructor professional development and advocacy. When she’s not teaching, you’ll find her traveling, doing yoga, or shopping for shoes.

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