The Silent Way Plus: The Search of a Method and Curriculum

Rationale of the Silent Way

Silent Way is an approach to teaching foreign languages developed by Dr. Caleb Gattegno, based on a theory of learning and teaching rather than on a theory of language.1  It derives its name from the fact that the teacher conducting a Silent Way class is silent for most of the time.  This silence is meant to give the students the opportunity to fully exploit precious classroom time.  The teacher's presence in the classroom is limited to providing a model of the language that the students are going to work on.  The basic assumption is that the students will bring their potential and their previous experience of learning their mother tongue to the foreign language classroom. 

The teacher starts with what the students already have in their mother tongue.  A striking feature of any language is its sounds.  A lot of the sounds in the students' mother tongue are likely to be the same as those of the target language.  Using different colors to represent each sound the teacher arouses the students' awareness of the fact that they can use what they already have in their mother tongue and apply it to their new learning experience. 

Learning then becomes a conscious effort.  The teacher acts simply as a model, moving from the known to the unknown.  With a pointer s/he points to particular sounds that the students are already familiar with, to make a word in the target language, or a word may be modeled once while everyone in the class pays attention.  Since the sounds involved in this word are presumably within their perceptual energy to grasp, there should be no problem for them to get it. 

Rods, pictures, objects, or situations are other aids used for presentation in order to connect sounds and meanings.  The use of colored rods is especially prominent in the practice of Silent Way teaching.  The first model presented is for the students to understand the concept of  'rod'.  The 'rod', in whatever language it represents, may have been one of those introduced using fidels.2  The sounds produced are linked with the object within the limited scope provided, or made possible within the context of the "here and now"3  activities. 

Thus, learning becomes an active and direct experience for the students.  They can see the rod, touch it, smell it, and measure it out.  They can see truth; a fact that does not yet need a translation is the whole truth.  The one word 'rod', aided by the object, forms a reality and triggers meaning.  The truth is there when the student develops her own "inner criterion"4  of what is right from within herself, that emerges from her mental power to perceive the sound qualities. These sound qualities help the self relate with reality as they are consistent in the words they represent. These words, then, says Gattegno (1976, p. 35) may be retained only if they trigger images - the meanings. 

The underlying principles for the students' centeredness in learning are the qualities - constitutional traits - that they bring with them.  These constitutional traits bear the assumption that the students already have some knowledge of their mother tongue inside themselves with which they start in their learning of the target language.  They must be aware that they have within themselves everything that is required for acquiring any language.  They can count only on themselves, not anybody else, in producing the sounds.  The awareness of being in control leads to independence, initiation, and creativity.  Guided by their intelligence they can choose from the appropriate options available to them in particular circumstances. 

The decision of making the choice is crucial as a measure for determining initiativity and creativity as it is triggered by reality.  If a student wants to make a tower out of the many colored rods available, the choices available for expressing one's need of rods for building the tower are various.  One can say, "I need four brown rods and a yellow one, or "I need five rods, four brown ones and one yellow one."  When the student has options from which to choose we say that she has autonomy, which we build a long the way into the learning-teaching process.  The availability of options creates an atmosphere of flexibility that the students need for functioning.  An option being selected or not selected becomes their responsibility, not anybody else's. 

We are responsible for what we choose or do not choose as we have the freedom or the will to do so.  Thus, independence, autonomy, and responsibility become the building blocks of qualities towards freeing the students.  In other words we can say that the students are expected to get involved deeply in a learning process with the greatest amount of problem-solving activities.  (Richards, 1986, p.100)  Thus, learning is not considered an accumulation of knowledge, but rather how to use oneself more effectively.  Making mistakes is considered normal.  The learner is, as Stevick (1980, p. 48) asserts,  "supposed to feel that his wrong response (or his right response!)  is not being "corrected", but is being accepted and worked with."  This is further asserted by Prator: "No one can learn to communicate in a new language if he is never allowed to make mistakes in it".  (Kenneth 1980, p. 15)

Teachers and students have different functions.  As mentioned above, all the work seems to be done by the students.  This is true as far as working on the language is concerned.  The students are the prime cause for the class to work.  They are granted all they have with them that is relevant to language learning, typically the know-how that they have in their mother tongue.  Their function is to work on the language toward acquisition.  Meanwhile the teacher is to work on the students, "on what they are doing or not doing, on their progress towards mastery of every item being worked on, and on offering them exercises or suggestions that lead to the required mastery." (Gattegno, 1976, p.13).  Ideally the teacher's role is multiple in that s/he must participate as a teacher-student while at the same time manipulating the language and observing how each student progresses. Again, let the students work on the language and the teacher work on the students so as to understandably subordinate teaching to learning.  (p. 14)

The Silent Way Plus

While the silence on the part of the teacher and the speaking work on the part of the students conceptually elaborated above sounds very good, in a real classroom situation where a lot of the time the students' presence is part of a formal program being sponsored by an institution and/or the students' parents, it is quite challenging and quite impossible to organize the syllabus procedurally purely in accordance with the Silent Way approach. 

