Puppets Are Great Teachers of Reading Comprehension!

This article originally appeared in Teachers Net Gazette in 
May 2012.

Using Puppets to Improve
Reading Comprehension

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Have you ever heard anyone argue with a puppet? I have.

I recently read “Henny Penny” to a class of four-year-olds. After the story, Henny Penny  herself (in puppet form) came out of my bag, and she was very distraught. “Don’t go outside today!” she told the children. “The sky is going to fall down on your heads!”

“No, it isn’t!” “That’s silly!” “The sky can’t fall down!” the children shouted, laughing.

“But I felt it! I felt it falling right on my head!” the hen replied, still upset.

“That wasn’t the sky! It was a-” “It was something else!” “It was a apple!” You could see the students trying to recall the exact item. They were practically jumping up and down with excitement and giving me many different responses. Finally, “It was an acorn!” a little girl remembered. Eventually, the class was able to help Henny Penny sort things out and clear up the misunderstanding, relieving her mind greatly.

Yes, I could have simply asked the class why Henny Penny thought the sky was falling down. But chances are the responses would have been slower and more subdued – and some children might not have listened to me at all. But the puppet was able to bring out their best, most rigorous thinking.

For many years I’ve worked with puppets in my classes with young children to help them remember, understand, and interpret stories.

Remembering is always the first step, and it’s important not to skip over it. We can’t take for granted that young children remember the last sentence they heard, much less an entire story.

After I read a story, but before I bring out a puppet, I ask the class who they think today’s puppet will be. (They know the puppet will always be a character from the story.) This one question leads them immediately into a mental re-imagining of the story and its characters. When a child guesses a character who, although featured in the story, is not today’s puppet, I say, “Good guess – the fox was in the story, but it’s not the puppet today.” In this way I reinforce the appropriateness of their response and their auditory and visual memory skills. If someone guesses a character who was not in the story, rather than say, “No, that’s wrong” and telling them the right answer, I give them a hint or ask a leading question to encourage further thinking. Usually, though, one of the students quickly guesses that day’s puppet. Then the puppet comes out of the bag, most often to a round of applause and laughter.

The sight of the puppet triggers another layer of remembering. Now the children remember the character’s personality, as well as what they did and said in the story.

Understanding is the second level of reading comprehension. Now it’s time for the puppet to ask the class some questions. For instance, the baby bear from “The Three Bears” may ask, “How do you think I knew someone had been eating my porridge?” or “Who was sleeping in my bed?” These questions challenge the children to remember more than just the characters, but we’re still staying close to the actual text. The story clearly states that Baby Bear saw his bowl was empty, and that Goldilocks was sleeping in his bed.

Critical thinking is the most crucial part of reading comprehension. Now we’re traveling beyond the words on the page. This is where we enter the realm of higher-order thinking – inference, prediction, analysis, comparing and contrasting, and interpretation. The Little Red Hen might ask, “Do you think my friends will be better helpers next time?” This type of question requires the children to think more deeply about the meaning of the events in the story. They not only need to remember the Little Red Hen telling her friends, in the story, that she wouldn’t share her bread because they didn’t help her make it, – they need to infer that she might have shared if they had helped her. In another instance, the hare from “The Tortoise and the Hare” could say with frustration, “I’m a much faster runner than the tortoise. Why didn’t I win the race?” The children need to think back to the story’s events and compare the two animals’ behavior – the tortoise kept racing, while the hare made many stops and took long breaks. In both cases, the sight of the animal puppet and the chance to verbally interact with it help the children to remember more and think more deeply.

These skills that puppets “teach” – remembering, understanding, and critical thinking – last long after the puppets are gone, and continue growing and developing through high school and beyond.

In 2011, the College Board released a report which stated that high school seniors in the United States showed declining scores in reading, of which reading comprehension is an essential part. Of course, K-12 school systems have many programs in place to address this issue and teach reading comprehension skills, but these programs are not enough. Clearly, children need to learn comprehension skills before they learn to read on their own (decoding). We might call these preschool and kindergarten comprehension skills pre-reading comprehension, or early reading comprehension.

That’s where puppets come in. Why do puppets seem to have this near-miraculous ability to teach early reading comprehension?

First of all, they are not teachers. Why do you think “Sesame Street” has been so successful for so long? The Children’s Television Workshop, while designing the program, used research which indicated that children are more likely to pay attention to puppets than to adults. The mere fact of their puppethood puts our inanimate colleagues far ahead of us with young children, educationally speaking.

Second, puppets are toys. They’re playful and silly and carefree (unless they believe the sky is falling). Interacting with toys is fun and relaxing, and children (like all of us) learn best in a relaxed, stress-free environment.

Third, and perhaps most important, puppet characters don’t just talk about the story, they draw children right into the story. By interacting with a concrete, “living” character, children mentally re-envision the illustrations; they remember the words of the story; and they re-experience the action of the story. Puppets are a uniquely effective, developmentally appropriate bridge between concrete and abstract thinking.

Have I convinced you yet? Ready to share your teaching duties with these entertaining and enthusiastic co-workers? Here are some tips to help you get started.

1. You don’t need fancy or realistic-looking store-bought puppets. Glue a construction-paper face to a popsicle stick; draw a character on a brown paper lunch bag using the crease as the “mouth”; or and don’t forget about that good old standby, the sock puppet. The quality of your interaction with the children is much more important than the quality of the puppet.

2.  Not a skilled puppeteer? Not a problem. I’ve never even tried to do the ventriloquist thing and make it look like the puppet is doing the talking. Just open and close its mouth in the general vicinity of the words. Remember, the children are watching the puppet, not you. Oh, once in a while a highly observant (or imaginatively challenged) child will say, “That’s not really a rabbit (or a frog, or whatever)! It’s just your hand in there!” Then I’ll say something like, “Yes! That’s the great thing about puppets – you can make them say whatever you want them to! Want to try it?” (They alwaysdo.)

3. Remember, you’re playing, not teaching. If a child gives an incorrect response, find something good to say about it (“You’re right, baking bread is fun. Can you think of another reason why my friends might help me next time?”). Our object is not necessarily for children to know the right answer – our object is to help them remember, understand, and think critically, while keeping the atmosphere fun, friendly, and relaxed.

4. Sadly, there are no Oscars handed out for teacher-puppeteers, but remember – you’re acting. So have your puppet stay in character. Henny Penny is nervous and querulous; the tortoise speaks slowly and deliberately. Exaggerate these mannerisms – have fun with it. Once I brought out my Gingerbread Man puppet, who promptly ran around the floor in front of me, singing his song – “I’ll run and run as fast as I can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!” His show-offy athleticism must have been convincing, because one boy sternly told the puppet, “Gingerbread Man, we walk in school!”

5. Be entertaining. Have the puppet sing a funny song or tell a joke. (For some reason, every joke is funnier when told by a puppet.) This helps create the playful, casual atmosphere in which deep and original thinking flourishes.

A word of warning: Once you have puppets join your teaching team, they’ll never leave – the children won’t let them. They’ll ask for puppets every day. And why not?

The artist Robert Henri once said, “You can’t impose education on anyone.” But you can invite children to learn – and that’s just what puppets do, with style, humor – and a little magic.

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