The Silent Way

The Silent Way

The Silent Way is an approach to language teaching designed to enable students to become independent, autonomous and responsible learners. It is part of a more general pedagogical approach to teaching and learning created by Caleb Gattegno. It is constructivist in nature, leading students 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. The Silent Way allows this.

The main objective of a teacher using the Silent Way is to optimize the way students exchange their time for experience. This Gattegno considered to be "the" basic principle behind all education: "Living a life is changing time into experience."

The students are guided into using their inherent sense of what is coherent to develop their own "inner criteria" of what is right in the new language. They are encouraged to use all their mental powers to make connections between sounds and meanings in the target language. In a Silent Way class, the students express their thoughts and feelings about concrete situations created in the classroom by themselves or the teacher.


Origin of the Silent Way

The approach is called the Silent Way because the teacher remains mainly silent, to give students the space they need to learn to talk. In this approach, it is assumed that the students' previous experience of learning from their mother tongue will contribute to learning the new foreign language. The acquisition of the mother tongue brings awareness of what language is and this is retained in second language learning. The awareness of what language is includes the use of non-verbal components of language such as intonation, melody, breathing, inflection, the convention of writing, and the combinations of letters for different sounds. Rods, pictures, objects or situations are aids used for linking sounds and meanings in the Silent Way.

- Caleb Gattegno based his whole pedagogical approach on several general observations which therefore underlie the Silent Way.

- Firstly, it is not because teachers teach that students learn. Therefore, if teachers want to know what they should be doing in the classroom, they need to study learning and the learners, and there is no better place to undertake such a study than on oneself as a learner.

When Gattegno studied himself as a learner, he realised that only awareness can be educated in humans. His approach is therefore based on producing awarenesses rather than providing knowledge.

- When he studied other learners, he saw them to be strong, independent and gifted people who bring to their learning their intelligence, a will, a need to know and a lifetime of success in mastering challenges more formidable than any found in a classroom. He saw this to be true whatever their age and even if they were perceived to be educationally subnormal or psychologically 'damaged'. For an account of Gattegno working with such learners, see John Caldwell Holt "How Children Learn".

As a teacher, he saw that his way of being in the class and the activities he proposed could either promote this state of being or undermine it. Many of the techniques used in Silent Way classes grew out of this understanding, including the style of correction, and the silence of the teacher -though it should be said that a teacher can be silent without being mute. Simply, the teacher never models and doesn't give answers that students can find for themselves.

Secondly, language is often described as a tool for communication. While it may sometimes function this way, Gattegno observed that this is much less common than we might imagine, since communication requires of speakers that they be sensitive to their audience and able to express their ideas adequately, and of listeners that they be willing to surrender to the message before responding. Working on this is largely outside the scope of a language classroom. On the other hand, language is almost always a vehicle for expression of thoughts and feelings, perceptions and opinions, and these can be worked on very effectively by students with their teacher.

Thirdly, developing criteria is important to Gattegno's approach. To know is to have developed criteria for what is right or wrong, what is acceptable or inacceptable, adequate or inadequate. Developing criteria involves exploring the boundaries between the two. This in turn means that making mistakes is an essential part of learning. When teachers understand this because they have observed themselves living it in their own lives, they will properly view mistakes by students as 'gifts to the class', in Gattegno's words. This attitude towards mistakes frees the students to make bolder and more systematic explorations of how the new language functions. As this process gathers pace, the teacher's role becomes less that of an initiator, and more that of a source of instant and precise feedback to students trying out the language.

- A fourth element which determines what teachers do in a Silent Way class is the fact that knowledge never spontaneously becomes know-how. This is obvious when one is learning to ski or to play the piano. It is skiing rather than learning the physics of turns or the chemistry of snow which makes one a skier. And this is just as true when one is learning a language. The only way to create a "know-how to speak the language" is to speak the language.


The materials usually associated with Silent Way are in fact a set of tools which allow teachers to apply Gattegno's theory of learning and his pedagogical theory -the subordination of teaching to learning- in the field of foreign language teaching. The tools invented by Caleb Gattegno are not the only possible set of tools for teachers working in this field. Others can and indeed have been invented by teachers doing research in this area.

[ Sound / color chart] This is a wall chart on which can be seen a certain number of rectangles of different colours printed on a black background. Each colour represents a phoneme of the language being studied. 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 colours and the sounds, even if they do not know the language.

[ Fidel] This is an expanded version of the Sound/Colour chart. It groups together all the possible spellings for each colour, thus for each phoneme.

A set of colored Cuisenaire rods

For low level language classes, the teacher may use Cuisenaire 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 language to be used will mean before the words are actually produced.

[ Word charts]

These are charts of the same dimensions as the Sound/Colour chart and the Fidel on which are printed the functional words of the language, written in colour. Obviously, the colours are systematized, so that any one colour always represents the same phoneme, whether it is on the Sound/Colour chart, the Fidel or the word charts. Since the words are printed in colour, 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.

