The Silent Way is the pedagogical approach created by Caleb Gattegno for teaching foreign languages; the objective is for students to work as autonomous language learners.
An approach that respects the learner
The very name Silent Way highlights the fact that the teacher speaks very little during the lesson; the teacher's role is not to transmit knowledge, nor to act as a model nor to provide answers. However, the teacher intervenes, if necessary, to draw the learners' attention to the way they are going about the act of learning.
Relying on the students' mental capacities, their experience and acquired skills, the teacher endeavors to ensure that they make their own discoveries, gain their own insights into the functioning of the language, establish their own criteria for rightness, acquire a know-how, and above all, become autonomous as learners and speakers of the language.
Because Silent Way teachers speak so little, they are free to observe their students carefully and be available to them.
The teacher remains the indispensable guarantor of the correctness of the language (the sounds, prosody, vocabulary, syntax, register...) and of its appropriateness to the situation.
Pedagogical materials that are both effective and fun to use
Available for English, German, French, Japanese and Spanish (and in prototype for many other languages), the material comprises:
- The Sound/color rectangle chart.
A wall chart made up of different colored rectangles; each color represents a phoneme (sound) of the language, enabling learners to work on fine distinctions in the phonetics and prosody of the language, both on the level of production and of listening and recognition.
- Word Charts
Wall charts on which the words are written with the same color code as the rectangle chart. These charts display the structural vocabulary of the language: about 500 words. The color code means that languages as different as Japanese and Russian, which use signs unfamiliar to the learner, can be immediately read and pronounced correctly.
- The Fidel (spelling charts)
These show all the possible spellings for each phoneme and which also use the same color code as the rectangle chart. The Fidel is particularly useful for languages such as English and French, which have complex and irregular spellings.
- Cuisenaire rods
Ros are used to create clear and visible situations that enable students to understand how a given concept is expressed in the language.
- The Silent Way wall pictures
Representing everyday scenes and very spare in style, these pictures encourage students to use their imagination to suggest interpretations. They are used to introduce common vocabulary and also to serve as a starting point for stories created by the students or to encourage discussion.
- A pointer
The teacher or the learner can show a word or a sentence while maintaining the essential characteristic of language - its ephemeral nature. The pointer creates the dynamic of the language by introducing the element of time in relation to the different charts, which are in themselves, static. The use of the pointer is one of the ways in which the teacher calls on the learners to use their mental powers.
Teaching which is constantly being "reinvented"
No Silent Way lesson really resembles another, because the content depends on the "here and now" know-how of learners who are present in each class.
A beginning or elementary lesson will start with working simultaneously on the basic elements of the language: its sounds and prosody and 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, and also events in the classroom and their own lives.
In an advanced lesson, 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. The materials described above may seldom or never be used but the students will be exploring the language in the same spirit.
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; it also 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 ensure that their students are constantly faced with do-able linguistic challenges.