Tommy’s game!

This is one of my favourite classroom activities. I’m going to show you how to revise vocabulary using puppets. You can use it for young learners, teenagers and adults too. (Though for adults, I don’t ask them to sit on the floor, but to stand in a line.)

There’s a lot of debate on how many times students need to see or use vocabulary for them to be able to remember it. This activity is based on decontextualised language and testing of discrete items, something that has sometimes been discouraged in communicative language learning. However, evidence suggests that decontextualised vocabulary learning is perfectly justified (see, for example, Laufer, 2006*).

Teachers who’ve been to my training sessions will remember this activity as ‘Tommy’s game’. I call it this because I tell the students that it’s his (the puppet’s) favourite game. You don’t have to use a puppet for this, but it’s much more fun if you do! You don’t even need a sheet of material – a piece of cardboard will do. But I love the theatricality of the cloth. I try to find something bright and shiny to attract students’ attention. The addition of Tommy makes the game a lot more fun and interesting to play. (You can see Tommy on the right of the photo, holding up the side of the ‘curtain’. It’s best if the puppet can ‘hold’ something, like these ‘living’ puppets can.)

One of the reasons that I play this a lot is that you don’t have to rearrange the seats in the classroom – it’s easy to play in the space/aisles between the tables.  I really like the fact that it’s very quick, everybody gets to have a go, and it’s done with the minimum of fuss.

Tommy holding the curtain and students holding the flashcards (pictures are on both sides)

How to revise vocabulary using puppets

Students sit in two lines with the curtain between them. You sit holding your puppet and one end of the curtain, and another student holds the other end. Put a pile of flashcards face down on each side of the curtain.  The students at the front of each line pick up a flashcard each and hide it behind the curtain. Then the students call out ‘3,2,1’, the curtain falls, and the first student to shout out what they see on the other student’s flashcard gets the point.  If two students call out the word at the same time, they get to have another go. If there’s an odd number of students, it doesn’t matter.

It’s a great way to practise lexical lists and consolidate the lesson, and using puppets is a fun and active way to revise vocabulary.

Alternative procedure

Use ‘show me’ boards ** instead of flashcards and, to make it more difficult, ask the students to write things such as the first or last letter of a month.  Or a simple sum like ‘3+9’.


*Laufer, B.  (2006). Comparing focus on Form and Focus in second language vocabulary learning.  Canadian Modern Language Review 63(1), 149-166


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