The Silent Way

What is the Silent Way approach?

This presentation is an introduction about the Silent Way that you can go through to get started:


Silent Way is an educational approach developed by Caleb Gattegno in the 1950’s for teaching foreign languages. It aims at empowering learners. The ambition of Silent Way teachers is to subordinate teaching to learning. In “Silent Way”, it is the teacher who is silent. Since he/she is silent most of the time, he/she is closer, or rather more “present”  (based on the concept created by Gattegno) to the students and can observe and better guide them in their learning .

Presence is related to “concentration” and requires total attention. This is a physical, emotional and mental presence. The term presence was quoted in French. The translated one would be “awareness” which adds a psychological dimension. The presence or awareness therefore includes self-awareness and awareness of the object of study: the language.

The Silent Way Approach assumes that “learning is to become aware.” The teacher is not a role model but a kind of handyman who “works on the student” while the student is “working on the language.”

Various tools are used in a Silent Way class such as: the Cuisenaire rods, sound/color rectangles chart, word charts, the fidel and the pointer. The use made of the material is greater than the material itself. Indeed, one may not teach with these tools and still teach the Silent Way. This is the SW philosophy and educational approach that I will firstly describe.

Silent Way challenges the idea that language (mother tongue or foreign language) is learned by imitation and proposes the concept of feedback. According to Gattegno followed by Piers Messum and Roslyn Young, if the baby has learned to speak, it is not because he/she copied his/her parents, indeed, most of the time, the imitation is done by the caregivers and not the baby. The baby learns the speech sounds on his/her own by exploring his/her mouth.

“A very important observation needs to be made from the start: our phonation system is voluntary and our hearing is not.”

Gattegno, 1985.

Source: 1985-2010 Caleb Gattegno. The Science of Education Chapter 13: The Learning and Teaching of Foreign Languages, Educational Solutions.

Therefore, SW teachers strive to provide kinesthetic and visual feedback to help the learner use his/her mouth properly depending on the sound produced.

The Silent Way tools
If Silent Way prefers not to teach phonology in theory, the approach offers tools based on a coded approach that appears to promote learning in the inductive mode. Instead of phonetic symbols – sometimes easily related to letters – SW prefers colors (totally arbitrary and therefore less likely to be similar to letters).
Here, is the rectangles chart where each color represents a phoneme of French and the phonetic key to it:


Source: Une Education Pour Demain


In SW, phonetic symbols were replaced by colors. These rectangles of color have a specific location on the chart and allow the observer to discover the phonetics by experimentation. We do not try to make the learners memorize them but to recognize and play with them.

The relationship between speech and writing, in particular between the pronunciation and writing & reading in a non-phonetic language like French is considered in the SW material. The use of SW tools such as the fidel provide many possible activities that encourage learners to make connections between the awareness of sounds of the one of letters.

As it can be seen, the position of phonemes on the chart does not happen by chance and follows a certain logic. It is noted for example that the vowels are arranged from right to left by their articulation (prior to later) but the only lines have their own organization (e.g. nasals are on the same line and go from non-rounded to rounded).

We will use the sound/color rectangles chart with a pointer. The teacher as well as the learners use it. Besides pointing at colored rectangles, there are many other possible uses of the pointer in a language class. One can for example highlight the rhythm, speed or intonation.

