Throughout history, many trends in the world of language teaching have come and gone.
Some have graced us with just a brief visit.
Hovering wordlessly in a category all by itself is a powerful but somewhat oddball method known as the “Silent Way.”
This approach has the weight of history behind it, having been around since the early 1970s. But like its name, the specifics of this obscure method have seemed largely absent from discourse about how to teach language.
Yet it still has a following of faithful educators who use it in their classrooms and love it.
So what exactly is the Silent Way? And how can you use it?
The Silent Way: An Unconventional Language Teaching Method
What is the Silent Way?
This unconventional method was developed alongside Afro hairstyles and platform shoes back in the 1970s by mathematician (yes, we said mathematician) Caleb Gattegno. It was based upon ideas outlined in his book “Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools the Silent Way,” published in 1963. Like most cultural events of the 60s and 70s, it was a reaction to previous approaches and methods that were considered excessively rigid and constricting.
The basic method that underlies this approach is simple but potentially quite powerful: The teacher is silent, only speaking if the students are struggling.
The focus is placed entirely on students and their learning process. The teacher and their instruction are (at best) peripheral to the process.
Most of the traditional tools for language instruction (textbooks, worksheets, verb conjugation tables) are completely absent from this method. In their place, instruction takes place through the medium of Cuisenaire rods (colored rods traditionally used in the teaching of math to primary school students) and charts that indicate the correct pronunciation of certain letters.
Why might you decide to use the Silent Way method?
We know how you feel. Teaching a language with silence? How could that possibly work?
Don’t be too quick to judge. There are plenty of great reasons to at least give this method a try.
- Student-directed learning. We all know what the research says: Students learn better when they can be active participants in their own learning. It just seems logical that, when it comes to language, allowing students to do all the talking is the best way to accomplish that.
- Improved problem-solving skills. Without your input, students are forced to figure out all kinds of things on their own, mimicking some of the real-life problem-solving situations they might find themselves facing if immersed in the target language. These are skills that they will not have the opportunity to develop if the teacher always does the figuring out for them.
- Increased engagement. Learning basic vocabulary and pronunciation can often feel monotonous to students. With the Silent Way, students are engaged in the learning process, discovering words and sounds instead of having these drilled into them. Students become more engaged and invested in the process as they assume more responsibility for their own learning, and tasks have more relevance.
- A positive, safe learning environment. Limited input from the teacher means almost no criticism… which means students feel that it is safe to make mistakes, a necessary step in language learning.
- It can supplement further student-centered work. Including the above features in your students’ learning will complement deeper interactive and independent work with the language. For example, they might do such work when using FluentU, a platform that offers students a unique and culturally authentic way to engage with real-world content at their own pace. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, talks and news—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
As you can probably imagine, though, the Silent Way is not without its drawbacks.
Potential problems with the Silent Way
The Silent Way is not for everyone. Here are some valid reasons for deciding not to use it.
- It may feel strange and scary to students. It is safe to say that your students have never experienced anything quite like the Silent Way before. Without adequate explanation or preparation, they might be unsure of how to handle it, especially in the beginning.
- It may be challenging for some students. If a student has an IEP, or requires extra coaching or scaffolding due to special needs of any kind, they can really struggle with the Silent Way. These students need frequent interactions with their teacher in order to be successful.
- Students may feel that they are not getting enough feedback. Feedback allows students to correct their mistakes, and to receive affirmation when they are doing something correctly. For these reasons, students may even completely shut down if they are not receiving enough of it.
- Progress may be slower than with other methods. Advocates of the Silent Way will tell you that the focus is on learning a few things well rather than “covering” the material. But it can be frustrating to spend weeks just getting through the basics of vocabulary and pronunciation.
Strategies to make the Silent Way work for you and your students
If you do decide to use this method, here are some strategies to help you find success.
- Educate students thoroughly from the outset about this method and why you are using it. Once you have achieved student buy-in, you can begin implementing this method without fear of scaring them away.
