Caleb Gattegno's 'Silent Way': some of the reasons why

Part One

How do we learn?

Last Spring, I was in a public telephone booth on the Place Granvelle in Besançon, making a phone call. At the end of the call, I hung up and turned to the door. I pushed on the glass panel and, as it didn’t move, pushed a little harder. When it still didn’t move, I realised:

1. that I was trapped in the telephone booth. Immediately, I turned my whole attention to the problem. I pushed again on the door, a little higher, hoping that this would help.

2. Still the door didn’t open. I pushed on the door a little harder, lower down the panel, but could feel

3. that there was no change in the resistance the door was offering to my hand. Then I realised

4. that this door was made, not of one big pane of glass, but of two tall narrow ones side by side. I pushed on the left hand side of the right hand panel and immediately realised

5. that there was more give in the door, that this was a more likely place to produce results. My emotion subsided a little and I became more engrossed in the task of getting out of the telephone booth. I pushed a little harder

6. trying to estimate where the door was likely to yield most easily to my efforts. Then I realised

7. that I should push on the other half of the door. I did so and the door opened easily and without further effort on my part. I walked out of the booth and went on my way.

This incident, which occupied less than sixty seconds of my life, nevertheless illustrates many of the principles on which Silent Way is based.


The four stages of learning

Learning takes place in four stages.

Stage 1 - To learn is to be confronted with the unknown.

First, we have to realize that there is an unknown to be explored.This realisation takes place through an awareness, the basic awareness of the fact that there is an area to be explored. Until I come to this realisation, no learning can take place. While I was actually talking on the phone, I was not learning about the door, since I did not yet know there was something to learn.


Stage 2 - The exploration of the unknown is done through awareness. Since it is unknown, we may, and usually do, make many mistakes. It is this stage which led many years ago to the recognition that we learn by trial and error. Thus, in the incident described above, the different major awarenesses have been numbered so that the reader can identify them easily.


The first awareness, numbered 1. corresponding to Stage 1, tells me that I am confronted with the unknown. I immediately become involved in an exploration of this unknown, Stage 2, using a double process of

a. awareness of what is, in order to estimate what trial is useful here and now, and

b. feedback from the environment to tell me the result of the trial I have just made.

I use my awareness to read the feedback I obtain and thus the process is engaged. Numbers 2., 3., 5. and 6. illustrate this phase.


As a result of the trials and the relative importance of each error, I can create hypotheses about useful things to try and thus direct the following trials in such a way as to hasten the process. Numbers 4. and 7. illustrate this aspect of this incident.


Learning is measured in awarenesses, but the different awarenesses going to make up learning situations do not all have the same weight. Some simply give the state of the environment after a trial, whilst others provoke a new and more adjusted type of trial. The second type of awareness is easier to recognize than the first because it is more visible.


Stage 3 - The time to practice.

Once an understanding of what is necessary in order to reach mastery has been reached, we require practice. Over the next few months, I consciously looked at the doors of the telephone booths I used in order to be able to get out easily. Since I don’t very often use telephone booths, this process took a long time for this particular example.


Stage 4 - Transfer

The sign that the learning process has finished is that what we have learnt becomes automatic, leaving us free to go about our business of meeting a new unknown and learning something else. This stage is often overlooked when studies are made of learning because the very fact that a process has been made automatic means that I have set up a functioning which works best if I don’t study it.


The role of presence in learning

I can recognize where I am with respect to each of these four stages by looking at what I do with my presence.

Stage 1. The first awareness of an unknown takes the form of a focusing of my presence. An awareness is, in fact, a coming together of the necessary elements so that I become aware of them, either in the form of a new problem or in the form of a solution to a problem I know I already have. Thus, in the incident described above, I only became present to the door when I realised that, contrary to my expectations, it would not open.


During Stage 2, I am actively engaged in the exploration of the problem, and my presence is completely devoted to what I am trying to understand. Once I realised I could not get out of the telephone booth, I totally lost contact with the conversation I had been engaged in and devoted myself entirely to the problem of the door.


