Poets and Puppets: Learning English

Using puppets and poetry in the ELL classroom

Poetry and Wordplay

Poetry and puppetry are two art forms that encourage use of language. Poetry opens the door for students to play with words and apply them to different forms of poems, such as haiku. Puppetry enables students to use language orally and build confidence in their speaking and communication skills. Both can help form the wings students must earn for their learning to take off.


Writing poetry is akin to playing with words, and all children learn from and thrive upon play. When students write poetry, they are paying close attention to words and choosing them carefully. Because poetry doesn’t rely on grammar and syntax in the same way that writing a book report or paragraph does, it can often feel much more welcoming to students—the rules of language usage are essentially suspended. Reading poetry is also very attractive to English language learners because the meaning of lines or poems can have multiple interpretations. As a result, students can grapple more with uncovering meaning, rather than worrying whether they have something “right” or “wrong.”

It’s important to introduce students to reading some fun poetry. I like the poetry of Shel Silverstein, and short poems from numerous collections readily available. You may also contact your school or local librarian for guidance.

It’s extremely helpful for students to first create a word bank, which may be done in several ways. It can be as easy as asking the students to start writing or saying words they think are interesting. You might ask them to look in a text or chapter book to find their interesting words. You can write the words on the board or have the students write them on slips of paper and place them into a basket.

Then, ask your students to start putting words together based on a theme (could be anything from a science project to family to emotions). Doing one example together on the board is a good idea as a model. If students are struggling with words, then you can suggest they revisit the word bank or word basket.

Here is an example of a second lesson done with 4th graders in a class comprising mainly English language learners. The first lesson was a brainstorming of words related to family. The students then used their words to form very short poems. The second and third lessons introduced the concept of simile.

Topic: Family

Lessons Two and Three: Create a simile with one of your family words.

Simile: My brothers are like spiderwebs.

Brainstorm: spiderwebs

spider, tarantula, cockroach, webs, sticky, Dracula

First Draft:

My brothers are like spiderwebs walking up

and down the house. they look like

spiders when they walk, they look like

draculas with their two front teeth

they are sticky when they eat. they

look like tarantulas when they crawl.

Second Draft:

My Brothers

My brothers are like

        spiderwebs walking up

              and down the


They look like spiders

        when they walk.

They look like Draculas

        with their two

              front teeth.

They are sticky when

        they eat.

They look like tarantulas

        when they crawl.

They are cockroaches eating


They are webs when

        they are asleep.



You can see what wonderful playfulness occurs when children are given the freedom to play with words. You can almost imagine being in the room with Raquel’s sticky brothers! There are so many possibilities with different poetry, topics, and imaginations. In fact, my students have always loved poems for two voices which are meant to be read out loud—which connects well with studying puppetry.

Puppetry and Dramatics

Puppetry is a useful tool for teaching speaking and communicating skills because students can use their puppets as their voices. Using puppets can help melt away trepidation for reluctant speakers. I’ve used puppetry in many circumstances, from depicting stories from the language arts reading curriculum to original puppet shows on themes like bullying or immigration. Unique to puppetry (and theater) is that students can become someone or something other than themselves. A shy student can try on the role of the mighty lion, or the outgoing student might play the meek old woman.

Students’ filters with regard to their communication skills are often dropped when they have a puppet in front of them. Since it is no big deal for the puppet to have an accent or hesitate with a word, students often feel much more comfortable and are willing to practice verbal communication via the puppets. It is an engaging activity that can help develop students’ language skills, confidence, and self-esteem. It also teaches students valuable lessons about the arts—including the roles of discipline and practice—and specific theater skills, such as creating character, projecting one’s voice, creating setting, interacting with other actors (puppets), and performance skills.

Both poetry and puppetry can provide children with creative tools to inspire and apply learning in a meaningful manner. Using these artistic tools builds students' confidence as they gain new vocabulary. You don’t need to feel confident yourself as a poet or puppeteer to open these techniques to your students. However, once you begin to work with your students, and write your own poems or perform with your students in a puppet show, you just might surprise yourself with your creative abilities.



Merryl Goldberg
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Katie Freeman



1 Source: From Teaching English Language Learners Through the Arts: A SUAVE Experience, edited by Merryl Goldberg (Allyn & Bacon, 2004).

2 More examples of picto-spells can be found in my book Integrating the Arts: An Approach to Teaching and Learning in Multicultural and Multilingual Settings (Allyn & Bacon, 2006).

3 Source: From Teaching English Language Learners Through the Arts: A SUAVE Experience, edited by Merryl Goldberg (Allyn & Bacon, 2004).

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