Silent Way

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This article is about the language-teaching method. For the jazz album, see In a Silent Way.
A teacher and student sit opposite one another in a small language classroom
A Spanish lesson in Guadalajara, Mexico, taught using the Silent Way.

The Silent Way is a language-teaching method created by Caleb Gattegno that is striking for its extensive use of silence on the part of the teacher as a technique. It is not considered a mainstream method in language education.[1] It was first introduced in Gattegno's book Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools: The Silent Way in 1963.[2] Gattegno was critical of the mainstream language education of the time, and conceived of the method as a special case of his general theories of education.

The method emphasises the autonomy of the learner; the teacher's role is to monitor the students' efforts, and the students are encouraged to have an active role in learning the language. Pronunciation is seen as fundamental; beginner courses start with pronunciation, and time is spent practising it in most lessons, even with advanced students. The Silent Way uses a structural syllabus, and structures are constantly reviewed and recycled. The treatment of vocabulary is different from the conventional approach: time is spent using functional and versatile words but wider vocabulary is only introduced as needed. Acquiring a wide vocabulary is seen as something that students can do outside the class. Translation and rote repetition are avoided and the language is usually practiced in meaningful contexts. Evaluation is carried out by observation, and the teacher may never set a formal test.

The teacher uses silence for multiple purposes in the Silent Way. It is used to focus students' attention, to elicit student responses, and to encourage them to correct their own errors. Even though teachers are often silent, they are still active; for example, they use hand gestures to help the students with their pronunciation and finger correction to help them with grammar. Teachers also encourage students to help their peers.

Silent Way teachers use specialized teaching materials. One of the hallmarks of the method is the use of Cuisenaire rods, which can be used for anything from introducing simple commands ("Take two red rods and give them to her.") to representing objects such as clocks and floor plans. The method also makes use of color association to help teach pronunciation; there is a sound-color chart which is used to teach the language sounds, colored word charts which are used for work on sentences, and colored Fidel charts which are used to teach spelling.

Background and principles[edit]

Caleb Gattegno
Caleb Gattegno, the creator of the Silent Way

Gattegno was an outsider to language education when Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools was first published in 1963. The book conspicuously lacked the names of most prominent language educators and linguists of the time, and for some time afterwards Gattegno's works were only rarely cited in language education books and journals.[3] He was previously a designer of mathematics and reading programmes, and the use of color charts and colored Cuisenaire rods in the Silent Way grew directly out of this experience.[4]

Gattegno was openly sceptical of the role the linguistic theory of his time had in language teaching. He felt 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".[5] The Silent Way is a special case of Gattegno's broader educational principles. Gattegno developed these ideas to solve general problems in learning, and he also applied them to his work in the teaching of mathematics and spelling in the mother tongue. Broadly, these principles are:[6]

  1. Teachers should concentrate on how students learn, and their teaching should grow out of this
  2. Imitation and drill are not the primary means by which students learn
  3. Learning consists of trial and error, deliberate experimentation, suspending judgement, and revising conclusions
  4. In learning, learners draw on everything that they already know, especially their native language
  5. The teacher should take care not interfere with the learning process

These principles situate the Silent Way in the tradition of discovery learning, that sees learning as a creative problem-solving activity.[4]

Design and goals[edit]

The general goal of the Silent Way is to help beginning-level students gain basic fluency in the target language, with the ultimate aim being near-native language proficiency and good pronunciation.[7] An important part of this ability is being able to use the language for self-expression; students should be able to express their thoughts, feelings, and needs in the target language. In order to help them achieve this, teachers emphasize self-reliance.[8] Students are encouraged to actively explore the language,[9] and to develop their own 'inner criteria' as to what is linguistically acceptable. [10]

The role of the teacher is that of technician or engineer. The teacher's task is to focus the students' attention, and provide exercises to help them develop language facility; however, to ensure their self-reliance, the teacher should only help the students as much as is strictly necessary.[11] As Gattegno says, "The teacher works with the student; the student works on the language."[12] For example, teachers will often give students time to correct their own mistakes before giving them the answer to a question.[13] Teachers also avoid praise or criticism, as it can discourage students from developing self-reliance.[13]

A chart consisting of rectangles of various colors
Gattegno's original sound-color chart for English. This type of chart is used right from the beginning stages to teach pronunciation and word stress.

