How to use props for teaching ESL

What are props and realia and how should it be used in the classroom and teaching ESL online? The word ‘props’ originates from the theatre and movie industry, but in teaching, props are all kinds of toys, puppets, and ordinary items that are used for demonstration especially with young learners to keep them engaged. Realia are everyday items we use to explain concepts to students. No class, including online classes teaching English Second Language (ESL), is complete without using props and colorful backgrounds.

teach vocabulary

To talk about using props online, I’ve invited my dad for a talk. My dad has been teaching online for years. He’s especially used to teaching students in China and he has a lot of experience in teaching young learners.

“I jokingly refer to myself as the prop master, because I have been using something like a hundred props and they are all within grab distance from behind my chair. You name the topic and I can show you a prop. Props can sometimes be distracting and then the kids run off and they go and fetch all their toys to show you all their toys.”

So, props can be very useful but you’ve got to use it with your lesson and appropriately, otherwise things can get out of hand. I love using props, especially when teaching young learners. I think it really adds something to the lesson. The students are engaged; they have fun and they love something they can touch and feel and that’s very colorful.

Using a puppet as a character

“When teaching online, especially teaching one-on-one, can be intimidating for young learners, so using a prop as the ‘second student’ in the class helps to give them confidence. So, in my case, my soft little Monkey (with pink sunglasses) became a standard participant in my classes. He’s the third person, especially with shy children and of course just the younger ones. I would ask Monkey the questions and sometimes Monkey will give wrong answers and I can correct mistakes indirectly. It helps shy students a lot and they create an imaginary friendship with the character.”

I think it’s so useful because learning shouldn’t happen in isolation, especially with young learners. It should be more social when it’s one-on-one – when it’s just the teacher and the student. So, if you use to have something like Monkey as a character and a friend, the child and pet character can create some kind of bond and they can really enjoy the learning experience.

“I have many other props, depending on whether it’s girls or boys. With boys I’d use this Ninja Turtle with his sword and then they will all jump up and go and fetch their own swords. Of course, girls love dolls. Maybe you would recognize this Russian Babushka doll that you bought in Vladivostok. I had a boy run and he fetched a Babushka that was twice the size with ten dolls stacked inside compared to the standard five in mine. Maybe you’ll recognize this doll you brought from Vietnam right? And then also your mom’s favorite, this Korean doll. So, one must have some dolls for the girls. You can talk about the dress and the blouse and stuff like this.”

Meet Monkey!

What is the role of a mascot in class

ESL teachers should have some kind of mascot in class. This can be a puppet or a stuffed animal; the rounder and the fluffier the better. Younger students can learn how to socialize appropriately in class and treat it gently. It’s so much about engagement. We should never trivialize how we as teachers should engage our students. We can do it with the lesson, with the content and with the way that we teach, but it also helps if we’ve got some toys that the students are drawn to so, that’s why we should have things that are interesting to them.

With online teaching your goal is for the students to share something about themselves; it’s like that for teaching at school too. The benefit of them being at home is that they can run and fetch something and they can show it off and talk about it more eagerly.

“It is not just about toys. For example, when we talk about utensils, stuff that you use in the kitchen, kids in Asia don’t use a knife and a fork, so you show them a knife and a fork and how you eat with a knife and a fork. This big spoon is a dessert spoon. They of course all use chopsticks, but they often don’t know what the English name for it is, so you show them the chopsticks and eating noodles from a bowl.”

Realia – using real-life items

Yes, when students see you use real-life items, they can learn the vocabulary quicker and more effectively. You could take five minutes to explain chopsticks, or you can just show them and you can demonstrate the action. It really engages them; it’s more visual and the students are interested.

They are maybe curious about what teacher Eric will have next to show us.

“Here is another example: A can of insect spray: You know these are pictures of bugs on the can, so usually children just know bugs, but now you show them the word insect on the can and then the house fly, cockroach, and mosquito, and this is a spray can with insect spray that you use to kill bugs.

“So, for example when you talk about personal hygiene, I’ve got this cute little nail clip set from Korea. All the students know what this is a pair of scissors, but they don’t know what clippers, tweezers, or files are and especially the girls find it very interesting to learn stuff like that.”

