The Silent Way Method

The Silent Way

The Chomskyan criticism of the theories upon which the audiolingual method was founded led to an interest in  not only the affective factors but also in the cognitive factors.  While Community Language Learning, drawing from Carl Roger’s philosophy, focused on the importance of the affect, new methods were developed in the 70s to highlight the cognitive domain in language learning. The Silent Way is one of these innovative methods. In Fact, Caleb Gattegno, the founder of the Silent Way,devoted his thinking to the importance of problem solving approach in education. He contends that the method is constructivist and leads the learners to develop their own conceptual models of all the aspects of the language. The best way of achieving this is to help students to be experimental learners.

Features

The Silent Way is characterized by its focus on discovery, creativity, problem solving and the use of accompanying materials. Richards and Rodgers (1986:99)  summarized the method into three major features.

  1. Learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or creates. The Silent way belongs to the tradition of teaching that favors hypothetical mode of teaching (as opposed to expository mode of teaching) in which the teacher and the learner work cooperatively to reach the educational desired goals. (cf Bruner 1966.) The learner is not  a bench bound listener but an active contributor to the learning  process.
  2. Learning is facilitated by accompanying (mediating) physical objects. The Silent Way uses colorful charts and  rods (cuisenaire rods) which are of varying length. They are used to introduce vocabulary ( colors, numbers, adjectives, verbs) and syntax (tense, comparatives, plurals, word order …)
  3. Learning is facilitated by problem solving involving the material to be learned. This can be summarized by Benjamin Franklin’s words:
    “Tell me and I forget
    Teach me and I remember
    Involve me and I learn”
    A good silent way learner is a good problem solver. The teacher’s role resides only  in giving minimum repetitions and correction, remaining silent most of the times,  leaving the learner struggling to solve problems about the language and get a grasp of its mechanism.

Disadvantages

  • The Silent Way is often criticized of being a harsh method. The learner works in isolation and  communication is lacking badly in a Silent Way classroom.
  • With minimum help on the part of the teacher, the Silent Way method may put the learning itself at stake.
  • The material ( the rods and the charts)  used in this method will certainly fail to introduce all aspects of language. Other materials will have to be introduced.

Advantages

  • Learning through problem solving looks attractive especially because it fosters:
    • creativity,
    • discovery,
    • increase in intelligent potency and
    • long term memory.
  • The indirect role of the teacher highlights the importance and the centrality of the learner who is responsible in figuring out and testing the hypotheses about how language works. In other words teaching is subordinated to learning
References

Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

H. Douglas Brown (1987). Principles of language learning and teaching. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall

Richards, Jack C. and Theodore S. Rodgers (1986). Approaches and methods in language teaching: A description and analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


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14 Responses

  1. roro says:

    I can understand your idea that the method can be a bit harsh, but only from an outsider’s point of view who has not used them to teach or to learn. I did both.

    I was taught basic Japanese with them and only wish I would have had the time or rather a local location to study further. Our classroom was set up so that we also worked in pairs and in groups and when we were not everyone was learning from each through watching and taking turns doing what the teacher asked us to do. We found it quite enjoyable.

    As far as teaching English with it goes, most students were grammar ladden and could not talk at all in Japan with their hearing of the language quite obstructed. Teaching direct method with the SW tools one is not using a dictionary, relying on grammer or translation methods. When you take this approach with young children who are not indoctrinated into a grammar method learning becomes fun and interesting. Although I was not well-versed enough to use the mehod exclusively, I did adapt what I knew to use flash cards in a non-memorization way and to teaching phonetics with colors. It really worked.

  2. I’ve read elsewhere on the Internet that Silent Way teachers are “harsh”. It’s not been my experience with those I’ve seen – and I’ve seen a lot! They may very occasionally get a bit ratty and irritated with a difficult student – I know I have – but don’t nearly all teachers whatever methodology they use? Speech is not the only way of communicating and anyway Silent Way teachers are not necessarily totally mute. Teacher silence is a tool not a dogma. Do you find Don Cherry appears harsh in his videos on YouTube? Here for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sshhHFWwukM

  3. Hi,
    Thank you for the link to the video.
    Yes, some teachers criticise this method as being harsh and I think that this criticism is based upon the idea that some learners may find themselves unable or might feel discomfort in getting involved in the talking while the teacher is silent. But that criricism, I agree, may be foundless, especially if we know that the Silent Way method is primarily a method that allows learners construct their learning at their own pace. That is, the teacher’s silence provides the cognitive and affective opprortunity for learners to take charge of their own learning. What is more, a silent method activity can be fun for learners, creating low affective filters as can be seen in the video of Don Cherry mentioned above.