In the Silent Way students are seen as bringing a vast amount of experience and knowledge with them to the classroom; namely, their first language. The teacher capitalizes on this knowledge when introducing new material, always building from the known to the unknown.[14] The students begin their study of the language by studying its sound system. The sounds are associated to different colors using a sound-color chart that is specific to the language being learned. The teacher first elicits sounds that are already present in the students' native language, and then progresses to the development of sounds that are new to them. This is an example of the Articulatory Approach for teaching pronunciation. These sound-color associations are later used to help the students with spelling, reading, and pronunciation.[12]

The first Word chart. Color-coding enables the teacher to remain silent because the students can work out the pronunciation from the colors

The Silent Way uses a structural syllabus. The teacher will typically introduce one new language structure at a time, and old structures are continuously reviewed and recycled.[8] These structures are chosen for their propositional meaning, not for their communicative value.[15] The teacher will set up learning situations for the students which focus their attention on each new structure.[12] For example, the teacher might ask students to label a floor plan of a house in order to introduce the concepts of inside and outside.[16] Once the language structures have been presented in this way, learners learn the grammar rules through a process of induction.[15]

Gattegno saw the choice of which vocabulary to teach as vital to the language learning process. He advised teachers to concentrate on the most functional and versatile words, to help students build a functional vocabulary.[15]

Translation and rote repetition are avoided, and instead emphasis is placed on conveying meaning through students' perceptions, and through practicing the language in meaningful contexts.[17] In the floor plan example, the plan itself negates the need for translation, and the teacher is able to give the students meaningful practice simply by pointing to different parts of the house.[16] The four skills of active listening, speaking, reading, and writing are worked on from the beginning stages, although students only learn to read something after they have learned to say it.[18]

Evaluation in the Silent Way is carried out primarily by observation. Teachers may never give a formal test, but they constantly assess students by observing their actions. This allows them to respond straight away to any problems the students might have.[19] Teachers also gain feedback through observing students' errors; errors are seen as natural and necessary for learning, and can be a useful guide as to what structures need more practice.[13] Furthermore, teachers may gain feedback by asking the students at the end of the lesson.[9] When evaluating the students, teachers expect them to learn at different rates, and students are not penalized for learning more slowly than their classmates. Teachers look for steady progress in the language, not perfection.[13]


Teaching techniques[edit]

Just as the name implies, silence is a key tool of the teacher in the Silent Way. From the beginning levels, students do 90 percent or more of the talking.[20] Being silent moves the focus of the classroom from the teacher to the students,[21] and can encourage cooperation among them.[13] It also frees the teacher to observe the class.[9] Silence can be used to help students correct their own errors. Teachers can remain silent when a student makes a mistake to give them time to self-correct;[13] they can also help students with their pronunciation by mouthing words without vocalizing, and by using certain hand gestures.[22] When teachers do speak, they tend to say things only once so that students learn to focus their attention on them.[9]

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. This help should be made in a cooperative fashion, not a competitive one. One of the teacher's tasks is to monitor these interactions, so that they are helpful and do not interfere with students' learning.[23]

Teaching materials[edit]

Cuisenaire rods
A set of Cuisenaire rods

The Silent Way makes use of specialized teaching materials: colored Cuisenaire rods, the Sound-color chart, Word charts, and Fidel charts. The Cuisenaire rods are wooden, and come in ten different lengths, but identical cross-section; each length has its own assigned color.[20] The rods are used in a wide variety of situations in the classroom. At the beginning stages they can be used to practice colors and numbers, and later they can be used in more complex grammar. For example, to teach prepositions the teacher could use the statement "The blue rod is between the green one and the yellow one". They can also be used more abstractly, perhaps to represent a clock or the floor plan of a house.[24][25]

A chart consisting of columns of text in various colors
Gattegno's Fidel chart for British English from 1967; these charts are used to teach spelling.