Stage 3 is characterised by continuing presence, which gradually becomes better directed as progress is made. During stage 3, presence usually becomes intermittent. In the learning situation presented here, stage 3 would probably be a recognition, over the next few months, as I leave telephone booths here and there round the town, that the booth I am leaving is one of the two-pane kind, so that I have to push on the door in that particular place. I might even experiment a little with the best place to push in order to open the door with the least possible effort.


Stage 4 is not usually recognizsed by people going about living their lives, since it is characterised by the fact that it requires almost none of my presence in order to function. One day, if I am a student of learning, I might realise that I no longer even notice what kind of door the telephone booth has. I just push in the right spot for the kind of door it is. In the incident described above, stage 4 is illustrated in the casual way I initially pushed on the door before the first awareness numbered (1) above. The way to open telephone booth doors had been entirely automatised, requiring none of my presence, and would have remained so, had France Telecom not decided to introduce a new style of door.


How does this apply to the learning of a foreign language?

Learning a foreign language follows exactly the same stages of learning as learning to open the door of a telephone booth. All the stages described above are present, and they are present in all the aspects of the language: sounds, words, structures, rhythm, intonation, melody… Thus, in any one sentence a student is saying, all four stages may be present together and in any one word, several stages may be present at the same time, depending on the difficulty of the word.


Thus, in a class of French students after 50 hours of English, when a student says 'I have been living in Nice for twenty-three years', the situation might well be as follows:

- 'Nice' is totally automatised, since the pronunciation is the same in English as in French.

- 'I' has been used for many hours, and is probably moving towards the end of stage 3 or, for some students in the same class, may even be automatised completely.

The word 'live' has been in circulation for many hours. It may be moving from the end of stage 2 to stage 3, or, for some students, already have reached stage 4.

The word 'twenty' is probably automatised from the point of view of pronunciation, but more than likely does not yet present itself spontaneously when required—we all know how hard it can be to count spontaneously in a new language!

For 'three' on the other hand, the pronunciation probably still requires a high level of presence—stage 2—but the word may well present itself easily when required, a sign that, from this point of view, it has reached stage 4.

The construction 'has been + -ing' is brand new, dating from a few seconds ago, and belongs to Stage 1. The student is just about to realise, or has just realised, that there is a new field requiring investigation.

Stage 1

Thus, even if we examine the situation for just one student, it is highly complex. Since learning only begins when the student becomes aware of a new field of investigation—Stage 1—the teacher’s job is to provoke as many awarenesses of this kind as possible. This does not mean that he should simply inform the student they exist. There is no point in telling the student the number of verb tenses in English, for example. To do so would produce knowledge, but not a know-how, which is a "know how to speak English".It means that the teacher must work in such a way that the student will come across such fields to investigate and then help him to do so. Since learning takes place through a double feedback system in which the learner tries something out and studies the environment to get a feedback concerning its correctness in the given situation

Stage 2

The teacher’s job is to provide a classroom in which the students can carry out their trials and make their errors freely, all the time providing them with the necessary feedback about the correctness of what they are trying to say or do, so that they can become aware of the various uses of the language. Since the only way people can construct criteria is by becoming aware of what is possible and what is not, the teacher’s job is to make sure that the students know at all times whether what they are saying is in accordance with the conventions of the language or not. Whenever the teacher neglects to provide feedback about what the language demands, he hinders the student from establishing criteria as to how the language works, and thus from making progress. The teacher’s job is to provoke an environment as coherent as the language will allow so that as many awarenesses can take place in the shortest possible time.

Stage 3

Since learning a know-how requires practice, the teacher must allow as much time as necessary for practice. This, too, means maintaining tight control over the quality of language being used. To practice speaking is similar to "doing one’s scales" in music. To practice a foreign language is not simply to chatter on or to communicate. This is not focused enough to be of use to the student, since he still requires feedback on the quality and the conformity of what he is producing.


Example: How do we learn completely new sounds?

Here is an example of how one learns a new sound in a foreign language.

