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Teaching approaches: what is the silent way?

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing the Silent Way approach to language learning.

Tell me and I forget
Teach me and I remember
Involve me and I learn

Benjamin Franklin

Silent Way originated in the early 1970s and was the brainchild of the late Caleb Gattegno. The last line of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote about teaching and learning can be said to lie at the heart of Silent Way. The three basic tenets of the approach are that learning is facilitated if the learner discovers rather than remembers or repeats, that learning is aided by physical objects, and that problem-solving is central to learning. The use of the word "silent" is also significant, as Silent Way is based on the premise that the teacher should be as silent as possible in the classroom in order to encourage the learner to produce as much language as possible.As far as the presentation of language is concerned, Silent Way adopts a highly structural approach, with language taught through sentences in a sequence based on grammatical complexity, described by some as a "building-block" approach.

The structural patterns of the target language are presented by the teacher and the grammar "rules" of the language are learnt inductively by the learners. Cuisenaire rods (small coloured blocks of varying sizes originally intended for the teaching of mathematics) are often used to illustrate meaning (the physical objects mentioned above). New items are added sparingly by the teacher and learners take these as far as they can in their communication until the need for the next new item becomes apparent. The teacher then provides this new item by modelling it very clearly just once. The learners are then left to use the new item and to incorporate it into their existing stock of language, again taking it as far as they can until the next item is needed and so on.

This is perhaps best illustrated by an example. Let us say that the teacher has introduced the idea of pronouns as in "Give me a green rod". The class will then use this structure until it is clearly assimilated, using, in addition, all the other colours. One member of the class would now like to ask another to pass a rod to a third student but she does not know the word "her", only that it cannot be "me". At this point the teacher would intervene and supply the new item: "Give her the green rod" and the learners will continue until the next new item is needed (probably "him"). This minimalist role of the teacher has led some critics to describe Silent Way teachers as "aloof" and, indeed, this apparently excessive degree of self-restraint can be seen as such.The prominent writer on language teaching, Earl W. Stevick, has described the role of the teacher in Silent Way as "Teach, test, get out of the way". The apparent lack of real communication in the approach has also been criticized, with some arguing that it is difficult to take the approach beyond the very basics of the language, with only highly motivated learners being able to generate real communication from the rigid structures illustrated by the rods. The fact that, for logistical reasons, it is limited to relatively small groups of learners is also seen as a weakness.

As with other methods and approaches, however, aspects of Silent Way can be observed in many lessons in the modern classroom. In the 1980s and early 90s, for example, it became fashionable in some quarters to argue that excessive "teacher talking time" was something to be discouraged. Cuisenaire rods are also popular with some teachers and can be used extremely creatively for various purposes from teaching pronunciation to story-telling. The idea of modelling a new structure or item of vocabulary just once may also have some justification as it encourages learners both to listen more carefully and then to experiment with their own production of the utterance. Lastly, the problem-solving feature of Silent Way may well prove to be its most enduring legacy as it has led indirectly both to the idea of Task-based Learning and to the widespread use of problem-solving activities in language classrooms.

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Readers' comments (6)

  • I just acquired a set of the pilot Silent Way charts (20 total). Does anyone know their value? I would love to sell these to someone who would appreciate them.

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  • Thank you for this piece. I'd be interested in observing teachers using the Silent Way. Would either steveh or Glanys be available? Or any other teacher with some experience using this methodology?
    I live in London and I'm doing my DELTA. I'd like to do my EP using the Silent Way and I'm looking for material and opportunities to observe experienced teachers.

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  • I trained with Gattegno as a SW teacher in the 80s and I'd like to add my voice in support of Glenys' comments above. In addition, the silence in SW is commonly believed to refer to the teacher saying as little as possible but Gattegno himself, when questioned on this, said simply "Why should I speak when my student can?". I took that to mean not that the teachers should remain silent but that students should be given the maximum space possible to speak. On the subject of higher levels, I have often taught advanced students using SW and continue to use the Rods with them thought the charts become redundant at that level. This is another of those approaches which received a bad press largely from academics at the time who didn't bother to find out what really makes them tick. SW is still alive and well and on the 100th anniversary of Gattegno's birth, last year, a book was published celebrating his life and work.

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  • Thanks for the link. From the article and the subsequent comment, I'd certainly like to learn more about this approach.

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  • Hello,

    Having been a Silent Way teacher for over 30 years and observed many classes taught by other Silent Way teachers I'd like to make a few comments.

    Though I understand why it might appear that way from a brief observation of a near beginners class, the Silent Way is not really a structural approach because it is not the structures of the language which determine course content, it's what the learners themselves want to express that does.

    The structural patterns of the language are not usually presented or modelled by the teacher. The Cuisenaire rods can be used to present situations the meaning of which is clear but it is the students who decide what they want to about them. The teacher supplies only the element that is unknown. That is, the teacher will not say, in the situation described above, "Give her the green rod" just the word "her". In fact, the teacher doesn't usually say it herself, she points to it on the sound/colour rectangles chart or on the word charts and lets the students work out the new sentence. It's true that, for sake of clarity, many beginning classes focus around taking, giving and putting rods but each class creates its own sequence and quickly goes in different directions.

    I have used the Silent Way with all levels - with the higher levels I seldom use rods (or the charts) but the approach is the same: directing the students' attention to their problems and guiding them to find solutions themselves.

    The Silent Way is not limited to small groups: I've taught classes with as many as 50 students.

    People who are curious to know more might like to take a look at this page:

    By the way, I'm always surprised when I read of Silent Way teachers as being "aloof". Have you seen Don Cherry's videos? Would you describe him as aloof here: ?

    I'd be glad to answer questions.

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  • thanks... I'm very curious.

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