How to go from building the easiest puppet theatre in the world to putting on a full performance!

I’m always talking about how you should try to make your lessons ‘magical’ (and I don’t mean by adding elements of magic!).  I’ve already mentioned it various times in these blogs, and teachers at our workshops probably get tired of hearing about it!  But I think that being able to make and use shadow puppets really adds something to your teaching toolbox.

Tiny homemade shadow-puppet theatre

Completed tiny shadow-puppet theatre

For the students (and for me!), there’s something really exciting about drawing the curtains and turning off the lights.  (That is, if you’re in a school where you can do this – I’ve been in many where you can’t).  I think that it transports the students out of the classroom and reminds them of the cinema or the theatre when the lights go down.  For almost all the students (and teachers) I’ve done shadow puppetry with, it’s been the first time that they’ve seen it.  This really adds to the excitement.  But for me it’s always exciting!

A great project for older students

What works really well is older students designing and writing their shows and then performing them for early-years students.  This goes for other types of puppet shows too, of course.

Making a shadow-puppet theatre

The theatre that I show on the video is probably the simplest one there is.  As you can see, it only takes 10 minutes to make, is super-easy to do, and you require very few materials.  Obviously you can make much larger ones, but for younger learners and in the classroom I don’t think that’s really necessary.  For me, less is always more!!


Think about the story

This is actually the most difficult part! If you do a search for ‘shadow puppets for EFL/ESL students’, you won’t find a lot. Building the theatre and making the puppets is relatively easy; writing the story is a whole other ball-game. The thing to keep in mind is KISS (Keep It Super-Simple). Choose a story that only has a couple of characters and very simple props. In ‘The Fox and the Crow’ there’s only the fox, the crow, the tree (which was in a fixed position) and the pizza. As you’re working in the dark, it’s easy to lose a character or for it to fall off the table!!

Make sure that your language is very simple – use high-frequency vocabulary. In the original ‘Fox and Crow’ story, the crow finds a piece of cheese, but in our version the crow finds a piece of pizza. Pizza’s an international word, and all the students know it. What’s more, I’ve never seen a piece of cheese lying around, but I’ve seen many bits of discarded half-eaten pizza! (Though I suppose this probably wasn’t so common in Aesop’s time!) Remember to avoid phrasal verbs and complex verb forms. In lots of cases, you’ll need to pre-teach some vocabulary too.

Stories which have a simple narrative and fit into a beginning, middle and end scenario are easier for young learners to follow. Ones with a moral work well too. Not only does this help to the story to connect to their daily lives, but, once the story has finished, you’ve got something interesting to talk about.

Making the shadow puppets

Once you’ve decided on the story, the easiest thing is to build the puppets – art has never been my strong point, but clip art makes a great starting point. Remember that you can make your shadow puppets as simple or as complex as you like.

Music and sound effects

I thought about what I was going to say, then I did the performance without a script and all in one take. I wanted to demonstrate how easy and quick it was to put something together. Once I’d finished, we asked our talented friend and colleague José Juan Roa Trejo to add some music and sound effects, and this makes all the difference.

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