First of all Stage1, learning a new sound, requires that the student realise that there is, in fact, a new sound to learn. Once he has realised this, he can move to Stage 2 as he tries to create the sound. Here, he works in the double feedback system mentioned above. In this specific case, he is dealing with two independent but closely related systems, the mouth and the ear. Only one of these systems, the mouth, can be controlled voluntarily. All the muscles of the ear are involuntary muscles. The student can only modify the voluntary system.With his mouth, he produces a sound which he guesses might be as close as possible to the sound he is aiming for. He hears this sound with his ears. Since he produced it with his own mouth, he knows that, muscularly speaking, his mouth was used in a new or special way and consequently, he knows he should listen for a sound which is different from what he usually hears. He can probably predict, at least to some extent, in what ways the sound will be different from what he usually produces. He speaks here with the deliberate intention of hearing something unusual, and he listens to the result with the specific intention of hearing this unusual sound he has just produced. This is the process we all use to learn to produce new sounds. Once the student has managed to produce the sound to his satisfaction, he must practice it in a wide variety of different situations and contexts (Stage 3) until he is completely at ease with the sound. He thus reaches Stage 4, and the sound has become completely automatised and the learning process for that particular sound is over.


Part Two

Silent Way: a way of thinking and a set of tools


Caleb Gattegno proposed a basic concept for all work in education, whatever the age of the students, whatever their social background, whatever the subject being worked on. This concept, involving the learning theory presented in Part One, can be summed up in the words "the subordination of teaching to learning".


The Silent Way of teaching foreign languages was invented by Gattegno in the early fifties as a way of teaching foreign languages which was compatible with the general theory of education he was formulating at that time. It is implemented using a set of tools which allows teachers to apply the subordination of teaching to learning in the field of foreign language teaching. These are not the only possible set of tools for teachers working in this field. Others can be, and have been, invented by teachers doing research in this area.


It is always tempting for people trying to describe Silent Way to limit themselves to what is visible in the classrooms where the teacher uses this approach, without taking into account what is more subtle. Thus, many authors describe the tools—the word charts, the Fidel and the use of the Cuisenaire rods—and consider they have given a valid description of Silent Way. They do not seem to be bothered by the fact that experienced users of Silent Way cannot accept such a description as a valid presentation of the approach.


In fact, a clear distinction must be made between a "rods and charts" teacher and—much more subtle—a Silent Way teacher. The major difference between the two can be summed up in the one basic sentence indicated above—the subordination of teaching to learning. A teacher can very well use rods and word charts in his class, but if the teaching is not subordinated to the learning, the class is a Silent Way class in name only. Conversely, it is quite possible to work in a language class without rods or charts, without a Fidel and nevertheless to teach a class using Silent Way. If the lesson is subordinated, if it demonstrates the principles proposed by Gattegno, it is a Silent Way lesson, even if an untrained observer is quite unable to detect the difference.


In what follows, two axes have been developed.

First, the subordination of teaching to learning as a way of thinking is examined.

Second, the specific logic of the tools proposed by Gattegno, as an application of the principle of subordination, is laid out as the tools are described. These tools were invented with specific aims in mind: what instruments can a language teacher use in order to provoke the greatest number of awarenesses possible in the students he is working with:

* How can he heighten the students’ presence?

* How can he do so whilst using as much as possible the experience the students have brought with them to the classroom?

These tools satisfy these aims. This description is an attempt to make obvious the way in which they work on the awareness of the students.

The way of thinking: the subordination of teaching to learning.


The subordination of teaching to learning

The subordination of teaching to learning can be understood at several levels.

At the deepest level, this expression covers a subtle transaction which takes place between the participants of the class.