- Check in individually with students who need it from time to time, to make sure that they are okay. You can schedule regular meeting times with them, or check in discreetly during class. This will help them feel more confident about their progress.
- Give feedback non-verbally. Practice conveying a message with body language, gestures and facial expressions. You will be amazed at how much you can communicate to students without saying a word.
- Emphasize quality rather than quantity. Clearly articulate that attaining mastery, rather than simply covering everything in the curriculum, is the priority.
Now that you understand the basics of the Silent Way and how it works, let’s begin to put it into practice with an actual activity.
A Silent Way sample activity
Before starting this activity, you will need to complete several hours of traditional “Silent Way” instruction using Cuisenaire rods and charts.
You can find Cuisenaire rods at most educational supply stores that sell classroom manipulatives. One great online resource is Hand2Mind, a site where you can easily find and order a wide variety of classroom resources. You can look for whatever you need under “Grade” or a category like “Math,” “Science” or “Literacy” (in this case, you could go to “Math” and scroll down to “Manipulatives”) or simply use the search field. There are over 40 options for Cuisenaire rods alone that you can browse through and choose from based on factors like class size.
Silent Way charts are a bit more difficult to find. A website called Educational Solutions seems to be the sole supplier of them, possibly because there is not a huge demand. But it is also completely feasible to look at examples of them and create your own. Examples of English pronunciation charts can be found here. Links to pronunciation charts in other languages, such as Chinese, Japanese and French, can be reached via the website of Donald Cherry, a long-time practitioner and advocate of the Silent Way. You can also find other resources on TED Ed to help you get set up for using this method in your classroom.
You will begin by instructing your students on pronunciation using a chart with multicolored rectangles. What do rectangles have to do with pronunciation, you ask? Well, each color represents a different sound. Once the students have learned, through repetition, what these sounds are, you can move on to charts that have short words, with letters that are color-coded to represent the sounds.
Now you can teach the pronunciation of simple words without almost no verbal feedback at all. It is just a matter of pointing to the correct sound on the chart and indicating to the student, through your body language, whether they are pronouncing it correctly or not.
After many hours of instruction with charts and Cuisenaire rods, students will understand words/sounds when they are pointed out on a chart.
At this point, you are ready to take on this simple activity.
- Call a student to the front of the room and hand them a rod. Point out the following instruction, using words/sounds on the chart: “Put the rod on the table.”
- Ask the class (through gesture) to repeat the instruction: “Put the rod on the table.”
- The student then follows the direction and puts the rod on the table.
- Next point out another direction using the chart: “Put the rod under the table.”
- Follow the same process outlined in Steps 2-3.
- Continue by asking students to direct each other to put rods in different places (“on the chair,” “in front of the window,” etc.)
The wonderful thing about this activity is that it gets students talking and problem-solving together in the target language… with virtually no verbal intervention from you.
Practical considerations for everyday use of the Silent Way
As you can tell, there are certainly advantages to this unconventional method. After all, every teacher’s ultimate goal is to equip their students with the tools to manage the content independently, with limited teacher intervention.
But is the Silent Way really practical? How much will your students learn?
The answer depends on you and your students. Some teachers use the Silent Way religiously. They and their students will tell you that they have found it far superior to any other method.
At the other extreme, some will tell you it is nonsense.
As with most things in education and in life, a balanced approach is key.
Especially when you first begin using it, it may be preferable to combine aspects of the Silent Way with some of the best practices taken from other methods.
In fact, if you examine the Silent Way closely, it does bear some resemblance to other more popular methods. Like TPR, it gets students moving, speaking and constructing meaning independently without textbooks and drills. Like with task-based language learning, the focus is taken away from learning language for its own sake, and instead becomes all about functionality and accomplishing a task together.
In short, the Silent Way perhaps has more advantages than we have given it credit for, and deserves (at the very least!) a second look.
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