The Silent Way of Language Teaching



The Silent Way is the name of a method of language teaching devised by Caleb Gattegno. Gattegno’s name is well known for his revival of interest in the use of colored wooden sticks called cuisenaire rods and for his series Words in Color, an approach to the teaching of initial reading in which sounds are coded by specific colors. His materials are copyrighted and marketed through an organization he operates called Educational Solutions Inc., in New York. The Silent Way represents Gattegno’s venture into the field of foreign language teaching. It is based on the premise that the teacher should be silent as much as possible in the classroom and the learner should be encouraged to produce as much language as possible. Elements of the Si lent Way, particularly the use of color charts and the colored cuisenaire rods, grew out of Gatregno’s previous experience as an educational designer of reading and mathematics programs. (Cuisenaire rods were first developed by Georges Cuisenaire, a European educator who used them for the teaching of math. Gattegno had observed Cuisenaire and this gave him the idea for their use in language teaching.)
The Silent Way shares a great deal with other learning theories and educational philosophies. Very broadly put, the learning hypotheses underlying Gattegno’s work could be stated as follows:
1. Learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or creates rather than remembers and repeats what is to be learned.
2. Learning is facilitated by accompanying (mediating) physical objects.
3. Learning is facilitated by problem solving involving the material to be learned


Theory of language

Gattegno takes an openly skeptical view of the role of linguistic theory in language teaching methodology. He feels that linguistic studies “may be a specialization, [that] carry with them a narrow opening of one’s sensitivity and perhaps serve very little towards the broad end in mind” (Gattegno 1972: 84). Gattegno views language itself “as a substitute for experience, so experience is what gives meaning to language” (Gattegno 1972: 8). We are not surprised then to see simulated experiences using tokens and picture charts as central elements in Silent Way teaching.

Theory of learning

Awareness is educable. As one learns “in awareness,” one’s powers of awareness and one’s capacity to learn become greater. The Silent Way thus claims to facilitate what psychologists call “learning to learn.” Again, the process chain that develops awareness proceeds from attention, production, self-correction, and absorption. Silent Way learners acquire “inner criteria,” which playa central role “in one’s education throughout all of one’s life” (Gattegno 1976: 29). These inner criteria allow learners to monitor and self-correct their own production. It is in the activity of self-correction through self-awareness that the Silent Way claims to differ most notably from other ways of language learning. It is this capacity for self-awareness that the Silent Way calls upon, a capacity said to be little appreciated or exercised by first language learners.
But the Silent Way is not merely a language teaching method. Gattegno sees language learning through the Silent Way as a recovery of innocence – “a return to our full powers and potentials.” Gattegno’s aim is not just second language learning; it is nothing less than the education of the spiritual powers and of the sensitivity of the individual. Mastery of linguistic skills are seen in the light of an emotional inner peace resulting from the sense of power and control brought about by new levels of awareness. Silent Way learning claims to “consolidate the human dimensions of being, which include variety and individuality as essential factors for an acceptance of others as contributors to one’s own life” and even moves us “towards better and more lasting solutions of present-day conflicts” (Gattegno 1972: 84).



The general objective of the Silent Way is to give beginning level students oral and aural facility in basic elements of the target language. The general goal set for language learning is near-native fluency in the target language and correct pronunciation and mastery of the prosodic aliments of the target language are emphasized. An immediate objective is to provide the learner with a basic practical knowledge of the grammar of the language. This forms the basis for independent learning on the learner’s part. Gattegno discusses the following kinds of objectives as appropriate for a language course at an elementary level (Gattegno 1972:81-83). Students should be able to.

The syllabus

The Silent Way adopts a basically structu ral syll abus, with lessons planned around grammatical items and related vocabulary. Gartegno does not, however, provide details as to the precise selection and arrangement of grammatical and lexical items to be covered. There is 110 general Si lent Way syllabus. But from observation of Silent Way programs developed by the Peace Corps to reach a variety of languages at a basic level of proficiency, it is clear that language items are introduced according to their grammatical complexity, their relationship to what has been taught previously, and the ease with which items can be presented visually. Typically, the imperative is the initial structure introduced, because of the ease with which action verbs may be demonstrated using Silent Way material s. New elements, such as the plural form of nouns, are taught within a structure already familiar. Numeration occurs early in a course, because of the importance of numbers in everyday life and the ease with which they can be demonstrated. Prepositions of location also appeal’ early in the syllabus for similar reasons.

