Meet the glove gang
at Francis needs a big bird. "I'll get one of those enormous car sponges for the body, stick in feathers either side to make wings. And I've two bootlaces that'll make elegant legs, with lumps of Plasticine on the ends. They'll be the feet - webbed ones, I think - but they'll also weigh the legs down straight." She considers the various household items that can be pressed into service to make claws, neck, head, beak.
This is to be a large stringed puppet: one string from the body, one from the head. Simple to make, striking to look at, and fun to operate - a child could do it, and hopefully many will. It will be one of a trio (a bird, a nurse, a fern) for use when children are studying the main spelling patterns for the "ur" phoneme. While for most people the links between spelling and puppetry may not be immediately apparent, Pat Francis believes they're a winning combination.
"Just making and playing with these puppets helps children remember there are three main spelling choices for this phoneme," she says. "When relevant words crop up, they can make cognitive links to the appropriate puppet: 'shirt' and 'skirt' are 'bird' words, 'church' goes with 'nurse', 'kerb' has a 'fern' spelling. You can play silly games, like making up stories using lots of words with the same spelling pattern - Bird's First Birthday springs to mind! And then you can use the puppets to dramatise them."
Or you might play an activity game. "Three children, each with one of the puppets, stand in different corners of the hall," suggests Pat. "The rest of the class mill around, while the teacher calls out words. If a word has the 'ur' phoneme, pupils have to decide which spelling and rush to the correct puppet. The teacher should then hold up a card with the word on, so they can see the spelling too."
All her suggestions are very much in line with the interactive teaching methods suggested by the National Literacy Strategy in its publication Progression in Phonics. They also sound great fun - fun which can be tailored to any age from Reception to around Year 4 - and a far cry from the dry, skills-and-drills teaching that too many people still associate with spelling and phonics.
As far as Pat Francis is concerned, they are the obvious way to teach. A former travelling puppeteer, she has often seen the power of puppets to motivate and inspire children: "They are the ultimate interactive medium, and all children seem to relate to them. You'll often see children use puppets to 'do' or 'say' something they have trouble with themselves. If they build up a relationship with the puppet, you'll find they start 'teaching' it, verbalising what they themselves have found difficult."
Now that she works in the Kent region with young adults and children who have specific literacy difficulties, Pat also recognises the importance of mlti-sensory skills teaching, and believes puppets are the perfect vehicle, involving auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learning, as well as providing a wealth of cognitive links. "But it's not just special needs children that benefit from this sort of teaching. All children should have it. Simple puppets can become a regular part of class teaching in the literacy hour."
One class teaching technique recommended by the NLS, called "Show Me", involves every child responding to the teacher's question by holding up cards, letter fans or individual whiteboards. "What about using simple puppets?" says Pat. "For the owou spelling choice, for instance - each child could make its own clown puppet (a paper plate on a stick, with a painted face and wool for hair) and a cloud puppet (cotton wool on a stick, and sticky paper eyes and mouth). Then, when the teacher calls out an 'ow' word, they can hold up the appropriate puppet. And they can use that puppet for all sorts of other things too. I don't see why teaching spelling shouldn't be creative!" All Pat's puppets are made from everyday materials - packaging, junk, bits and pieces she finds in discount shops. "I'm always collecting promising-looking things, usually without the faintest idea what for. Something will hang around the house for a while, then I'll be out for a walk and I'll suddenly realise how I could use it. Then I can't wait to get back home and make the puppet."
There are a number of basic puppet types, all reduced to the simplest possible formula - stringed puppets like the bird; puppets on sticks, gloves or fingers; large, human puppets ("Start with a really long cobweb brush, stick a round face beneath the brush, then push a car sponge on to the stick to make shoulders. Then you can put on an old dress to make the body.") Faces are important, but you can do a lot with sticky label eyes and moulded pipe-cleaners. "Voices are vital too," says Pat. "If you give the puppet a voice, choose a distinctive one that adds to the character. Then when you or the children use that voice, it's the puppet speaking, not your everyday selves. That gives the puppet its power as a mediator between you and them, and, if necessary, as a safe mouthpiece for the child."
For teaching the basic vowel sounds, Pat has two gloves - a short glove for the five short vowels and a long evening glove for the five long vowels. Each finger has a pipe-cleaner face making an animated a, e, i, o, u and a name that reflects the relevant phoneme. Even the characters' colours are phonemically linked. Since the short vowels are introduced first, their names are all CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words, simple for young readers to decode and write.
The gloves are big enough for an average teacher's hand, but children can use them too. There are many ways they can be used - for instance, a child wears the glove, the teacher says a word, and the child bows the finger for the appropriate vowel sound.