If the teacher lives his class intensely, is very present, then, by a phenomenon of induction similar to what one finds in physics, he can induce all the participants of the class to be as present as is possible for each of them. This phenomenon of induction is well known to most of us. It exists, for example, in the theatre, where one speaks of the "presence" of a great actor. As soon as he comes on stage, the audience is galvanised by the mere fact of his being present. This theatrical presence of an actor exists because he is totally present both to himself and to his audience. This is equally the case for a fine musician and one can also find the same phenomenon in athletes. During a great performance, the athlete is able to mobilise his presence in such a way as not to interfere with the automatisms he has given himself over years of training, and the combination of presence to the task at hand and the functioning of automatisms works perfectly. Although it is difficult to describe in a short article how a Silent Way teacher uses induction in his classroom, the result is immediately perceptible to all the participants who are filled with a feeling of well being, of elation and of joy.

Motivation is also a function of presence. The interest human beings show in hobbies comes from the fact that any hobby, whatever it is, requires the presence of the person who is living the experience. Whether it be reading a good book, collecting stamps or climbing a mountain in winter, one is present when one lives one’s hobby. It is easy to see, too, that one can remain interested for hours on end in the most outlandish things if one is driven by passion. To be totally present is exhilarating for all human beings.


At a much less subtle level but directly related to this first level, one finds the subordination of teaching to learning functioning in classrooms where the accent is put on the students’ learning. The mere fact of placing the accent on learning implies that it is necessary to be able to describe learning in great detail. And in fact, this is indeed the case, as I have shown in Part One.


Within the framework of the theory of education used here, learning takes place through a succession of awarenesses. This means that, in a class, minute by minute, or even second by second, the teacher can be in a position to see the awarenesses as and when they take place. He can detect them as he teaches. He can, then, conduct his teaching in function of what he sees, varying from one minute to the next what he does in order to provoke awarenesses wherever he sees that it is possible. This is another meaning, at another level, of the phrase "the subordination of teaching to learning".


"The subordination of teaching to learning" is sometimes confused with "learner-centered teaching". In fact, "the subordination of teaching to learning" and "learner-centered teaching" cover two very different realities. Learner-centered teaching is and remains essentially a way of teaching. If one wanted to put this expression into a context, it would be necessary to speak about teaching centered on the student rather than on the book. No mention is made of learning. The subordination of teaching to learning, on the other hand, places the act of learning at the center of the class. The accent is not on the student, but on those of his activities which will lead him to learn.


Another aspect of the subordination of teaching to learning can be summarized thus: "The teacher works on the student and the student works on the language". This aspect allows us to see that the accent really is placed elsewhere than in a usual class. The teacher is not "the one who knows", whose role is to transmit his knowledge to his students. What he knows is how to teach. That is to say, how to do whatever necessary so that each student will finish up by having a know-how at his disposal. "A language at one’s disposal", to take this example, does not mean the same thing as "a knowledge of the language". It is quite possible that at the end of their learning, the students have no idea what they did with their time. But they can state that they have the language at their disposal because they can use it, because they can speak it. They did a certain number of things associated with language learning and the fact of knowing how to speak the language is the result.


Part Three

The set of tools

A. The Sound/color chart

The teacher has a sound/color chart at his disposal. This is a chart measuring 60 cm by 40 cm which is designed to be put up on the wall. This chart has on it a number of rectangles of different colors printed on a black background. Each color represents a phoneme of the language being studied and there are as many colors as there are phonemes.


For languages like French or English, some rectangles are made up of two colors to show complex sounds. For example, in English, the sound /ei/ contains the sounds /e/ and /i/ and consequently the rectangle for /ei/ is made up of the colors of /e/ and /i/.


The sound/color chart is divided into two parts, the vowels at the top and the consonants and semi-vowels below.


By using a pointer to touch a series of rectangles, the teacher, without saying anything himself, can get the students to produce any utterance in the language if they know the correspondence between the colors and the sounds, even if they do not know the language.


The sound/color chart has several functions.