A lot of time there are high expectations from sponsors for the students to be able to speak and use the language they are learning as soon as they arrive in the country where the language is spoken. Thus, the basically good approach of the Silent Way needs a plus, which the teacher can determine according to what kind of program she is running.

Drawing from my own experience in teaching foreign students, they are always excited when the teacher can remember their names.  Just as the Silent Way advocates that we start from what the student knows, from the sounds of their mother tongue that they produce effortlessly, we can make them aware about this fact.  Using the fidels of color charts, the teacher assists them to use that knowledge in the target language, and then the teacher can continue putting together sounds to make a name word, perhaps the name of the teacher, such as "WAYAN."  The teacher then points to himself saying his name.  Then one student after another does the same thing, saying their own names. 

From here on we can develop rapidly toward some personal language in a dialogic way.  But, rather than following up with a question as ordinarily in a dialog grid, I would follow up - they already know my name by now - with introducing my name in a full sentence, Nama saya Wayan - "My name is Wayan."  When they hear the sentence they can make a good guess that the meaning of the sentence could not be far from "My name is Wayan."  After that each student must tell the class her name again in a full sentence.  The next step is for them to say Siapa nama Anda?  "What's your name?"  Each student in the class says this same interrogative sentence, and the teacher says Nama saya Wayan.  "My name is Wayan." in response to each of them. 

After that the question and answer must be just among the students themselves.  At this point there is no difference in knowledge between the teacher and the students.  The students know as much as the teacher does.  This exchange model can be repeated for other exchanges.

In the classroom the teacher must encourage the students to pay attention and use their language resources for initiating learning, absorbing, and acting/reacting to objects or situations available to them.  These features bring forth a dimension of life which we call experience.  It is not surprising then, as cited by Richards (1986: p, 1001), that Gattegno views language itself  "as a substitute for experience, so experience is what gives meaning to language." (Gattegno 1972: 8).  Gattegno further asserts that "Language is no more vocabularies to be memorized than structures to be practiced or expressions to be assimilated.  It is a functioning of man as wide as he experiences and can express."  (Gattegno 1976, p. 153).

If experience is what a man is, then, it would be "common sense,"  too, to accept the student's social contact as prima facie in designing the language syllabus.  Social factors which the students encounter cannot be ignored.  These factors may lead to the reenforcement of the students' learning, and may lead to even faster acquisition.  But it may also be possible that these social forces overburden the student with too much new input as a result of their excitement at being responded to.  The outside world is not going to ask how many words or expressions s/he has already learnt.  Once the language learner produces understandable utterances they could take him/her to the unknown land never traveled before.  This kind of thing can overshadow the learning input they got in class and make it recede to the background and become forgotten, as their retaining system is no longer just reacting to the narrow and invented experience in class, but the truth now has taken on a new and wider scope: that of involving their daily routines.  For that reason, in designing the curriculum and/or the syllabus these social factors must be taken into account.  Thus, social functioning should be part of  the students functioning in their language learning from the very beginning.  This seems to be contradictory to what the Silent Way adheres to, in that it considers that "Language is separated from its social context and taught through artificial situations ...  (Richards 1986, p. 101). 

I believe that adopting the Silent Way philosophy with the implementation of its techniques for introducing concepts, combined with language used in its social context, is very rewarding.  On the one hand, the teacher must put herself in the student's shoes so that she can know experientially that much of language learning is an exploration into another world, yet the unknown is to be discovered by the learners.  This is a very student-centered idea.  It assumes, as Stevick says, that 

"we know "learning" takes place, and that people can do it,  we are much less sure about "teaching".  There can, after all, be "learning" without "teaching".  But one cannot claim to have "taught" unless someone else has learned."  (Stevick 1980: p. 16)
He compares the two activities, i.e.,  teaching and learning, like two men sawing down a tree, "One pulls, and then the other, neither pushes, and neither could work alone, but cutting comes only when the blade is moving toward the learner." (p. 16).  On  the other hand, if we agree that there can be learning without teaching, we must grant our students the social language which will be of immediate use once they go out of the classroom into the real world.  The students' motivation to interact and communicate must be met, otherwise they will not gain as much as they should for the time spent in the classroom.  In his objection to the repetitive drills of the audio lingual approach, Prator commented that students become bored and
"Unless they are encouraged to try to express  their real thoughts in the new language they are learning, much of the motivation for studying language is lost.  (Ed. Kenneth 1980, pp. 14-15)
Again, autonomy on the part of the students is a necessity for the language learning to be successful.  This is very well-versed by Rivers (1983: 48-49).  It is of importance to mention here that the type of interaction expected is very high.  The teacher must be always alert as to how to cope with the immediate needs of the students, as to  their styles of learning and their conditions. 