What the SW is NOT

  • It is not a method because the SW practitioner does not follow steps and procedures, does not look for a specific planned outcome but is focused on the student and the learning process these individuals are going through. There isn’t one way of teaching a concept.
  • Typically, the SW practitioner does not prepare a lot but POST-pares more. In fact, looking back at what a student has achieved in class and what are the next steps OR looking at what he was not able to do and find a solution to solve the problem, constitute the real objective of the teacher.
  • SW teachers do not provide a model, this is one of the reasons why they don’t speak. Providing a model using Listen and Repeat or over-explanations is the opposite of a SW class.
  • Yes the SW practitioners use prompts such as the Cuisenaire Rods, color-coded charts, pointers etc. but they can also teach without them. The tool does not make the teacher an expert of this approach, it’s rather the process behind it: the silence, the feedback, the triggers, gestures etc.
  • Because the SW teachers don’t focus on a curriculum does not mean they don’t follow a certain progression. They know the language very well and experiment on what awarenesses are require to acquire a new structure for instance. This way, they prepare many situations in advance so that they know what to do when the learner needs something specific. This way, we can say that they can anticipate many problems and improvise whenever required.
  • Some people think that using a lot of colors is confusing and that color-blinded learners or visually challenged ones will not be able to cope. There are teachers using this approach who are color-blinded and still find it useful. You can still see the location of words in the charts for instance and the SW is not limited to a visual approach, it also encourages the use of gestures (pointing, moving, touching…) for instance.
  • This approach is a constructionist approach but not in the sense of Piaget, it is much more open. It cannot be categorized under “social constructionist” approaches because it does not follow all the principles that it entails and stands alone. But we can say it is “constructionist” in the sense that it encourages the learner to build his knowledge through experiences.

FAQs about the Silent Way

This FAQs set is based on questions asked by a researcher about the Silent Way.

The answers are my interpretation and point of view. Other SW practitioners’ answers may differ.

  • What are the main objectives in The Silent Way approach to teaching? 

To make the student responsible of his own learning and developing his autonomy. To make the student learn a language the way he learnt his mother tongue: without rules or imitative models.

  • What are the advantages in using this approach? In your opinion, is it more successful than traditional teaching? 

It is more successful than the traditional approach because the teacher lets the student learn by his/her silence. The silence of the teacher makes him/her better observe the student and help him/her reach the necessary awareness to learn the language.
The student better learns when he/she doesn’t have a “model” but produces by herself/himself. The Silent Way practitioners do not believe in repetitions and mimetic.
A SW class focuses on quality and not on quantity so, it might appear a bit “slow” but in the long-term, it seems more effective than other approaches.

  • How does the use of silence aid/hinder teaching? 

First, the silence of the teacher enables the student to speak. The objective of a language class is that the students speak, not the teacher.
Second, when silent, the teacher observes more and is able to guide the student according to his need here and now.
The teacher uses different non-verbal techniques to achieve her goal. The variety of techniques (gestures, body language, use of pointer, fingers etc) enable the student to learn better because he can experience and see (mental images) the awareness he needs to learn the language.
The silence in Silent Way is not always necessary and many Silent Way teachers speak a lot in their class but they are still following the silent way approach. The silence of the silent way is more of a state of observation (of the teacher).

  • What did Gattegno mean when he stated ‘teaching is to be subordinated to learning?’ How is that achieved in a Silent Way classroom? 

It is achieved by being present to the student. A teacher having “presence” can teach the Silent Way successfully, which means, she can subordinate teaching to learning. The Silent Way teacher does not try to “teach” but make students learn; she tries to make them responsible, close to themselves. Students are more curious, their achievements are theirs, and they don’t try to make the teacher happy.

  • Do the students enjoy the lessons? 

Students usually love Silent Way classes. Adolescents sometimes deny the rods for example because they think the exercises with the rods is for babies but there are ways to change their mind and get them involved.

  • Do you, as a teacher enjoy the lessons as much as in a ‘traditional’ lesson? 

I do enjoy it MUCH more than a “traditional lesson”.

  • How do you measure their enjoyment? 

I do not measure enjoyment. I can just observe students and ask them their feed-back. In case they don’t enjoy a particular class/exercise, I can change but it’ll still be a Silent Way class/exercise.

