Volume V - 2000

Junk Mail Catalogs: A Treasure-Trove for Language Teachers
by Susan L. Schwartz

         Susan L. Schwartz holds master's degrees in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and in International Administration from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. In the USA, she has taught ESL in a variety of contexts. She has also worked in English as a Foreign Language in China and Indonesia. Her current interests are in materials development, teacher training, and program administration. Recently, she taught lecturers of College English at Nanjing University in Jiangsu, the People's Republic of China.

Introduction

         Most people probably would not think of a junk mail catalog as a source of treasure. For many of us, unsolicited mail order catalogs are a bane of daily life. However, these publications contain a huge variety of pictures and a wealth of cultural information. Teachers can easily use junk mail catalogs to create a picture file and then design lessons based on the pictures. This article briefly explains the benefits of using pictures, offers some suggestions for using pictures from junk mail catalogs, and describes three lesson plans. At the end of the article, information on how to contact several catalog companies is provided: those with fax numbers and addresses will mail their catalogs overseas. Why Use Pictures?

         Pictures are a great incentive for language production and can be used in many ways in the classroom. "Specifically, pictures contribute to: interest and motivation; a sense of the context of the language; a specific reference point or stimulus" (Wright 19). Many pictures in junk mail catalogs are especially suitable for small group activities. Speaking, writing, vocabulary, grammar and cross- cultural lessons at all levels can be designed around the use of pictures.

         One of the main advantage is that teachers do not have to spend any money to get them. They can call a toll-free number, from the US and Canada, and request that a catalog be mailed to them. Companies are glad to send their free literature to potential customers. Catalogs are aimed at a wide variety of audiences, and the pictures in them are likewise very diverse. Consequently, teachers can easily create an extensive picture file which contains all kinds of subject matter. I have received catalogs for food, gardening, sports, leisure, furniture, fashion, jewelry, New Age products, and for items related to education, religion, the environment, computers, travel, and medicine. Once your name is on a list for one catalog, you will inevitably find yourself receiving junk mail catalogs from companies you never even knew existed! Valuable Aid in Teaching about the USA.

         Pictures in American catalogs show people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as people of different ages. For students learning English, such models can provide a representative sample of "typical" Americans. These pictures can also be used to discuss stereotypes that some students may have. In addition, many catalogs depict people participating in all kinds of recreational and leisure activities, both indoors and outdoors. Some catalogs are published several times a year, and their pictures show seasonal influences. When teachers have a large collection of such pictures, their students are better able to understand the society of the USA and the diversity of the population.

         Since the purpose of a junk mail catalog is to entice the reader to buy the products in it, the quality of the pictures is very high. Usual]y, there is only a little text covering part of the photograph because the companies want to show off their products. In most cases, each picture highlights one item and that makes it easy for students to identify the subject matter. Teachers should consider saving pictures of all sizes because they will be able to use them in different kinds of activities. Photos are often rather small, the size of a postage stamp or even smaller. Although teachers could not use such pictures for a whole-class activity, they are ideal for small-groups, pairs, or students working individually. Actually, when students are sitting at their desks and doing a writing task, using smaller pictures may be easier since they do not take up so much space. One other benefit of using pictures from junk mail catalogs is environmental. Most people routinely throw away or recycle their junk mail. But if teachers cut out the pictures and use them in their classrooms, they have at least found some useful purpose for all that paper.

Selecting and Using Pictures

         The pictures in the catalogs are usually identified by a letter or number, with a written description of the item on the same page. Some teachers may feel it is distracting for students to see those letters or numbers. If desired, they could cut them out. Alternatively, they could leave the item number or letter on the picture and then use that for easy identification. For example, a teacher could divide the class into Group A and Group B and distribute pictures which show the letters "A" or "B" on them to the respective groups. The pictures do not have to be uniformly shaped; the placement of text often prevents that. Instead of discarding a picture just because a little text covers apart of it, a teacher might consider cutting around the text: as long as most of the image remains and the meaning is clearly discernible, the picture can be used. In my opinion, photos with irregular shapes have just as much value as square-shaped pictures. None of my students have ever commented on the shape of a picture. However, sometimes it is useful to retain the text. If the picture shows a scene from nature or a foreign country, students may want to know where the picture is from. Or the picture may show an object whose cost the students may ask about. In such cases as these, it is helpful to attach the written description to the back of the picture so that the teacher and/or students can refer to it when necessary.

         Since the paper used in junk mail catalogs is not very thick, teachers would be well-advised to back them on stiff paper or to laminate them. If teachers have access to a laminating machine, here are two ideas: (A) laminate same-sized pictures back-to-back to conserve the amount of laminating plastic required, and (B) laminate several small pictures on one sheet and use them for comparisons: the pictures could be of similar or dissimilar subjects.