First, it is synthetic by nature. This means that the chart always shows all the possible choices. When a student is confronted by a choice, he knows which possibilities are open to him. He is put into a situation in which he must always ask himself, amongst all the sounds he sees before him, which one he can or must choose. Each time, he has to make a decision: this one or that one? This situation very quickly sharpens the learner's awareness of sounds. It often happens that a student is well aware that a particular sound exists and also knows that he does not yet know how to say it. The existence of the sound is clear to him because he sees a color for it and he also sees other people around him who know how to say it and who hear it. He can be ignorant of the way he should go about saying the sound, but he cannot ignore the fact that it exists. This chart allows the student to see that a particular pronunciation exists.


Second, it allows the teacher to slow down the rate of production of a chain of sounds, to accelerate it, and even to stop it, at the exact spot at which he wishes to draw the student's attention to something. The teacher can demonstrate with extreme precision the differences of pronunciation created by the speed of speech. What is more important, he can do it in such a way that it is the student’s mouth and not his own, which actually produces the sounds. The student does not have to depend on the more or less high fidelity of his ear to be able to hear sounds. Because he is the one producing the different utterances he is trying to compare, he can learn to hear them correctly. In this way, the teacher knows when one of his students cannot manage to produce this or that phoneme or chain of phonemes in the target language and he can direct the attention of the student to exactly where the problem lies. The student can spend the necessary time studying them in his own mouth and this work leads to a mastery of the types of sound chains likely to occur in the new language.

Third, the Sound/Color chart allows the teacher to dissociate completely the pronunciation of a language from its writing system. This can be a considerable advantage in certain cases where the first is very different from the second, as is the case for English or French, or when the alphabet, if there is one, is different from the one the students know -the case for Western Europeans learning Russian or Japanese, for example- or when there is no alphabet, as in the case of Chinese.


B. The Fidel

The Sound/Color chart is a condensed version of the Fidel, a series of charts -the exact number depends on the language- which groups together all the possible spellings for each color, and thus for each phoneme.

For example, the /i:/ being red in English, the column would show, written in red, the 13 ways of writing this sound in English: e, ee, ea, y, ie, ei, i, eo, ey, ay, oe, ae, is.

The sound /e/ in light blue gives: e, ea, a, u, ai, ay, ie, eo, ei, ae as the possible spellings for this phoneme.


Using a pointer, the teacher or a student can show any word in the language on this chart, giving at the same time its spelling and its pronunciation.


The Fidel is designed to allow the student to undertake a detailed investigation of the relationship between the spelling of words or series of words and their pronunciation. Like the Sound/Color chart, it is synthetic in nature. All the choices are always visible. It allows -one could even say it forces- the student to become aware of the relationships between the spelling and the sounds found in the language, especially important in a language like French in which this relationship is particularly complex. Once the student has found the chain of sounds on the Sound/Color chart, he knows which columns to look in on the Fidel and thus finds himself with a limited range of possibilities for the spelling of these sounds. Although there are many possible choices, in French for example, there are only those choices present in the column. There are no others. The student must find a suitable grapheme in the column he knows is correct from his work on the sound/color chart.


The Fidel is useful as a working instrument not only with those who study a language as a foreign language but also for the study of spelling and grammar by young native speakers up to the age of twelve or even more, depending on the language.


C. The Word Charts

The teacher also has at his disposal a set of Word Charts. These are charts of the same dimensions as the Sound/Color chart and the Fidel on which the functional words of the language are printed in color. Obviously, the colors are systematized, so that any one color always represents the same phoneme, whether it is on the Sound/Color chart, the Fidel or the word charts. (In fact, the colors have been standardized throughout the whole system, so that the reading charts in French or the language charts in English use the same colors as the charts in Russian or in Tagalog, for example, for all the sounds which are similar in the various languages.)


For example, the first chart in English contains the words: 'a' and 'rod' and words for the colors of the rods—'blue', 'red', 'yellow', etc… -, as well as some pronouns: 'it', 'his', 'her', 'them', 'he', 'me', 'him', and 'one', and several other very common words or parts of words: 'an', 'not', 'an', 'as', 'too', 'to', 'two', 'the' (written twice to show both pronunciations), the plural ending '-s' (written twice to show both pronunciations), ''s' (written twice to show both pronunciations), 'are', 'another', 'back', 'end', 'here', 'there', 'this', 'that', and 'these' as well as the verbs 'take', 'give', 'do', and 'put'.


