Skip to content ↓

Oct 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Pedagogical Puppetry: Playful Tools to Engage Adult Learners of English

Aurora Murphy uses the arts and games to engage students and enliven the academic classroom. She has been teaching adults for 18 years, both around Australia and in Asia, working in universities, TAFEs, with arts companies and community organisations. Her PhD explores the way live performance can tell stories to support social change around gender, violence, and relationships. She has recently opened Tangerine Training, which uses puppets to replay real life case studies on sexual harassment in the corporate sector and challenges participants to make change.


Aurora with diversity puppet

My singing is terrible. I can’t draw. I over-act. Yet I insist on doing all of these things every week in my academic classrooms. It didn’t strike me that the fear of appearing foolish would stop someone from participating in these fun art forms. Years ago, my adult African refugee students willingly performed and clowned in front of the class, as did young adults in my drama workshops. So when I met my current student cohort - international tertiary students, most of who are male, in their early twenties, and from China - and witnessed their shyness, I was baffled.  These students appeared shy to use their bodies creatively and over-anxious about making mistakes when I asked them to perform in front of the class. I wondered if this anxiety prevented students from engaging deeply with the language work, as they instead seemed preoccupied with a fear of appearing foolish. Not even my favourite acting games worked. In desperation, I asked students to draw pictures, use objects and homemade puppets to stand in for their own bodies. This use of puppets as educational tool has now become one of my preoccupations and another favourite tool in the language classroom.

This paper draws upon my own experiences using puppets as an English language teacher in tertiary education. It looks back to audio recordings of my low level English language classes in which I used puppets for an action research project, the results of which are published at Murphy 2016. I then explain how I have used puppets with more academic texts in high level English language classes, aiming to highlight the versatility of puppets as an educational tool. Historical and theoretical underpinnings for the use of puppetry in the classroom are then explored, as I look at the value of making intangible ideas figurative, and puppetry as playful tools to engage students.


Using puppets with beginner English classes

I use puppets in a variety of situations, including with beginner classes as a way to offer students another way of understanding class readers. In this kind of exercise, I ask student-pairs to create puppets that visually represent characters in the text and then introduce this puppet to the class with reference to the shared text. Students use found objects, as well as a range of props I bring to class, like buckets, balloons or plastic cups for heads, as well as wigs, scarves, money, a map, toy money, sunglasses, and paper for students to draw on and cut out. I encourage students to imagine beyond the text, to what the character is feeling, seeing, doing, and represent this visually.

I have discovered that constructing visual representations of characters in the text enables my students to clarify their understanding of the text. For example, in one class of learners with low levels of English a group of students initially created two puppets who were ‘happy’, yet as I kept prompting them with questions, reminding them to put everything they knew into the creation of their puppets, their puppets grew in complexity. Eventually these students showed that their puppets were happy (drawing a smile on their puppets), worried about being late (through adding a watch), excited about being in New Zealand (placing a map with the puppets), and had found another character’s mobile phone (putting a phone next to them with the name of the character attached to it). In this case, working with low level learners to make puppets to visually show meanings within a class text enabled students to clarify the text’s narrative.

Students with low levels of English with their puppets that visually represent characters in a class text


I also use puppets to replace human actors in role play, so that puppets show and tell a narrative. For this exercise, I divide the class into groups and assign each a section of a class text which they must represent. Due to this focus on narrative action, rather than character traits, I simply bring in puppets, toys and dolls that can students can use to stand in for characters within the text, along with the props from the previous exercise. I use Barbies and Kens, small figures from toy stores, finger puppets from IKEA, and hand puppets I made with my Mum. Retellings of the text, or puppet performances, take place around the desks of each group in turn. Like a class jigsaw exercise, each group presents part of the story until the text is complete.

This use of puppets in the classroom provides a scaffold for students with low levels of English to generate their own language. When re-telling a story, these students can rely on puppets and props to fill in any gaps in their own language, and still make the story comprehensible. With one such student, I listened to her retell a part of the class text, supplementing her language gaps with props and movement of her puppets. She was using puppets to reenact a scene in a class reader in which a woman, Sarah, leaves her bag with a friend, Jessica, while she goes bungee jumping. Jessica spots a man they are searching for, Michael, and runs after him, forgetting Sarah’s bag:

‘She running after him he doesn’t - no taking - taking Sarah’s bag I say you look for my bag because and ah - fast Michael and lost and dancing (she is referring to ‘bungee jumping’ but doesn’t know the term in English) take my [speaks in Chinese] doesn’t take bag so this one this one dancing take Sarah’s bag – Jessica – Sarah’s bag (she reads) ‘Jessica, my bag! Sarah calls’. Ah…. [speaks in Chinese] Michael…. she running catch Michael so Jessica forget take Sarah’s bag.’