A set of 10 wall picturesThese are designed to expand vocabulary for low level groups. The pointer

This is one of the most important instruments in the teacher's arsenal because it allows teaching to be based consciously and deliberately on the mental powers of the students. It allows the teacher to link colours, graphemes or words together whilst maintaining the ephemeral quality of the language. It is the students' mental activity which maintains the different elements present within them and allows them to restitute what is being worked on as a phonetic or linguistic unit having meaning. Thus, each of the tools associated with Silent Way plays its part in allowing the teacher to subordinate his teaching to the students' learning. Each tool exists in order to allow the teacher to work in a pin-pointed way on the students as they work on the language. Each exists for the express purpose of allowing the teacher to work on the students' awareness in order to produce as many awarenesses as possible in the language being studied. The tools correspond to the theory and stem directly from it.

Books for students:" A Thousand Sentences", "Short Passages", "Eight Tales"

Classroom Activities

No Silent Way lesson really resembles another, because the content depends on the know-how "here and now" of learners who are "here and now."

A beginning or elementary lesson will start with working simultaneously on the basic elements of the language: the sounds and prosody of the language and on the construction of sentences. The materials described above will be frequently used. At first, the teacher will propose situations for the students to respond to, but very quickly the students themselves will invent new situations using the rods but also events in the classroom and their own lives.

A recurrent pattern in low level Silent Way classes is the initial creation of a clear and unambiguous situation using the rods. This allows the students to work on the challenge of finding ways -as many as possible- of expressing the situation in the target language. The teacher is active, proposing small changes so that the students can practise the language generated, always scrupulously respecting the reality of what they see. They rapidly become more and more curious about the language and begin to explore it actively, proposing their own changes to find out whether they can say this or that, reinvesting what they have discovered in new sentences. The teacher can then gradually hand over the responsibility for the content of the course to the students, always furnishing the feedback necessary for the learning process. The content of the course then becomes whatever the students want it to be, usually an exploration of their own lives, their thoughts, feelings and opinions.

In more advanced courses, the basic way of functioning remains the same. Although the class might look quite different to an inexperienced observer, the students will be exploring the language in the same spirit. The rods are seldom necessary and the word charts are used much less frequently, since the students can usually find their own mistakes once they become aware that there is a mistake to look for. The students will be invited to talk to each other on any subject they wish. The lesson will be based on their mistakes - "the gifts of the student to the class" as Gattegno liked to call them. The teacher will not correct the mistakes, but help the students to do so themselves by encouraging them to discuss the problem, and find other similar and/or contrasting examples.

Whatever the level, giving learners the opportunity to explore and capitalize on their mistakes enables them to work both on the language and on their own functioning as learners and encourages confidence and the expansion of their know-how. This is an intrinsically interesting experience as is visible and audible in the intense involvement of students in Silent Way classes. The fun students have in this type of class is not derived from extraneous activities imported into language classrooms (games, songs, role-plays...) but on the sheer pleasure of self discovery though the exercise of their mental capacities (imagination, intuition, sensitivity, etc.) on the task of language learning itself.

The fun for the teachers is in having to "think on their feet" to see that their students are constantly faced with do-able linguistic challenges in the "here and now".

The Teacher's Silence

Firstly, the teacher’s silence is a constant reminder that, in this approach, the teacher’s role is not to transmit knowledge but to create situations in which the students can build linguistic know-hows: pronunciation, syntax, morphology... all the aspects that constitute being able to speak a language.

Secondly, 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. Thirdly, the teacher's silence allows him to keep his students in direct contact with the unknown. It is the teacher's silence which allows the lesson to become an improvisation played between the students and himself jointly as they advance. 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.


* Brown, H. Douglas, 1980. "Principles of Language Learning and Teaching". New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. (ISBN 0131991280)
* Gattegno, Caleb. 1976. "The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages". New York: Educational Solutions Inc. (ISBN 0878250719)
* Gattegno, Caleb. 1972. "Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools - The Silent Way." New York: Educational Solutions Inc. (ISBN 0878250468)
* Gattegno, Caleb. 1985. "The Science of Education: Chapter 13 -The Learning & Teaching of Foreign Languages." New York: Educational Solutions Inc. (ISBN 0878251928)
* Larsen-Freeman, Diane. 1986. "Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching." Oxford University Press. Oxford and New York. (ISBN 0194355748)
* Richards, Jack, and Theodore S. Rodgers, 1996. Approaches and Method in Language Teaching: A description and analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0521008433)
* Stevick, Earl W. 1976. "Memory Meaning and Method: some psychological perspectives on language learning." Newbury House, Rowley, Massachusetts. (ISBN 0838455697)
* Stevick, Earl W. 1980. "Teaching Languages. A Way and Ways." Newbury House, Rowley, Massachusetts. (ISBN 0883771470)
* Stevick, Earl W. 1980. "Learning and Teaching Languages." Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. (ISBN 0521282012)
* [ Pedagogy - Learning Foreign Languages] , An Education For Tomorrow, The Silent Way.
* [ Pedagogy - Links to articles on other sites] , An Education For Tomorrow, The Silent Way.

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