The Silent Way: the hidden power of silence for language teachers

Young female student in a classroom looking towards the camera

This blog has featured many posts that encourage educators to maximise the amount of time students have to practise their core language skills, particularly speaking. Yet we’ve never suggested, until now, that one of the best ways to achieve this is for educators to deploy silence as the suggested language teaching method!

In the latest of our series of posts looking at the major approaches to language teaching, we’ll be looking at the Silent Way and exploring how it might be best deployed in language classrooms. It’s unconventional perhaps, but this approach has been widely used by language educators since the 1970s and still retains a following of faithful educators who continue to advocate its use.


What is the Silent Way?

The Silent Way is a language-teaching approach that was created by Caleb Gattegno, a mathematician. First introduced by Gattegno in 1963 in his book “Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools: The Silent Way”, the approach is a clear response to the rigid and restrictive teaching approaches that were common at the time. As such, it is commonly regarded as an “alternative” language-teaching method; Cook (2008) groups it under “other styles”, Richards (1986) places it under “alternative approaches and methods” and Jin & Cortazzi (2011) categorise it under “Humanistic or Alternative Approaches”.

As the name suggests, this approach requires the teacher to use their silence as a tool to develop learner autonomy and encourage active student participation. A mixture of silence and simple gestures means that it’s impossible for the teacher to dominate the lesson. Rather the role of the teacher is to redirect and correct where necessary, but students are encouraged to speak as much as possible and are better able to develop their independent problem-solving skills.


Key characteristics of the Silent Way in language teaching

There are three basic principles which underpin Gattegno’s work. Richards and Rodgers (1986:99) summarise them as follows.

  1. Learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or creates: The Silent Way belongs to a tradition that views learning as a problem solving, creative, discovering activity in which the learner is a principal actor rather than a bench-bound listener (Bruner 1966).
  2. Learning is facilitated by accompanying (mediating) physical objects: Most of the traditional tools for language instruction (textbooks, worksheets etc.) are not used as part of this teaching approach. Instead, teachers use different coloured Cuisenaire rods (traditionally used in maths teaching) and wallcharts that indicate the correct pronunciation of certain letters. The latter means that the teacher does not need to use drill or call-and-response exercises.
  3. Learning is facilitated by problem solving involving the material to be learned: Advocates of the approach often refer to Benjamin Franklin’s famous words as evidence of its efficacy: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”


Classroom delivery

When focus is turned to the presentation and use of language in the classroom, it is clear that the Silent Way provides a highly structural teaching approach. Language is typically taught through sentences that follow a sequence based on grammatical complexity. This has been described by some critics as an overly simple or “building-block” approach to language teaching.

For example, the teacher shows the learners a small red Cuisenaire rod and a bigger blue one and initiates a lesson on pronouns by saying: “Give me the green rod” in the target language. The learners repeat this and then use a variety of different pronouns and adjectives (e.g her, blue, big) to demonstrate their understanding. Once the learning objective has been achieved, the teacher changes focus to produce other models and challenges the students to produce their own alternative versions.

The British Council suggests that Cuisenaire rods can be used to “first represent and then to manipulate language”. It also proposes that they can be useful when teaching the following concepts: word boundaries, contracted forms, prepositions, word order and word stress.

Appreciating that this language teaching approach might be unconventional, it is important to tell students why you’re using it and how they need to act / respond. If you notice any changes to students’ behaviour or output, then do check-in with them to see how they’re doing.


Advantages of the Silent Way

  1. All of the research is clear – students just learn better when they are active participants in their own learning. Allowing students to do most of the talking in a lesson is a great way to help educators to accomplish this.
  2. This approach forces students to find their own solutions, rather than relying on the teacher to come to the rescue. As such it also gives them experience of how to handle difficult situations when using their target language for real.
  3. Both of the above factors help students to assume more responsibility for their learning. This can have a positive impact on their motivation and engagement, which helps build their confidence and overall fluency.
  4. A Silent Way classroom also makes extensive use of peer correction. Students are encouraged to help their classmates when they have trouble with any particular feature of the language.
  5. Significantly reduced input from the teacher helps students to feel that they can make mistakes without being criticised. This helps to build a safe and positive learning environment.


Disadvantages of the Silent Way

  1. As referenced above, the approach may well feel strange and scary to some students. It may also present particular problems for students who have specific educational challenges or who typically require extra support / scaffolding.
  2. The approach will also feel very uncomfortable for many educators. It has been widely criticised for being “harsh” – after all, there’s limited spoken feedback and limited engagement between learner / teacher. For many language educators, these are some of the main reasons why they started teaching in the first place.


Is the Silent Way right for my students?

There’s no simple yes or no answer to that question – it will depend on many factors including your confidence / skills, the student cohort you’re working with and the setting you teach in. As with any teaching approach, none of them is 100% perfect and so our advice is always that educators should try them out, tailoring them to their specific context and reviewing the impact they have.

As such, it might be a good idea to combine aspects of the Silent Way approach with other methods. Importantly as FluentU identifies, there are some obvious similarities between the approach and other popular teaching methods. Like Total Physical Response, it gets students moving, speaking and constructing meaning independently without textbooks and drills. And as with task-based language learning, the focus of a Silent Way lesson becomes all about functionality and accomplishing a task together.

We hope that you’ll give the Silent Way a try and that this blog post has provided some inspiration you can use in the classroom!


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