Rediscovering silent grammar

Many of us may be familiar with aspects of the Silent Way, mainly because in recent years it has been popular to use "Silent Way" techniques for teaching pronunciation, for example in the work of Adrian Underhill in Sound Foundations (Heinemann, 1994). 

Rediscovering silent grammar - methodology article

But what exactly is the Silent Way, and how can it be used to teach structure in a modern classroom?

  • Presenting the puzzle
  • Finding the solution
  • Reaping the rewards
  • Stretching the bounds


Presenting the puzzle
The Silent Way is a methodology of teaching which has at its core the idea that the language, or indeed whatever is to be studied, should be approached by the learner as a puzzle to be worked out. By using tools such as Cuisenaire rods (wooden or plastic coloured 1 cm2 rods ranging from 1 - 10 cm in length), a selection of specially prepared charts and a pointer, the teacher presents the puzzle to the learners. The learners work out the "puzzle" and ultimately learn the language involved in it.

But where does silence come into this? Gattegno suggested that the teacher, to maximise the learning, only presents the model for language point once and once only. The teacher then uses the tools at his/her disposal to elicit the correct language from the learner. The teacher should be encouraging and open, using body language and facial expressions to show that the language produced is correct or incorrect, as well as correcting the learners using the tools outlined above.

Finding the Solution
For an example, let's take a beginner/elementary class, learning the past simple, focussing on the regular verbs. You present a sample sentence, for example, "She walked", using an illustration to show the meaning. To illustrate the form and the rules, you break this down into its individual morphemes "she + walk + ed" and "assign" each morpheme to a Cuisenaire rod.

"Assigning" is simply a matter of holding up each rod and saying the morpheme clearly, then drilling it briefly with the class. Then hold up each rod to the class silently encouraging them to repeat the morphemes in order.

The full sentence is then elicited using the rods, and (in theory!) the teacher has only said each morpheme once.

For questions and negatives, you could simply repeat the system with a new set of rods: the contracted form can be demonstrated by moving the rods closer together. Alternatively, rather than using a new set of rods, you use the rods from the previous presentation and a rod (e.g. white) to represent the auxiliary "do". Then, in front of the class, you take the red (the past tense ending from the first section) and place it next to white, and say "did". This then shows that the past tense ending has moved away from the main verb onto the auxiliary.

Once you have established this, the same process can be used again, removing the not and inverting the subject and the auxiliary to show the question form. The advantage of this is that the learners will immediately recognise that the verb now has the base form, preventing errors like "she did walked". At any stage the written form can be introduced either on a pre-prepared chart or simply on the board. At this point it's good to remove the focus from yourself by giving the rods to the learners and getting the learners to work in pairs or groups to drill each other. This helps you to monitor each learner individually. and the whole thing can be given into the hands of the learners again to practise the forms and sentences with their groups or partners. The learners could build sentences for each other and test their partner's answers.

Reaping the Rewards
There is no reason why this could not be followed up by more communicative activities, to give the students the opportunity to practise their skills. They could keep the rods in front of them to remind themselves of the rule.
The learners, and you, use the rods as an aid in correction.

The other bonus is that if you have prepared charts and keep the rods handy, they can be used later in the lesson as silent error correction tools - simply look at the erroneous learner, and use the "point-elicit" technique. This puts the responsibility of working out what the correct answer is in the hands of the learners, which is the whole point of using the Silent Way.

Stretching the Bounds
The Silent Way can be used to demonstrate more complex grammar - past simple and past continuous, using a short rod and a long rod; prepositions of place (simple!); conditional sentences (have a chart or a board drawing to represent imaginary and real situations), past and present, then use the pointer and rods to show the different forms used in different situations. You could demonstrate reported speech using the different lengths and shades to represent the tense changes. You can easily demonstrate the central concept of the passive voice by taking a sentence and (dramatically, if you want) removing the "subject", before moving the rest of the sentence accordingly. The list goes on.

Sam Shepherd, Eastbourne School of English

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