The first time I saw Cuisenaire rods being used in the language classroom I had no idea how much fun they could be.

Since then I've used them in both adult and young learner classrooms where they have always been received with enthusiasm. 

In his book 'Teaching and Learning Languages' (1988) Stevick describes them as: "wooden or plastic blocks one square centimetre in cross section and one to ten centimetres in length. [...] I recommend that you get some for yourself. They are compact, portable and relatively inexpensive, but they are the most versatile teaching aid I know of at any price."

  • How you can use them
  • Some classroom management considerations
  • How they've affected my teaching
  • A few tips
  • Conclusion

 

How you can use them
There are many ways of using Cuisenaire rods in the classroom and I'm sure all teachers who use them develop their own methods as well. Here I'll talk about some ways that I've tried and tested.

Storytelling

Since our learners have a huge resource of knowledge regarding stories which we can readily tap into in the language classroom, it seems a waste not to use it. What's more, the use of bottom-up knowledge, i.e. knowledge gained through life's experiences, gives context and meaning to the target language, and so provides a more memorable experience for learners. The rods can be used to visually represent people and places within stories. The events can also be represented by moving the rods around as you or your students tell stories. This supports and reinforces student's understanding of the story.

Here are some types of stories you can use:

  • Well-known tales such as 'The Little Red Riding Hood' or 'The Three Bears'.
  • Parts of the plot from films all the learners have seen.
  • Stories which have already been met in course books or other classroom activities.
  • Learners' own stories which recount personal experiences.
  • Teachers' stories which learners have heard in previous classes.


Using rods for teaching phrasal verbs
Rods can be used to represent the language particles making up a phrasal verb. It is important to be consistent in the use of different coloured rods for different parts of the verb so that learners become familiar with them. For example, I use the long brown ten centimetre rod to represent the verb particle and the smaller ones to represent prepositions or adverbs. So the phrasal verb 'make off with' looks like this:-

     
make off with


Presenting language chunks
Again rods are used to represent different words. This works particularly well with lower levels as rods provide a visual image where they can hang new language. Typical language chunks you can work with are :

  • I have (haven't) got a/an . . .
  • I like (don't like) . . .
  • Have you ever + past participle ( to talk about experiences) ..


As with phrasal verbs, it's a good idea to select appropriate rod lengths to represent short or long words in the phrase while at the same time consistently using the same rods for pronouns or verbs. I usually use the one or two centimetre rods for the first, second and third person singular pronouns, and the longer rods for the verbs.

Using the rods like this can also help students to see the way that sentences structure changes when the forms are used in questions.

     
I have got...

 

     
Have you got...


Some classroom management considerations
Physical aspect
An important consideration when planning a rod activity is that all learners have a clear view of an empty table where you're working. In large classrooms where it's impossible to move furniture, make sure learners can see over each other's heads. This may take a little time at the beginning of the session to arrange, but it is important for the activity to work.

Alternatively you can divide the class into smaller groups of ten students and work with one group at a time while the others are working on preparation or follow-up activities. In smaller groups of ten to fifteen students you can move the furniture into a semi-circle around the desk where you're using rods.

Spontaneity
When planning rod activities I always think carefully about the questions I'm going to ask since the nature of the activity means that learners spontaneously call out answers. Typical questions are:

  • Who's this?
  • What's this?
  • What's s/he doing?
  • Where's s/he going?

 

By accepting and refusing learners' answers the teacher can guide the activity and create a positive group dynamic where learners are focused, challenged to speak in English and often have the chance to personalise the activity.

Follow up
When the activity is over there are usually lots of rods on the table. I usually follow up by picking up each piece and asking who or what it is before putting it back in the box. This provides an opportunity to review vocabulary or target grammar while bringing the activity to a natural close.

How they've affected my teaching
Classroom dynamic
I've found that learners tend not to see rod activities as 'work' and approach them with enthusiasm and a positive attitude. They can therefore be particularly useful in language classrooms where English is an extra-curricular activity and learners come to class after a full day at school. Rods provide an opportunity for students to be focused on the same task at the same time as well as having fun.

In many activities there is plenty of room for student imagination to unfold and learners have the opportunity to stamp their own identity on the group using their wit, knowledge of English or imagination. I've noticed a stronger group dynamic develop in classes where I have used rods. Learners are then better motivated to listen and participate in later class activities.

Rapport
During activities interaction moves backwards and forward between learners and the teacher at a rapid pace. There is plenty of opportunity for personalisation and jokes on the part of the teacher and learner. I've found that rod activities provide a good opportunity to get to know learners better.

Preparation
Although it's important to prepare questions or pre-teach language beforehand, the rods themselves need no further preparation apart from taking the lid off the box! As language teachers are always cutting, copying and gluing, it's a relief to just be able to pick up the box of Cuisenaire rods and go.

Focus on speaking
I've found it very satisfying as a language teacher to be able to come out of an activity which has been totally dedicated to oral work. Not only do we work on grammar and vocabulary, but as a teacher I can also work on techniques for correcting, pronunciation, intonation and word stress.

A few tips
One serious consideration when using Cuisenaire rods, particularly when I've had boisterous or attention seeking students in the group, is the potential to undermine my authority as class manager and students' respect for me in that role.

  • Because of the spontaneous nature of the activity I've worked hard to keep the balance between an atmosphere that creates the positive dynamic and rapport I spoke of earlier, and one that degenerates into a situation dominated by a few noisy individuals.
  • Although they may be on task and coming up with target language, one of the things which I'm aware of is the activity being dominated by the same few individuals who seize the opportunity to bask in the limelight. As I get to know my groups better, I become aware of those who always speak a lot, those who need some encouragement and repeated opportunities, and those who lack the confidence to participate in class activities on a voluntary basis. For this reason, I always wait until I know my class well before planning a lesson with rods.


Conclusion
On the one hand Cuisenaire rods provide an opportunity for group work without books, pens and paper and so I tend to look at it as a chance to change pace, let off steam and re-focus. On the other hand, in order to challenge and motivate all learners with their different learning styles, it's important to keep them as another resource in a variety of activities which range from songs and videos to games, project work and coursebook-centred tasks.

Further reading
Stevick, E.W. 'Teaching and Learning Languages' C.U.P. 1988
O'Neill, R. 'English in Situations' O.U.P. 1990
Acklam, R. 'Help with Phrasal Verbs' Heinemann 1992

If you have any suggestions or tips for using Cuisenaire rods in the class you would like to share on this site, contact us.

Malisa Iturain Teacher, British Council, Barcelona

This article was first published in 2005

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Comments

I've used Cuisenaire rods a couple of times with my students and they've really enjoyed it. I used them to present phrasal verb word order with a 1-2-1 student who was having great trouble with the concept - they were the key that unlocked it for him. I also used them in a small group to revise furniture and prepositions. SS built a 'room' using the rods in silence. They then pointed to rods in another SS room and asked "Is it a bed?" "Is it a sofa?" "Is there a cupboard next to the sofa?" etc. The aim was to guess which room the SS had created - one enterprising SS created a garage, complete with a car and chairs stacked on a garden table. :)

It would be nice to see pictures of the rods in action. Maybe they have been digitally lost over time.

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