The value of using realia is also in extension activities. You can use a flashcard, or show the real thing. The great thing about using realia is that you can create more sentences; you were talking about “this is a bug,” but there’s another word for it namely insect. Or you can use spray, or you can start talking about a fly versus a cockroach, so the beauty of realia is that you can really use it in life and it’s more effective than just showing them a picture. Although I think it’s very useful for teachers to have cards especially in normal class situations.

Create a classroom atmosphere

“For sure, another favorite especially for the young ones was the ‘magic flying pan’. This is where you create a story, so they loved the ‘magic flying pan’ with all my bears: teddy bear, koala bear from Australia, baby blue bear, and little white bear. They knew these bears and I would ask them what their names are and show them the difference between a pan with a handle and a pot with a lid and short, smaller handles.”

I can really see your experience coming through; the way that you explain it and take it a step further; shows a lot of experience teaching one-on-one. When a teacher sees another teacher talking about things you can respect that.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that you’ve got a very colorful background for teaching online.

“Yes, your room must create the atmosphere of a classroom. So, it’s very important and also it makes it more interesting than just the drab old teacher sitting there. You must decorate your ESL classroom and I changed it every now and then.”

Indeed, we shouldn’t forget is the actual environment is a prop too. You should create an atmosphere that encourages learning with bright colors, animal items they know with the word for it in English underneath. Every class needs a world map to show different countries and cultures as well as teach them geography.

The ultimate prop – real pets

“Let me show you my ultimate prop, our pets. Let me call the dogs, because some students would insist that they want to see the dogs every week. Many of these children don’t have pets in their apartments, so for them, it’s truly special to see pets and how to feed them dog biscuits, so that’s like the highlight of the day.”

In my classroom, I like using things like a large dice, because it’s a randomizer. For ESL class I love having a fluffy softball or dice. Students can play throwing games with it, as you can create many different review games, throwing it to each other to answer questions. We use the dice when they play a board race. Now you can’t throw a dice around in an online class, but you can use a dice app on your phone. Another great thing for online class is having a whiteboard.

The magic flying pan.

“Yes, here is an eraser too to clean the whiteboard and the blackboard on the back. When you prepare for the lesson and can identify realia to sue. Over time you will learn that there are certain things that you really use a lot, for example, a key and a ring. I’ve got this fun box with a lot of props as teaching tools. I have this stuffed ape; I don’t know if it’s a gorilla. We’ve spent hours trying to figure out what it is, but look at his tongue. ‘Tongue’ is a word many students struggle to learn, but so you teach them body parts.”

It looks like you spent a fair amount of time growing and cultivating your area to help teach students and I think that’s what we as teachers should do. A lot of teachers might think that teaching online is very difficult, but you’ve just got to find the resources, the tools, and the props to make your lessons more engaging and to help the students have fun, because they’re very isolated and alone.  So, it’s up to you as the teacher to get through the computer and really interact with them and make learning fun.  

“Exactly and that was my experience as well! Two more fantastic tools for a classroom that I use are this bell and also a microphone.”

Things that make sound, something like a bell (or a triangle, etc.) conditions students when to pay attention; to mark the start or the end of a particular activity, or just some kind of noise to attract their attention to the teacher. A toy microphone signals to the student that it’s time to chant or sing.  

Rules and discipline using realia

I know here when should we use props try to use props that are relevant and improve learning realia is more suitable for all the learners and if possible use fake items for younger learners so that they don’t break them or hurt themselves using it props do not substitute good teaching but they can improve the learning experience when used by proficient educators remember to make sure that students respect the rules and boundaries around props in the classroom they have to handle it gently shouldn’t fight over it or leave class with it.  

So, props are very useful when teaching online, but we can also apply them to our normal classes too. Props are there to help, but in an ill-disciplined classroom, it can lead to chaos. Teaching props are a bonus and belong to you or the school.

Props and realia are very useful teaching tools and every teacher should incorporate into their classes. If there is anything that adds value to the learning experience, use it as we share our passion for teaching other people.

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