Puppets in ELT – The Ace up Your Sleeve

What do oven gloves, life-size cardboard advertisements, aliens and puppets have in common? This month, Alex Zagorac of BKC-IH Moscow looks at how using what was at hand in the classroom changed the way his young learners and adults alike interacted and engaged with an activity.


Puppets can be a great asset for on-spot, improvisation-based remedial teaching with all age groups, and can help overcome emotional (affective) barriers providing personas for less confident or less imaginative students.

Take for instance a group of four very shy young learners aged 10-13. Their reaction to a task where they had to imagine they visited a scary, tall, glass-bottomed tower and their subsequent limited discussion of such an imagined “personal” experience was a typical example of an emotional, or creative, barrier. The aim of that speaking practice was the use of Past Simple to discuss experiences, whilst using adjectives such as scary, frightened, excited, etc., which are the sensations people usually associate with such places. But we couldn’t go on with it since the kids kept arguing: “We weren’t there, it feels silly to pretend!”

I took out a couple of puppet-like oven gloves, and introduced them to group in a form of a “meeting for the first time” dialogue. After that I told them that the puppet-characters visited the tower, and now, over a cup of tea, they discuss how they felt – I asked the learners to hold out their hands and gave them a puppet each. The funny look, and the funny way in which the puppets were introduced, obviously managed to lower the affective filters. The group started discussing “their” experiences immediately, lending voices to the puppets.

Grabs Adults Too

As far as “let’s pretend” task types go, we might find even worse examples amongst adults, who may feel awkward “acting” in front of others, especially if they are lower-level students with limited language resources and compensation techniques, which may all reflect negatively on their self-confidence as communicators. That is where a persona, i.e. a puppet, can help, as we shall see. But what makes puppets better personae than, say, a fictional character in an EFL role play is a physical, tactile, spatial element of their presence, which can make the setting seem more realistic, and thus more stimulating. This brings to mind one case especially – a group of BE adult beginners, who also didn’t like “imagine” task types, and even role plays – which they deemed childish. On the spur of the moment I grabbed a pair of life-size cardboard stand-ups advertising our company (a boy and a girl) stood them up at the centre of the classroom, and gave the students role play instructions, only this time their task was to give voices to the cardboard figures which (as students perceived it) were actually the ones “acting” in their stead. Results were beyond expected.

Easily Tweaked to Serve Different Purposes

Remember how often we have to deal with omission of suffix “-s/es” in Present Simple 3rd person singular, especially in freer speaking practice, with learners of different ages (and levels – talking about fossilised mistakes here). And what about the inability of some lower-level students to change tenses from present to past and future in conversation?

Here’s how puppets can help address such problems in an easy, natural way, with minimum resources.

A group of older students need to recycle “possessions” vocabulary. Why not use this opportunity to revise present, past and future tenses, as well! This time we start with writing (each step below gives the instructions for the activity with additional notes in italics).

STEP 1: write what each of the puppets, say Tom, Sally, Jack, Jill, want for their birthday, using different expressions: “I want…”, “I’d like…”, “I wish…”, etc. on different pieces of paper, one for each puppet.

S2: slip your notes into corresponding puppets, which are seated around the classroom.

S3: take a puppet each and take the notes from the inside; you have 90 seconds to memorise “your” wishes.

S4: give all the pieces of paper to the teacher (this gives the teacher a chance to see if there are any issues with writing, e.g. spelling, and decide on a remedial action).

S5: you (students-puppets) are all good friends and want to buy each other exactly the things each of “you” want for “your” birthday; so, ask each other questions to find out what your wishes are (before the students start talking, the teacher demonstrates the task with a stronger student).

NB I’d suggest delayed error correction after this stage.

Next stage: the puppets are placed on the chairs opposite the students.

S1: Let’s talk about them (the puppets). Ask each other what each of them wants for his/her birthday. For each correct guess you get a point.

As you can see, we can turn the activity into a competition to make it more interesting; the teacher actively monitors the dialogues and assigns points; here, we practice the shift to 3rd person singular and plural, by asking e.g. what do Sally and Jill want?

S2: (the teacher ensures the puppets are out of sight) Oh no! The puppets have been kidnapped by aliens (this twist always makes students laugh).

S3: now talk about what they wanted, wished, etc. for their birthdays.

Here we move, naturally, to past tenses. Alternatively/additionally you can repeat the procedure in 1st person, by tweaking the context: the students-puppets are now on an alien ship talking about what they wanted for their birthday before they got kidnapped by aliens.

S4: (tweaking the context) the alien lord told our puppet-friends they will be returned to Earth and gave them lots of money to apologise for the inconvenience (or something along those lines).

Then students-puppets have a dialogue on what they will, going to, can, may…buy (using future tenses and modals here) when they return to Earth. It goes without saying that partner changes and varied grouping would increase the effectiveness of the procedures.


This was just a brief outline of numerous ways in which a couple of oven gloves can help an instruction become more student-centred, adaptable, and less demanding in terms of preparation time and teaching resources. Thank you for reading and I hope that Tom, Sally, Jack, and Jill join you in your classroom soon.