  • If the students say that they prefer a traditional approach at the end of a course, what are their reasons for this? Conversely, what are their reasons for preferring The Silent Way? If they prefer a traditional approach it’s because they had a bad Silent Way teacher or because they were very closed-minded and didn’t manage to open-up during the course.
    If they prefer a traditional approach it’s because they are unable to let go beyond their prejudices on language learning (they can’t, for example, not take notes or translate), it can also be because they are not present to themselves (before learning a language, they need to learn about their own person).
    If they prefer the silent way, it’s because they learnt better (in terms of language) and they felt better during their learning process. Students usually like the Silent Way because they could really improve their language by themselves.
  • In what ways can you see the students apply what they have learnt in the classroom?
    We can see it immediately by the feed-back in class and outside class. They express more and more in the target language, they take initiatives and demand more. The best way to see that they applied what they learnt is to keep in touch after class and communicate (email, phone, letters).
  • Is The Silent Way effective for all levels of language, or is it too focused on beginners? If so, what changes can be made in the varying degrees of lessons to make it appropriate for all?

The silent way is effective for all levels but beginner silent way teachers usually find it easier to start with beginners because they need to explore the material and the rest. The more the silent way teacher experiments, the better she understands that Silent Way goes far beyond the material. We can have a Silent Way class without charts, rods, pointers, silence. Silent way is appropriate for all levels.

  • Is The Silent Way confined to small class sizes, or can it also be effective with larger classes? 

Again, it seems easier for a beginner SW teacher to handle small class sizes but it’s possible and as effective to work with larger classes.

  • How relevant do the students find the materials (Cuisenaire rods, the fidel, pointers)? 

As I said before, sometimes adolescents do not like the rods or the charts, we can do without them if necessary.
Most of the time, students enjoy the material because they can use it, like a teacher and they can find it useful to express their doubts and keep mental pictures of their awareness. The use of the pointer is really useful because the movement helps the students to retain.

  • Which of these do you find the most useful as a teacher? Why? 

All materials are interesting. For French, I would say that the fidel is really useful (for the spelling). For English, I would say that the pointer is really useful (for the stress) and for all languages, the rods are extremely useful to create any linguistic situations.

  • How do the students’ pre-conceived attitudes affect their ability to learn effectively in a non-traditional classroom? 

It affects their learning in the sense that they have to let go and get rid of habits which are not helpful to learn a language (taking notes, translating, and learning by rote, asking for rules). These attitudes take them far from the objective of learning a language like a mother-tongue. They delay the awareness.

  • Do you employ any measures to check if learning is taking place effectively? If so, what are they? 

I can test my students formally but I mostly test them informally, during class, thanks to the immediate feed-back that a Silent Way class creates. I do give homework as well, which helps me see the progress of the students.

  • What difficulties do you have in trying to measure this? 

I don’t find it difficult. I can easily say if a student is learning or not. If he is not learning, I should measure what are his difficulties and address them.

  • Do you ever feel redundant as the teacher when using The Silent Way? Why/Why not? 

No, every class (even if “repeated”) is different because the teacher and the class experience here and now. There is no “method” or recipe to teach with the Silent Way, it’s always a new experience with new questions and challenges. The teacher keeps changing with her students and learns more about her teaching.

  • How does The Silent Way relate to self-directed learning theories? Would you agree with Knowles’ claim that ‘self-directed learning is the best way to learn?’ Why/Why not? 

Yes I agree, the SW relates to self-learning theories and it’s probably the best way to learn because students are responsible of their learning (not the teacher). The process is student-centered so students achieve something on their own and feel proud of themselves and it’s long-term learning, it doesn’t dissolve in time because the students do not memorize but retain.

  • Do the students (or teacher) ever struggle with the lack of a clear structure or the concept of having to direct the lesson themselves? 

A SW class can be very clearly structured and directed. I don’t recall any struggle.

  • What are the main disadvantages of teaching in this way? Are there any changes you would make to the approach? 

If you want to teach with the material, then the logistic is a main issue. A SW teacher needs space to display posters (charts).
The other disadvantage is that the SW is not well known so it’s marginalised / not accepted by the educative community and the teacher is sometimes seen like the odd one by her non-SW colleagues.