Looking at the word charts for the first time, the general impression is that the words have been placed in a completely arbitrary order. This is not quite true, since the words are in fact organized to a certain extent. The first chart contains most of the pronouns (essential in all languages) as well as some very basic words associated with verb tenses. The second completes the pronouns and extends the words associated with the tenses, so that, by the third chart, the majority of words necessary for the verb tense forms in English are on display. One of the charts groups the words necessary for the expression of spatial relationships ('behind', 'beside', 'between') and another displays temporal relationships ('today', 'year', 'o’clock', 'ago').


Since the words are printed in color, it is only necessary for someone to point to a word for the (other) students to be able to read it, say it and write it. Using only the words on the first chart for English, it is usual to make sentences such as:

* Take a red rod, a black one, two green ones and a blue one.

* Give the red one to him, the blue one to her and the green ones to them.

* Give her a yellow rod. Give it back to Jack.

* This one’s blue and that one’s green.

* There are two rods here; one’s his and the other’s hers.

* These rods are pink and red. The others are not pink. They aren’t orange.

For French, the first and second charts lead to sentences such as:


* Prenez une réglette rouge, deux noires, une jaune et trois bleues. Donnez la rouge à Louis, une des noires à Charlotte, la jaune à Florence et Jeanne et les trois bleues à Pierre, à Paul et à Jacques.

* Elles ont la jaune, eux les bleues, elle une des noires et lui la rouge.

* Sa réglette à lui est rouge. La mienne est jaune, lui, il a une rouge.

* Prenez une réglette verte et mettez-la là. Celle-ci est bleue. Celle qui est là est verte.

* Combien de réglettes avez-vous? J’en ai trois. Moi, je n’en ai aucune. etc…

The word charts are designed to provide the teacher with ways of proposing rapid entries into problems which the students can have in their contact with the new language. Here too, as far as the language concerned allows it, Gattegno tried to propose a synthetic vision. (The word charts in English give a more global vision of the language than the French charts do for French. This faithfully reflects the nature of the two languages.)


On the first chart for French, the words indicated above are to be found. But an attentive student can also see immediately that, in this language, there are words which must be studied very carefully. Some are homonyms. The student sees clearly on this chart that 'ils' and 'il'; 'elles' and 'elle'; 'ai' and 'et'; 'la' and ''; 'a' and 'à' are pairs of homonyms. He can see that 'nous' and 'vous', because they only have two colors, only have two sounds. He knows that the sound /n/ can be spelled in different ways—<n>, <ne>, <nn> and <nne>—just as /e/ can be spelled <ai>, <et> and <ez>. French is a language which requires extreme vigilance if one is to master the spelling. This is a lesson one can usefully learn very early if one wants to learn French.


In English on the other hand, the student can see immediately that the letter <a> can be pronounced in five different ways in words like 'a', 'take' 'as', 'are' and 'orange'". He can also see that the letters <e>, <i>, <o> and <u> have as little connection with pronunciation as the letter <a>. This lesson is essential for anyone wanting to master English. He can see that words like 'to', 'two' and 'too' are pronounced the same way, even if the spelling differs. Both ' ’s' (with an apostrophe) et '-s' (the ending) can be said in two different ways and it is easy to mistake one for the other, since they change in the same way. He may well notice that there are two pronunciations for 'the'.


As has already been pointed out, the words on the word charts are arranged more or less arbitrarily. This is no accident. On the contrary, it serves to demonstrate that most essential characteristic of language, the fact that it is ephemeral. In our everyday lives, when someone speaks, either the listener listens, using his mental powers in order to maintain within himself the trace of what was said, or it disappears for ever. In a Silent Way classroom, the students know that they can retain a sentence as it is being pointed only on condition that they watch carefully while the pointing takes place. Consequently, each student must be constantly present to the work being done. And, since there is a close relationship between the quality of the presence the student is capable of maintaining and the retention of words and sentences, the pointing of words in order to create sentences maintains the ephemeral nature of the language and tends to increase retention and speed up acquisition. No sentence is ever given to the students once and for all. When it is given, the student retains it only if he does what is necessary for it to remain within him -if he uses his mental powers to fix the sentence in his mind. He can never turn back a couple of pages to refresh his memory. Since languages are not memorized but retained, it is important for the teacher not to create circumstances in which the students will try to memorize rather than retain them.