The Sound-color chart consists of rectangles of color, with one color representing one sound in the language being learned. The teacher uses this chart to help teach pronunciation; as well as pointing to colors to refer to different sounds, she can also tap particular colors very hard to help students learn word stress. Later in the learning process, students will point to the chart themselves to check their own progress. The chart makes students aware of the number of the sounds in the language being learnt and how many are new to them. Students practice making these sounds without relying on mechanical repetition.

The Word charts contain the functional vocabulary of the target language, and use the same color scheme as the sound-color chart. Each letter is colored in a way that indicates its pronunciation. The Word charts allow the teacher to create sentences illustrating grammatical points while remaining silent. In Gattegno's original design, there were twelve word charts in English, containing a total of around five hundred words.[26]

The Fidel also uses the same color-coding, and lists the various ways that sounds can be spelled. For example, in English, the entry for the sound /ey/ contains the spellings ay, ea, ei, eigh, etc., all written in the same color. These can be used to help students associate sounds with their spelling.[27]

Gattegno's Word charts were designed for beginners in schools. He expected them to be worked on in a sequence. These charts have been revised and new ones developed for intermediate and advanced level students. For these groups, all the words of the language need to be available from the beginning and organised so that they can be found easily.

Reception and influence[edit]

The Silent Way in the form Gattegno described can only be used by teachers who are free not to adopt the 'Communicative Approach'. Consequently, as of 2000, the Silent Way was only used by a small number of teachers.[28] However, the ideas behind the Silent Way continue to be influential,[29] particularly in the area of teaching pronunciation.[30][31]


  1. ^ Cook groups the Silent Way under "other styles" (Cook 2008, pp. 266–270); Richards under "alternative approaches and methods" (Richards 1986, pp. 81–89); and Jin & Cortazzi under "Humanistic or Alternative Approaches" (Jin & Cortazzi 2011, pp. 568–569).
  2. ^ Gattegno 1963, available as Gattegno 1972.
  3. ^ Stevick 1974, p. 1.
  4. ^ a b Richards 1986, p. 81.
  5. ^ Gattegno 1972, p. 84, cited in Richards 1986, p. 82.
  6. ^ Stevick 1974, pp. 1–2.
  7. ^ Richards 1986, p. 83.
  8. ^ a b Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 64.
  9. ^ a b c d Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 63.
  10. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 60.
  11. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, pp. 64–65.
  12. ^ a b c Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 65.
  13. ^ a b c d e f Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 62.
  14. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, pp. 60, 63.
  15. ^ a b c Richards 1986, p. 82.
  16. ^ a b Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 59.
  17. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, pp. 62–63.
  18. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 66.
  19. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, pp. 60, 67.
  20. ^ a b Stevick 1974, p. 2.
  21. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 61.
  22. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, pp. 62, 69.
  23. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 68.
  24. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 69.
  25. ^ Young, Roslyn (2011). L'anglais avec l'approche Silent Way. Paris: Hachette. ISBN 978-2-212-54978-2. 
  26. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, pp. 69–70.
  27. ^ Larsen-Freeman 2000, p. 70.
  28. ^ Byram 2000, p. 546-548.
  29. ^ Young, Roslyn; Messum, Piers (May 2013). "Gattegno's legacy". Voices (IATEFL) (232): 8–9. ISSN 1814-3830. 
  30. ^ Underhill, Adrian (2005). Sound Foundations. London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-1405064101. 
  31. ^ Messum, Piers (2012). "Teaching pronunciation without using imitation". In Levis J. and LeVelle K. Proceedings of the 3rd Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference. Ames, IA: Iowa State University. pp. 154–160.