Get your puppets working for you!

I don’t really have a name for these little puppets, but I generally call them ‘bichos’ (a generic Spanish term for bugs or insects).  But when it comes to using puppets as teaching assistants, they’re great – whatever you call them!  What makes them really effective is their big googly eyes – when they look at you, you can almost believe they’re real. And that really is suspension of disbelief, considering that’s basically all they have got!

Taken during a teacher-training workshop with infant & primary teachers

As you can see in the photo, one of them’s ‘wearing’ a feather.  Simple touches like this make all the difference.  Each child’s puppet will then be unique and easy to recognise.  And everybody enjoys dressing things up (don’t they?!).  A puppet like this takes only 20 seconds to make.

Students will be happy to draw on their own hands too.  (Though for younger learners you might have to draw the eyes and lips for them, as they don’t have a high level of fine motor skills.) Then add feathers, bits of paper and string for the hair, or a headscarf to turn the character into an old lady.

Remember to use make-up sticks (barritas de maquillaje) which have been dermatologically tested. The ones I use are called ‘Alpino fiesta’ and are relatively cheap and easy to find. In the past, when I haven’t had the make up sticks with me, I’ve used board pens. I really wouldn’t recommend this, as some of them are very difficult to remove.

You can buy the eyes on the finger piece from the shop Tiger, and the eyes on their own from craft shops.  Or you can order either in bulk from China, via Ebay.  They’re cheaper, but they do take a long time to arrive.

So what about using puppets as teaching assistants?

It’s a well-known fact (and common sense too) that learners learn best when copying and modelling speech in an ‘authentic’ situation.  In a classroom setting, it can be really difficult to model a dialogue naturally.  You’re on your own and have no-one to talk to or ask a question to. So how do you model a short dialogue? 

Well, that’s where a googley-eyed bicho (or another simple hand or Finger Puppet) comes in so, well, so handy!  You introduce your assistant to each child: ‘This is my new teaching assistant’.  Then Googley asks simple questions like ‘What’s your name? How old are you?’.  The student copies them and asks the same questions back.

You can also use it to drill (see under D in EFL Terms & Definitions: A Glossary) the students, after Googley has given a good clear model.  They’re much more willing to copy a puppet than to copy the teacher!

Here’s a list of the reasons why using puppets as teaching assistants works.

  1. Firstly and most importantly, it’s super-simple. (This is part of my KISS mantra, and teachers who have been on our teacher-training courses have heard me say it time and time again: ‘Keep It Super Simple’)

  2. Secondly, they are really effective.  Students of any age can immediately see that there are two characters talking.  Very short question-and-answer dialogues work best. eg ‘How old are you? ‘- ‘I’m 5’.  ‘What’s your name? – ‘My name’s Juan’. ‘Where do you live?’ – ‘I live in Sevilla’.  You can build this up by adding ‘… and you?.

  3. Think about actions the puppet can do, and get your class to call out instructions such as ‘Jump! Walk! Sleep!’  Remember that the puppets are more effective when walking around on something, such as up your arm, or (as in the photo above) on your hand.

Finally, and very importantly, remember to structure the class so that students know what they’re supposed to be saying.  If you don’t, they’ll revert back to their native language.

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