Throughout the work in the classroom, the student is invited to work using his mental powers and, in particular, his capacity of evocation, so that retention will be enhanced. It is his job, using his gifts and his possibilities, to construct his own inner links, since, once the pointing is over, he has to be able to find the sentence again by his own means. In this way, inner movements can be constructed which will gradually allow the student to speak the language like a native speaker -correctly and automatically.


D. The rods

For low-level language classes, the teacher may use Cuisenaire rods.


These are pieces of wood measuring between one and ten centimeters in length and having a section of one square centimeter. They are painted such that all the rods of the same length are the same color, the choice of colors reflecting the mathematical properties of the rods. The rods allow the teacher to construct non-ambiguous situations which are directly perceptible by all. They are easy to manipulate and can be used symbolically. A green rod standing on the table can also be Mr. Green. They lend themselves as well to the construction of plans of houses and furniture, towns and cities, stations…


However, the most important aspect of using the rods is certainly the fact that when a situation is created in front of the students, they know what the utterance to be used will mean before the words are actually produced. If the teacher indicates that he is going to deal with the relative lengths of the rods, the students know before anything is said what the utterance is going to mean. In other words, before any language is actually used, communication has already taken place. Thus the accent is placed strongly on the fact that learning a language is not learning to communicate but learning how to use the language itself.


A basic characteristic of humans speaking is that, when they listen, they typically extract the idea from the words they hear and let the words disappear, so that, if asked what was said, they recreate the idea in their own words rather than remembering the words used by the previous speaker.


This normal linguistic functioning must absolutely be modified if the student wishes to learn another language easily and well. He must learn to pay attention to the message of course, but more especially to the language.


A judicious use of the rods allows the teacher to eliminate communication as a reason for speaking by making it take place before anyone actually says anything, so that, when the language is used, everyone knows that the problem is how to say exactly what the situation requires and not simply to communicate. Here again, then, the accent is squarely placed on the quality of the language used.


E. The pointer

Another tool the teacher uses is a pointer.

This is one of the most important instruments in his arsenal because it allows him to base his teaching consciously and deliberately on the mental powers of the students.It allows the teacher to link colours, graphemes or words together whilst maintaining the same characteristic as the spoken language -its ephemeral quality. It is the student’s mental activity which maintains the different elements present within him and allows him to assemble them as a phonetic or linguistic unit having meaning.


Obviously, the teacher can use the pointer to point words, rectangles or anything else, but the pointer has a much more important role to play than that.


In the last analysis, all language is a distribution of energy over time. All languages take place in time. Whilst the word charts present the words in a static form, the pointer allows the teacher to show the students how to reintroduce the element of time into their speech. This temporal element can be different for the same string of words. It depends on the meaning here and now. The pointer is used to create the dynamics of the language from the different charts at the same time as the students construct it.


The dynamics include the rhythms, the intonations, the melodies (and the tones in the case of a tone language). The teacher uses the pointer to draw the attention of the students specifically to the energy distributions of the language, to the grouping of words or phrases, to the intonations necessary to produce not only the words but the language as it is really spoken, with the relative speeds imprinted on the different parts of the phrase or sentence being studied.With the pointer, the teacher can choose the level of his intervention -sentence, phrase, word or sound, intonation or melody. The pointer is a precious instrument for putting together selectively all these elements. This is why presenting words arbitrarily and creating the appropriate dynamics as the lesson progresses constitutes an elegant solution.


F. Silence

To this arsenal of tools for language teaching can be added the most surprising instrument for most observers, the silence of the teacher.