Lesson Plans

         The lesson plans discussed below are for speaking, grammar, and writing activities. The length of time required to implement each activity is not given because each class is different and teachers will be able to judge for themselves how much time their students will need to complete the tasks. The lessons are described in general terms and teachers should feel free to modify them as they see fit. They can be used in both ESL and EFL contexts. Focus on Speaking:

Focus on Speaking:

         This is for students at beginning and intermediate levels. The objective is to practice asking and answering questions. Each student needs one picture. (Pictures of people from various ethnic, economic, age, and gender groups are particular]y useful. Fashion catalogs are good sources of such pictures.) The procedure is as follows: First, as a class, have the students generate a list of interview questions. Write them on the board. Then distribute the pictures to the students. Tell them they will become the person in their picture. The students must create a biography for that person. Give the students time to think. Next, divide the students into pairs. Tell them to take turns interviewing each other, using the questions generated earlier. Students should give answers based on the identities they created for the person in their picture. As a follow-up, students can write a one-paragraph biography of their person.

Focus on Grammar:

         This works well with intermediate-level students. The objective is to practice using comparatives and superlatives. The materials needed are sets of pictures--one set per student--which show similar objects; e.g.,a set that shows different kinds of shoes, a set that shows different kinds of hats, or watches, or cars, etc. The directions for the activity are: Give one set of pictures to each student. Tell students they should use comparatives and superlatives (which have been taught prior to doing this activity) to describe the objects in their pictures. They should write as many sentences as possible. For instance, they can write "'The black shoe is prettier than the brown shoe," "The red shoe is smaller than the blue shoe," " I like the green shoe because it is the most beautiful." When students have finished writing, they should form small groups and read their sentences to each other. 'They should check for errors, both spoken and written, and discuss whether they agree or disagree with the statements made about the objects in the pictures. This activity also lends itself to a discussion of American culture--for example, if the pictures present items of clothing, teachers can provide information about when and where particular items are worn. Department store catalogs are a good source of these types of pictures.

Focus on Writing:

         Teachers can do this activity with students who are at intermediate and advanced levels. The objectives are to practice using transitions and to activate students' creativity. Sets of five to seven pictures whose subjects are unrelated are needed for this activity. The procedure is as follows: Divide students into small groups of three or four. Give one set of pictures to each group. Tell the students to write a paragraph about their sets of pictures; each student should individually write his/her own paragraph. Each picture must be incorporated into the paragraph, so there should be at least as many sentences as there are pictures. A topic sentence and a concluding sentence should also be included.

         The pictures can be used in any order. Teachers should tell the students to use transitions (which should be taught before doing this activity) in their paragraphs. Depending on the number of pictures, two or three transitions should suffice. When the students have finished writing, they should exchange papers and do peer correction. Then they can write a second draft and read the rewritten paragraphs out loud to the other group members. Even if the pictures are unrelated in content, it is helpful if the students can easily find a way to connect them. Therefore, I like to form sets of pictures which include a person, a nature scene, and some kind of food with a picture of clothing or accessories, a picture of a sporting or recreational activity, and pictures of various objects.

Conclusion

         Although it takes time to look through and cut photographs out of junk mail catalogs, the end result of a comprehensive picture file is well worth the effort. For the students, using these pictures may stimulate and increase their language learning. For teachers, junk mail catalogs are a treasure-trove of pictures whose use is constrained only by the limits of their creativity.

Appendix: Sources of Junk Mail Catalogs

Name of Catalog
Description
Contact Information
American Express Collection
Sports equipment, jewelry, electronics, home furnishings
Tel. 800-528-8000
Charles Keith, Ltd.
Women's fashions, jewelry, accessories, home furnishings
Tel. 800-388-6565
Hammacher Schlemmer
Products for home and recreation

Tel. 800-283-9400; Fax. 513-860-3396; Address: Operations Center, 9180 LeSaint Dr., Fairfield, OH 45014 USA

Harry and David
Food baskets
Tel. 800-345-5655
L.L. Bean
Casual clothes, footwear
Tel. 800-341-4341; Fax. 207-552-4080; Address: L.L. Bean, Inc., Freeport, Maine 04033 USA
Land's End
Casual clothing, accessories
Tel. 800-356-4444; Fax. 608-935-400; Address: 1 Land's End Lane, Dodgeville, WI 53595 USA
The Music Stand
Products from the field of performing arts
Tel. 800-717-7010; Fax. 603-298-5553; Address: 1 Music Stand Plaza, 66 Benning St., West Lebanon, NH 03784 USA
The Sharper Image
Gadgets, small appliances
Tel. 800-344-4444; Fax. 415-445-1508; Address: 650 Davis St., San Francisco, CA 94110 USA
The Source for Everything Jewish
Products with a Jewish theme

Tel. 800-426-2527

Stern's
Products from the department store
Tel. 800-845-4700
Talbot's
Women's fashions, accessories
Tel. 800-992-9010
Vantage Travel Service

 

Vacation tours around the world

Tel. 800-322-6677

References

Wright, Andrew. 1989. Pictures for Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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