Although this student had limited English, she managed to express the complex journey of the bag. Instead of simply finding the right part in the text and reading it back to me, as usually happened in class, this student used the movement of puppets and props to augment her language. While the student had many gaps in her vocabulary, she bypassed her shame, and focused on telling the story to the class. This student was freed from the embarrassment of the whole class watching her stumble over unfamiliar words, as we watched the unfolding action between the puppets, instead of her own body fumbling and stammering. She was not shamed into non-participation by not being able to speak coherently or in full sentences but still engaged with the text by moving puppets into place and using props. This reveals that even when students’ language is minimal, puppets and props can be used to make meaning, acting as a bridge to support their growing language acquisition.


Using puppets with academic English classes

I have also used puppets to explore academic texts with higher-level students. Unlike the fictional texts worked with in the examples above, these texts require students to unpick the authors’ arguments and critically evaluate them. My English language students often struggle to understand the key concepts of academic texts, how these relate to each other and the material discussed in class. Like in the first example, in this situation I ask students to make their own puppets to visually represent ideas and characters (or authors) in the text. I usually make the first one with the whole class so that they understand the activity.

With texts that requite students to understand one main concept rather than several, I ask students to make a visual representation of the author. To do this, we look at the author’s credentials and potential biases through reading their bio and any funding or support they received to write the paper. We then focus on the introduction and conclusion of the academic text, scanning the rest, to discover the author’s main findings. Each of these characteristics of the author and their main ideas are represented visually. For example, with a postgraduate level English language class, we used a balloon stuck to a table for a head, and placed props on or next to this puppet. We showed the author was a male scholar at Harvard (using a short wig, glasses and a drawn picture labeled ‘Harvard’) in the business school (a text book beside the puppet), believed that the military had valuable lessons for leadership (a military-style cap atop the puppet’s head), discussed the frosty relationship between the USA and Russia (through a map with these countries circled), and believed in forgiving old enemies (a cut out heart). I then asked students to locate a quote from this text that summarized the authors’ main idea. We wrote this quote on paper cut out as a speech bubble and stuck it next to the character.  The students then broke into groups, with a balloon, props paper, felt pens, and an adjacent class text to visually represent. When all the puppets were complete and introduced to the class, we placed them around the classroom according to the similarities of differences of the authors’ ideas. For example, the above puppet from the Harvard business school was placed close to a colleague who also extolled the value of commander-like leadership, but far away from an author who explored more collaborative styles of working in the corporate sector.

When exploring denser texts within which students are required to distinguish between different sides to an issue, puppets can also be an effective teaching tool. In these cases, I work with students to identify several perspectives within the text and assign one to each group. Although these ideas may not be linked to authors per se, and therefore not immediately lend themselves to figurative representation, I still challenge students to personify their concept, asking them to show the idea ‘as if it came to life’. I have found this personification of concepts allows students to grasp the idea more clearly and remember it for future classes. This is in fact one of the key benefits to using puppets to explore complex ideas: representations of people are easier to understand and remember than intangible ideas.


Puppets to show and tell

Puppetry has long been used to show and tell about intangible ideas, such as religious doctrine and moral teaching. Czech is well known for its popular puppet tradition, which uses marionette and ‘potato’ (hand) puppets to teach about morals and local culture. In the eighteenth century, approximately 2,000 puppeteers toured the country, many of who told fairy stories and historical sagas (Lešková Dolenská 2015, pp.232-233, pp.240-241; Puppets in Prague 2018, n.p). The fundamental place of puppets in cultural life is affirmed by the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which names puppets from Slovakia-Czechia , Japan and China as historically imperative (UNESCO 2016). The widespread use of puppetry to share values and cultural norms in these countries reflects the benefits of using figurative puppets to teach intangible ideas. More recently, puppets have also been used to teach about health. A play by a Czech doctor aimed to teach children about cleanliness with the characters Infectious Bacteria, Fly, Shoemaker, and the popular ‘Kašpárek’ comedic character (Bell 2001, p.89-90).  The well known Loutky v nemocnici (Puppets in hospitals), led by Marka Míková, plans to visit 500 hospitals and health centres for children across Czechia in 2018 to entertain and educate sick children (Loutky v nemocnici 2018). In Australia, nurses use puppets to prepare children for medical procedures and help them talk about their feelings (Tillbrook 2017). 

Like these historical and contemporary uses of puppetry reveal, puppets are an ideal tool for presenting, sharing and exploring complex or abstract concepts visually. When a text or word is displayed visually, audiences have another way to understand the concepts discussed in the narrative. Researchers in language acquisition, McFee and Walker, found that many learners think visually and find concepts easier to acquire through visual representation (in Hamblen 1993, p. 196). In fact, McFee reports that some learners really struggle to understand abstract concepts when visual learning does not accompany instruction. Art is particularly beneficial when working with abstract or difficult concepts and with learners who have low reading or verbal skills (Cahill 2014; Gorjian, Hayati & Barazandeh 2012; Janson and Shilleref in Hamblen 1993, p. 196). Students with low levels of English have a smaller range of tools to make meaning and express themselves in the target language. With these learners art can provide an essential bridge to the written word, as instruction is delivered through writing, but also through movement, colour, form, and physical relationships.