  4. Hi Mohammed,

    The Silent Way is an unusual approach and some students are initially surprised. I always make sure that they have the opportunity to express what they’re feeling and to ask questions – in their native language if their English is not adequate. Frequent feedback sessions are part of the approach itself – to help learners become aware of their learning process. This is easier when the teacher speaks the students’ language, but when I haven’t, I’ve managed to find volunteer translators to help out.

    Another disadvantage you mention: “The material (the rods and the charts) used in this method will certainly fail to introduce all aspects of language. Other materials will have to be introduced.” I feel is not justified either. There is no reason for Silent Way teachers not to use other material if they’re appropriate and help students to learn. In fact, in most of my non-beginner classes I don’t use any materials at all except what the students themselves produce.

  5. I must admit I found the disadvantage noted that “with minimum help on the part of the teacher, the Silent Way method may put the learning itself at stake.” a bit surprising especially when elsewhere in the description it is stated a number of times in different ways that the learner and the learning is of pre-eminent importance in this approach. My experience with the Silent Way, both as a learner and as a teacher, only confirms the latter.

    Of course in other approaches and methods the same could be said. One difference that I see that with the mainstream tools and methods it is too easy to fall back on to the tools and methods as the “thing to do”. With access to lots of these ready made materials teachers can too easily accept the status quo. The very poor results we see in language learning world wide only shows that what we are currently doing is not really working, so continuing to accept and use them is a mistake.

    With the Silent Way, for a number of reasons, I would suggest most SW teachers have a very good understanding of what they are doing and why. One reason is that only through working on their understanding why the materials are as they are and how learning works can a SW teacher use the materials AND become effective in empowering their students. The materials themselves serve as “teacher inservice”! :-)

  6. Hi,
    The criticism of the silent way in my post was as follows:

    With minimum help on the part of the teacher, the Silent Way method may put the learning itself at stake.

    In fact some students may be unwilling or unable to work on their own at least in the beginning of their language learning as they are still dependent on teacher help and lack autonomy.But this criticism doesn’t imply that the SW doesn’t work at all. It may be, on the contrary,a way among others to reduce learners dependence on the teacher. What is more, for most learners, at least as I have seen in many silent way lessons, the silent way can be a lot of fun.

  7. Hi Mohammed,

    One of the real disadvantages of the Silent Way is that it is extremely difficult to describe to people who have never seen it in action. Where did you see Silent Way classes? I’ve already mentioned the Don Cherry videos – you can also see Andrew Weiler teaching on YouTube as well as several others. You will see that all the teachers are very active. The “minimum help” is the minimum help needed for students to learn. Silent Way teachers don’t do the students’ work for them, but they do support and guide them in many ways. The way they do this may not always be visible to untrained observers especially in a video.

    It’s true that at the beginning of my career I did have a few unhappy students who expressed a preference for something more traditional. i believe it was because I was clumsy in what I was doing because by the end of my career (I’m retired now) it practically never occurred.

    That’s another real disadvantage of the Silent Way: it’s very difficult for a teacher to learn how to do it. It’s relatively easy to give students information and to walk them through a textbook; it’s much more difficult to create classroom situations where students can discover the language for themselves. If the students don’t learn, then the teacher isn’t doing their job correctly. As Gattegno said, “The students work on the language and the teacher works on the students”, but he never said it was easy.

  8. Hi,
    May be there are other disadvantages that I did not mention in my post. One of them is that the SW, like TPR, is designed mostly for beginners and is focused on structure. It does not create an atmosphere for communication.
    Another criticism relates to the difficulties in its implementation. Apart from difficulty of the method that you mentioned (it will work only with gifted teachers), I assume that to teach according to the SW principles, large classes would be a hinderance. Ease of implementation is a prerequisite for any method to be adopted at a large scale, especially in third world countries.
    Nevertheless, the SW method is still appealing. Its emphasis on problem solving and discovery learning activities constitute the strength of the method. It offers an alternative to the usual repetitions and endless explanations that are common in many foreign language classes and that deprive the learners from working things out on their own.
    PS: I’ve seen those lessons on youtube!