It is from this particular reason that my attempt to combine the Silent Way and the Communicative Approach takes its justification.  One time, in my many years of teaching and using Silent Way techniques, a student in my class kicked off the city we were building using the colored rods.  We all kept silent; we did not know what to say.  After a while he said that there was nothing adverse in what he had just done, that he was just too tired to think.  That incident showed me that I was not alert enough to sense the student's condition beforehand.  Since then, I always explain my teaching philosophy briefly before starting the program, and ask the students if they are in good spirits when doing an activity.

Syllabus and Classroom Activities

In order to meet the students' social and/or communicative needs, I recommend that the first step be for the students to work on the sounds of the language, and secondly, to work on the language for personal information.  Immediately after these two steps, numbers and colors, greetings and leave-takings, and the language of daily routines should be introduced.  Concepts of numbers and colors are best introduced with rods (as are commonly used by Silent Way practitioners) by first introducing the word balok 'rod.'  Just as a name is introduced first with a single word leading up to a full sentence, and then to a question-answer type of exchange, it is also a nice way to introduce the word balok 'rod,' leading up to a sentence such as Saya punya dua balok merah.  "I have two red rods." and its interrogative variations.  This is a very nice way of spiraling the language, starting from what the students know, and adding new information one step at a time. 

The syllabus may be geared toward competency-based activities that help the students deal with daily routines such as the language used with the host family, at the market, in the office, or in an interview in order for the students to get specific information about something or someone.  In between there are concepts of words, grammars, and structures that need to be understood.  Here is where the role of the Silent Way is greatly needed.  The implementation of Silent Way techniques can be webbed in to make the pegs in building the language activities.  From the discussion above some of the ways of introducing these concepts should be clear.  Sometimes there are concepts which are difficult to grasp, such as the passive construction, and many language teachers do not bother about finding ways of how to have fun with it. 

Indonesian is one of those languages that uses the "passive" as a major strategy in communication.  In preparing a reading passage or a conversation for the class the teacher may feel that she has to use passive constructions in it for its communicative naturalness.  My use of the term "natural" is not in its strictest sense, since to be natural must be in the real world rather than in the classroom.  So, I would tell the class that we were going to build a city of rods.  I would ask four or five volunteers to come up to where the teacher has already placed the box of rods.  The teacher gives a model for a construction.  Each participant, one after another, makes his own building, so that in the end a city is built.  Of course whatever he does, including how many, what size, and what color blocks he chooses, is his own choice.  The most important sentence construction each student should practice - for the sake of a follow-up activity - is the one which says who makes what building and uses what colored rods.  In other words, he is using an active construction whose "focus" is on the actor.  After the city is made, the teacher talks about two of the buildings, one that she herself made, and another which was made by one of the participants.  The teacher then deliberately explains the existence of that particular building and that building was made/built by someone (the teacher says a name).  Modeled by the teacher the participants, one after another, do similar things.  We can see that since the focus is on the building the tendency for the construction is to be passive. 

1 See: Richards and Rodgers 1986, pp. 14-30, and pp. 99-112.
2 Gattegno (1976, pp. 16-17) mentions that the word fidel is an Ethiopian word used for displaying a sound, or in its plural form, fidels, used for displaying "both the totality of  sounds of a language and the totality of spellings accorded in each language to those sounds."
3 As it is used by stevick (1980), p.53.
4 Idem, p. 47.
5 In my program, a semester program of the School for International Training's Study Abroad, in Bali, the students stay with families right from the time they arrive in Bali. So, they expect to learn communicative language from the beginning.


Brown, H. Douglas. 1980. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Gattegno, Caleb. 1976. The Common Sense of Teaching foreign Languages. New York: Educational Solution Inc.

Gattegno, Shakti. 2000. The Silent way: An Approach that humanizes teaching, Une Education Pour Demain, Association 1901.

Prator, Clifford H. 1980. In search of a method. Readings on English  as a Second Language: For teachers and teacher trainees, 2nd ed., Kenneth Croft (ed.), 13-25. Boston: Little, Brown and Company (Inc.).

Richards, Jack, and T.S. Rodgers. 1986. Approaches and Method in Language Teaching: A description and analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rivers, Wilga M. 1983. Communicating Naturally in a Second Language: Theory and practice in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stevick, Earl W. 1980. Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. Rowly, Massachusetts: Newbury House Publishers.

Stevick, Earl. 1982. Teaching and Learning Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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