Despite having read a bit about it for Delta, I never really got how The Silent Way worked. Roslyn Young’s IATEFL Harrogate 2014 session changed all that, and while I don’t believe it will change my teaching completely, it’s something I’d be interested in trying out with lower-level groups, particularly if I ever get to teach beginners again.
[Note: this post was written during Roslyn’s session, hence the narrative style.]
Roslyn has been using The Silent Way since 1971, so has many years of experience.
She introduces us to how Cuisenaire rods are used in The Silent Way.
She shows us a rectangle chart and teaches us some Japanese, by giving us a single sound and pointing to the rods on the image and getting us to repeat the sounds. She mouths sounds, pointing to more rectangles. By pointing rapidly, we make words. She uses a lot of gestures and mime, but no sound. There’s a lot of laughter in the room. By pointing at rods at the bottom and top of the chart, she shows us pitchs.
After about two minutes, we already know that Japanese has a pitch system. The rectangle also shows us the five vowels of the system.
Her job as a language teacher is to make us aware of all the problems we might have to deal with as learners of Japanese.
The chart also shows us the consonants. It’s a map of the whole sound system of Japanese.
She teaches all ages using this method.
She also has a rectangle chart for the sounds of English, including stress and reduction. The colours go from language to language, so the same sound is connected to the same colours in different languages.
The learning process according to Gattegno
There are many theories about how we learn. This is how Caleb Gattegno, creator of The Silent Way, sees it.
- There is something to learn. (e.g. in the Japanese chart there are two lots of vowels marked, so the learner sees there’s something to learn)
- We learn through awarenesses/movements of the mind. They might be things that you notice visually, audibly. They can be internal or external awarenesses. You have to be ‘present’ to what you’re doing to learn. It’s the stage of ‘exploration’.
- This is where things become automatic. At the start of this stage, they’re not automatic, but at the end they are.
- Transfer. Anything I’ve learnt in my life is available at any time that I want to use it.
There are charts for beginners using the same colours as the rods. You can point to different words to build up sentences.
What should we be teaching?
Beginners’ books normally start with the same structures: Hello. I come from…, adding vocabulary…
The Silent Way is completely different. It asks what you can give the learners in the time you have them. It requires you to give them everything they might have trouble learning without you, like pronunciation and structures.
What Roslyn wants them to learn is the mindset of how to relate to people in the English language. You can do this by placing yourself in time and space. They can learn vocabulary without her. She wants to give them those things that they won’t get outside her lessons, focussing principally on pronunciation to start with. This will give them a grounding for self-study later.
The next step
She pulls out a couple of students, and they follow instructions, using the language in a ‘real’ context. This is after about five hours of language.
e.g. Take a rod. Give it to him.
A student might suggest ‘Take two rods and give it to her.’ At this point, Roslyn will hold up her hands and point out ‘Take two rods and give them to her’ on the chart. This helps students to learn the meaning of ‘it’ and ‘them’. This is how the Silent Way advances, by students taking leaps and the teacher helping them. Every time, communication has already taken place, and the Silent Way shows them how to express it correctly. The students are talking to each other the whole time. The only time Roslyn speaks is for classroom management. Silent Way is about expression.
“The person I talk to most is myself.” Language is about understanding my world in terms of what I think, what I say – you say things in different ways in your head until you work out what you want to say.
The chart shows different pronunciations of the same spellings, like ‘there’ and ‘there’, showing the different functions. The chart also has dots showing words which might have different pronunciations, like weak and strong ‘a’. Students learn this from the very beginning.
The initial English rectangle chart includes schwa, schwii (short /i/, like at the end of ‘happy’), and schwu (short /u/, like at the end of ‘shadow‘).
There is a similar chart to the rectangle chart, showing all of the spellings for each sound. Those written in a smaller font appear less often, and students notice this and realise they don’t have to focus on those sound patterns as much.
The colour-coding mean that there is an immediate way into reading off new words that students have never seen before.
This still works for colour-blind students, as people work via the geography of the chart as well as the colours.
Why use The Silent Way?
You subordinate your teaching to the student’s learning. It helps the students undertake their learning in a very orderly way.
By repeatedly doing something you create experience, like an apprentice learns from a master craftsman. You then order that experience to create knowledge, like a craftsman writing a book. Somebody picks up that book, but that doesn’t give them the knowledge. They still have to build up the experiences. You can’t transmit knowledge, but you can give students experience. Silent Way gives them that experience by getting students to speak as much as possible, with the teacher acting purely as a facilitator.
If you’d like to see more examples of the Silent Way charts, try Donald Cherry’s website.