Types of learning and teaching activities

Learning tasks and activities in the Silent Way have the function ofencouraging and shaping student oral response without direct oral instruction from or unnecessary modeling by the teacher. Basic to the method arc simple linguistic tasks in which the teacher models a word, phrase, or sentence and then elicits learner responses. Learners then go on to create they own utterance by putting together old and new in formation, charts, rods, and the other aids may be used to elicit learner responses. Teacher modeling is minimal, although much of the activity may be teacher directed. Responses to commands, questions, and visual cues thus constitute the basis for classroom activities.

Learner roles

Learners exert a strong influence over each other’s learning and, to a lesser degree, over the linguistic content taught. They are expected to interact with each other and suggest alternatives to each other. Learners have only themselves as individuals and the group to rely on, and so must learn to work cooperatively rather than competitively. They need to feel comfortable both correcting each other and being corrected by each other.
In order to be productive members of the learning group, learners thus have to play varying roles. At times one is an independent individual, at other times a group member. A learner also must be a teacher, a student, part of a support system, a problem solver, and a self-evaluator. And it is the student who is usually expected to decide on what role is most appropriate to a given situation.

Teacher roles

Teacher silence is, perhaps, the unique and, for many traditionally trained language teachers, the most demanding aspect of the Silent Way. Teachers are exhorted to resist their long standing commitment to model, remodel, assist, and direct desired student responses, and Si lent Way teachers have remarked upon the arduousness of self-restraint to which early experience of the Silent Way has subjected them. Gattegno talks of subordinating “teaching to learning,” but that is not to suggest that the teacher’s role in Silent Way is not critical and demanding. Gattegno anticipates that using the Silent Way would require most teachers to change their perception of their role. Stevick defines the Silent Way teacher’s tasks as (a) to teach, (b) to test, and (c) to get out of the way (Stevick 1980: 56). Although this may not seem to constitute a radical alternative to standard teaching practice, the details of the steps the teacher is expected to follow are unique to the Silent Way.
By ” teaching” is meant the presentation of an item once, typically using nonverbal clues to get across meanings. Testing follows immediately and might better be termed elicitation and shaping of student production, which, again, is done in as silent a way as possible. Finally, the teacher silently monitors learners’ interactions with each other and may even leave the room while learners struggle with their new linguistic tools and “pay their ogdens.” For the most part, Silent Way teacher’s manuals are unavailable (however, see Arnold 1981), and teachers are responsible for designing teaching sequences and creating individual lessons and lesson elements. Gattegno emphasizes the importance of teacher-defined learning goals that are clear and attainable. Sequence and timing in Silent Way classes are more important than in many kinds of language teaching classes, and the teachers’ sensitivity to and management of them is critical.

The role of instructional materials

The Silent Way is perhaps as well known for the unique nature of its teaching materials as for the silence of its teachers. The materials consist mainly of a set of colored rods, color-coded pronunciation and vocabulary wall charts, a pointer, and reading/writing exercises, all of which are used to illustrate the relationships between sound and meaning in the target language. The materials are designed for manipulation by the students as well as by the teacher, independently and cooperatively, in promoting language learning by direct association.
Just as the Fidel charts are used to visually illustrate pronunciation, the colored Cuisenaire rods are used to directly link words and structures with their meanings in the target language, thereby avoiding translation into the native language. The rods vary in length from one to ten centimeters, and each length has a specific color. The rods may be used for naming colors, for size comparisons, to represent people, build floor plans, constitute a road map, and so on. Use of the rods is intended to promote inventiveness, creativity, and interest in forming communicative utterances on the part of the students, as they move from simple to more complex structures. Gattegno and his proponents believe that the range of structures that can be illustrated and learned through skillful use of the rods is as limitless as the human imagination. When the teacher or student has difficulty expressing a desired word or concept, the rods can be supplemented by referring to the Fidel charts, or to the third major visual aid used in the Silent Way, the vocabulary charts.