Puppets as playful engagement

Working with puppets is an ideal way to capture students’ attention on what may seem daunting, boring or irrelevant. In my own classroom I see that, when working with puppets, students are often laughing, discussing, checking the text, and fully engaged in their work. They stay in during break time and are keen to present work they are proud of to the rest of the class. Students’ excitement and sense of play generates an important attitude to learning. In my regular classes I regularly reprimanded students for playing on their phones during class, falling asleep, drifting off and not following the lesson, however the props and puppets brought colour, movement, play and silliness into the classroom. The learning environment became fun, social, and light hearted. This playfulness suggests an attitude to learning that allows for experimentation and error, qualities essential for learning, but often shunned by my students due to the shame of being wrong. Playful props takes the pressure off students, signaling that this activity is more about experimenting with ideas than presenting perfect English back to the teacher.

This playful creation of puppets and puppet role plays, as ways of describing the characters and action within a narrative, can position the teacher and student as fellow artists or co-creators of knowledge. Well known pedagogical theorist and developer of liberatory education, Paolo Freire (1970, 1972) advocates the importance of considering students as active co-creators of knowledge. In an interview with educationalist Ira Shor, Freire discusses the dialogical method of education. In a dialogical approach, the teacher poses problems and works with the students to solve them. This method ‘rejects narrative lecturing where teacher talk silences and alienates students’ and instead, understands learning as based on conversations, dialogue, and interactions between people and things (Shor and Freire 1987, p.11). Dialectical teaching differs from what Shor refers to as a ‘Socratic’ method of instruction, in which the teacher delivers information which the students receive, for example the students read a text in class, and then the teacher asks comprehension questions designed to assess the students’ understandings (Shor and Friere 1987, p.12). Dialogical education does not perceive learning as the delivery of knowledge from a teacher to a student, but as a piece of art that is shaped and reshaped by teachers and students.

In this way, the teacher is not the deliver of knowledge, but fellow artist who engages students in the creation of new knowledge (Shor and Freire 1987, p.27-31). Instead of locating the teacher as a fountain of information from which the students drink, both teacher and students work with the objects being studied, to explore, create, and discover something new. According to Freire, creating, unfolding and revealing knowledge in this way is beautiful, reminiscent of the way an artist approaches their work. Sam Sellar (2005) reflects on Shor and Friere’s concept of the teacher as artist and extolls the notion of artist as put forward by Deluze, Guatari and Masumi, in which the artist does not proscribe particular outcomes, but brings together certain elements and observes the way they interact. For Sellar, learning is an artistic process ‘never a case of a doer and a done to, but a creative aglomeration’ (Sellar 2005, p.5). Freire, Shor and Seller recognize teaching and learning as a collaboration, a coming together of separate things without either dictating the course of the other. For them, art is not only a useful teaching tool, but a whole approach in which teachers and students are artists and the lesson is their co-created artwork.

In conclusion, using puppets in the English language classroom enables both teachers and learners to take a playful, creative approach to learning while also supporting students to scaffold their own language use. My work with adult learners has shown that puppets are particularly effective when working with students who are not creatively or performatively confident but enjoy playful approaches to learning, and must unpick complex texts.



Bell, J. 1999 ‘Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects at the End of the Century’, TDR, pp. 15-27.

Cahill, H. (2014). Promoting critical thinking within drama: using theory to guide practice. Applied Theatre Researcher, vol. 2, issue 2, pp. 151-164.

Freire, P. 1972. Cultural Action for Freedom, London: Penguin Random House.

---            1970. Pedagogy of the oppressed, London: Penguin Random House.

Gorijian, B., Hayati, A., & Barazandeh, E. (2012). An evaluation of the effect of art on vocabulary learning through multi-sensory modalities. Procedia Technology, vol. 1, issue 1, pp. 345-350.

Hamblen, K. 1993. Theories and research that support art instruction for instrumental outcomes. Theory Into Practice, vol. 4, issue 32, pp. 191-198.

Lešková Dolenská, K. 2015. ‘Czech Puppet Theatre Dramaturgy as a Specific Phenomenon’, Theatralia, vol. 2, pp. 231-276.

Murphy, A. 2016. ‘Using art to engage adults with low levels of English in reading: An action research project’, University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, vol. 11, pp. 131-150.

Puppets in Prague. 2018. First Puppets, Accessed 29th June, 2018.

Sellar, S. 2005. ‘Generating change in and through pedagogy: teaching from an ethico-aesthetic paradigm’, AARE Conference, Parramatta, Australia 27 Nov-1st Dec.

Shor, I. & Friere, P. 1987. ‘What is the Dialogical method of teaching’. Journal of Education, vol. 169, issue 3, pp. 11-31.

Tillbrook, A., Dwyer, T., Parson, J. 2017 ‘A review of the literature - The use of interactive puppet simulation in nursing education and children's healthcare’, Nurse Education in Practice, vol. 22, pp. 73-79.

UNESCO. 2016. ‘Puppetry in Slovakia and Czechia’, Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity Accessed 28th June, 2018.


Please check the Drama Techniques for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

  • Pedagogical Puppetry: Playful Tools to Engage Adult Learners of English
    Aurora Murphy, Australia