  9. Hi Mohammed,

    First of all, I really appreciate your openness to have a real discussion about the Silent Way.

    Having been a Silent Way teacher for nearly 40 years, I used it in classes of all levels. You’re right that Cuisenaire rods and the wall charts are only appropriate for beginners and low level students. As I’ve already said, in most of my Silent Way classes I didn’t actually use those materials. I encouraged my students to speak about whatever interested them for personal or professional reasons and guided them to express themselves as best they could in English.

    Though most of my students had as an objective improving their aural comprehension and oral expression, this was not always the case. I also prepared students for competitive exams at very high levels where essay writing and translating into and out of English were required. I used the Silent Way approach – the students were surprised at first, but enjoyed themselves just as much as beginners… and appreciated the results.

    Most of the classes I taught had 15 or fewer participants, but occasionally I was privileged to teach groups of 40 or more. For beginners or low level groups this was no problem at all. For higher levels where they all have different weaknesses, I admit it was more difficult – but not impossible.

    And no, I’m not a gifted teacher – just one who was very lucky to come upon this approach early in her teaching career. Before that my lessons were a disaster! Even afterwards, they quite frequently were. :-(

  10. Hi Glenys,
    Thank you for the description of how you managed to teach 40 students using the SW method which shows how gifted you are :).
    I’ve got a question though! Does the period of silence start when instructions are pretty clear for learners? Or do you try to give minimum directions and leave the learners figure out what they have to do (which gives them enough room for discovery learning)?

  11. Hi Mohammed,

    There are gifted and charismatic Silent Way teachers, but I’m not one of them. I’m not being modest: I’m proud to be the living proof that any ordinary teacher can make the Silent Way work for their students – if they wish to.

    I found that students were generally pretty smart at working out what was expected of them but I (and my colleagues) did do a few things to make the reticent minority more comfortable.

    At the beginning, I’d put up all the charts and lead a discussion about them, in English if their level was adequate, or in French (I mainly worked in France) if it wasn’t. I’d ask them questions such as: “Why the colours?” “How do you pronounce this word?” and I’d point to: ‘it’ which they’d pronounce reasonably correctly, and this one: “women” which of course they wouldn’t until they paid attention to the colours. “How many words are there on these charts?” “Why these words and not other words?” And I also asked them questions not directly related to the Silent Way such as: “What do you expect you can achieve in 60/90 hours?”

    At the end of the first 3/4 hours I’d have another session, if necessary in French, where I’d ask them what questions they had about the way we were working. The questions that came up were often: “Why don’t you model the sentences for us?” Why don’t you translate?” Why don’t you explain?” I’d generally throw the questions back to them and usually there were people in the group who could give the answers I would have given. I felt it was more effective when their fellow students said these things but I also explained the pedagogy as much as they seemed to want. It varied a lot from group to group.

    You might be interested to read this article some colleagues and I wrote some years ago: http://www.uneeducationpourdemain.org/en/pedagogical-articles/silent-way/236-what-does-working-on-the-student-mean-what-four-silent-way-teachers-say-to-their-students-glenys-hanson-et-al

  12. Hi Glenys,
    Thank you very much for the link.

  13. Susan says:

    I can only speak as a student of the Silent Way and feel your brief description only scratches the surface. The Silent Way activates my curiosity in a way that very few methods do. I learned and retained so much more and students are able to determine what to learn and when to learn it in a way that’s very freeing and student-centered. I learned Japanese, Korean and French with the Silent Way and find other methods so boring and ineffective in comparison.

    One strength of the Silent Way is that you learn to pronounce words very well. This gives you a steady confidence in the language. Most other methods are lacking in this area. Thus the teachers don’t know how to teach pronunciation; their students feel shaky saying the words and can’t be understood. I’ve gotten sincere compliments on my pronunciation for each of these languages due to the Silent Way.

    I would love to learn how to use these methods to teach English.

  1. December 3, 2013

    […] The Silent Way is an innovative method designed by Caleb Gattegno in the 70s. It focuses on discovery, creativity, problem solving and the use of accompanying materials such as cuisenaire rods. […]

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