A Silent Way lesson typically follows a standard format. The first part of the lesson focuses on pronunciation. Depending on student level, the class might work on sounds, phrases, or even sentences designated on the Fidel chart. At the beginning stage, the teacher will model the appropriate sound after pointing to a symbol on the chart. Later, the teacher will silently point to individu al symbols and combinations of symbols, and monitor student utterances. The teacher may say a word and have a student guess what sequence of symbol comprised the word. The pointer is used to indicate stress, phrasing, and intonation. Stress can be shown by touching certain symbols more forcibly than others when pointing out a word. Intonation and phrasing can be demonstrated by tapping on the chart to the rhythm of the utterance.
After practice with the sounds of the language, sentence patterns, structure, and vocabulary are practiced. The teacher models an utterance while creating a visual realization of it with the colored rods. After modeling the utterance, the teacher will have a student attempt to produce the utterance and will indicate its acceptability. If a response is incorrect, the teacher will attempt to reshape the utterance or have another student present the correct model. After a structure is introduced and understood, the teacher will create a situation in which the students can practice the structure through the manipulation of the rods. Variations on the structural theme will be elicited from the class using the rods and charts.
The sample lesson that follows illustrates a typical lesson format. The language being taught is Thai, for which this is the first lesson.
1. Teacher empties rods onto the table.
2. Teacher picks up two or three rods of different colors, and after each rod is picked lip says: [mai].
3. Teacher holds up one rod of any color and indicates to a student that a response is required. Student says: [mail. If response is incorrect, teacher elicits response from another student, who then models for the first student.
4. Teacher next picks up a red rod and says: [mai sii daengl.
5. Teacher picks up a green rod and says: [mai sii khiaw].
6. Teacher picks up either a red or green rod and elicits response from student. If response is incorrect, procedure in step 3 is followed (student modeling).
7. Teacher introduces two or three other colors in the same manner.
8. Teacher shows any of the rods whose forms were taught previously and elicits student response. Correction technique is through student modeling, or the teacher may help student isolate error and self-correct.
9. When mastery is achieved, teacher puts one red rod in plain view and says: [mai sii daeng nung an].
10. Teacher then puts two red rods in plain view and says: (mai sii daeng song an].
11. Teacher places two green rods in view and says: {mai sii khiaw song an].
12. Teacher holds up two rods of a different color and elicits student response.
13. Teacher introduces additional numbers, based on what the class can comfortably retain. Other colors might also be introduced.
14. Rods arc put in a pile. Teacher indicates, through his or her own action, that rods should be picked up, and the correct utterance made. All the students in the group pick up rods and make utterances.
15. Teacher then says: [kep mai sii daeng song an].
16. Teacher indicates that a student should give the teacher the rods called for. Teacher asks other students in the class to give him or her the rods that he or she asks for. This is all done in the target language through unambiguous actions on the part of the teacher.
17. Teacher now indicates that the students should give each other commands regarding the calling for of rods. Rods are put at the disposal of the class.
18. Experimentation is encouraged. Teacher speaks only to correct an incorrect utterance, if no peer group correction is forthcoming. (Joel Wiskin, personal communication )


Despite the philosophical and sometimes almost metaphysical quality of much of Gattegno’s writings, the actual practices of the Silent Way are much less revolutionary than might be expected. Working from what is a rather traditional structural and lexical syllabus, the method exemplifies many of the features that characterize more traditional methods, such as Situational Language Teaching and Audiolingualism, with a strong focus on accurate repetition of sentences modeled initially by the teacher and a movement through guided elicitation exercises to freer communication. The innovations in Gattegno’s method derive primarily from the manner in which classroom activities are organized, the indirect role the teacher is required to assume in directing and monitoring learner performance, the responsibility placed upon learners to figure out and test their hypotheses about how the language works, and the materials used to elicit and practice language.
Baca: The Importance of Including Culture in EFL Teaching
Richards, Jack C & Theodore S. Rodgers. (1986). Approaches and Methods In Language Teaching: A description and analysis. UK: Cambridge University Press.
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