First, the teacher’s silence is a constant reminder that the teacher’s role is not to transmit knowledge. If very few ski instructors would consider that buying a book such as "Skiing in Ten Easy Lessons" could be a substitute for practice with real skis, some language teachers seem to believe that an understanding of grammar can have a favorable influence on the speaking of the language. Some even act as if learning the grammar of the language were enough to create a know-how in their students. However, these teachers have not yet shown how, by what means, such a transfer could take place. In fact, whatever the area of study, nothing allows us to suppose the existence of a relationship of cause and effect between knowledge and a know-how, that the possession of knowledge can create a know-how. Speaking a foreign language is indeed a know-how and, as such, demands what learning any know-how demands: practice.


Second, the teacher’s silence invites all teachers to reflect on the fact that the students can acquire excellent pronunciation of a foreign language without ever having heard it from the teacher. Gattegno’s affirmation that new sounds are not learned by listening to them should be examined with care. To the vision of a language as a sound system that the students explore by listening, he opposes another, that of a system of energy transactions that each student must manipulate with extreme precision in order to be able to speak the language fluently. This exploration is undertaken by us all when, in our cribs, at the age of a few weeks, we set about babbling and gurgling, installing at the same time the feedback systems which, much later, will allow us to enter the language spoken by our environment. This type of exercise leads to the creation of a double feedback system exactly like the one we all have for our mother tongue. This is why the teacher remains silent whilst proposing exercises which allow the students to undertake this exploration of the feelings produced in their phonatory apparatus.


Third, this silence can prompt teachers to reflect on the fact that we all know how to learn and that what we learn spontaneously is usually well learned. No one ever gets permanently locked in a telephone booth! Almost all of us are happy enough with the way we breathe. Each child speaks his language at a level which suits him. How is it that learning succeeds in these areas, in which the learning was not directed by a teacher?

The silence of the teacher leaves time for the student to do what he has done successfully all his life: learn.


But I have called silence an instrument, which implies that it can be actually used by the teacher. The teacher’s silence forces him to reflect constantly on his own clarity, and this changes the preparation of his class completely. The teacher always has to try to find strictly non-ambiguous means of presenting each situation. While the class is taking place, he must have his students’ understanding constantly in his mind, not only concerning the situations he presents, but also concerning the language he associates with them. Silence is a very efficient safety factor because, as soon as the teacher’s job is not well done, the whole class is plunged into silence. No student can go on and neither can the teacher go on ahead, leaving his students behind.


Fourth, the teacher’s silence allows him to keep the students on the cutting edge of what they are learning. Since, after the first few hours, they are the ones who usually introduce new language and new situations, these will always correspond to what they can imagine is possible for them in the here and now, suggested by what has just happened in the class or what might have happened. Provided that they can communicate what they are wanting to say, the teacher can help them remodel what they produce into an acceptable form of the target language, insisting they maintain the highest quality in their language at all times so that they can acquire criteria when speaking of situations they have chosen themselves. For the class to take place at all, the teacher has to stay with the students wherever they happen to be, following them in their exploration and working on their errors and mistakes as they are produced.Thus, his silence allows the teacher to keep his students in direct contact with the unknown. The teacher’s silence allows the lesson to become an improvisation played by the students and himself jointly as they advance.


How does one become a Silent Way teacher?

It can take many years to become a competent Silent Way teacher, not because it is difficult to use rods and charts -this takes a relatively short time- but because any teacher wishing to use Silent Way must learn to be sensitive to his own processes of learning in order to be able to recognise the same processes in others. To become aware of one’s awareness functioning at every moment of the day, to know oneself as present (or not) in all one’s acts, these are among the first tasks of the would-be Silent Way teacher.


Young, R. (1995). Caleb Gattegno’s ‘Silent Way’: some of the reasons why. In E. Scheiner (Ed.), Methoden der Fremdsprachenvermittlung (Vol. 40, pp. 55–74). University of Mainz.

Caleb Gattegno's Silent Way: some of the reasons why", by Roslyn Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.