The Silent Way


Theory of language


Types of learning and teaching activities Teacher roles Procedure
Learning hypotheses Theory of learning The syllabus Learner roles The role of instructural material Conclusion


The Silent Way is the name of a method of language teaching devised by Caleb Gattegno. Gattegno's name is well known for his revival of interest in the use of coloured wooden sticks called cuisenaire rods and for his series Words in Colour, an approach to the teaching of initial reading in which sounds are coded by specific colours. His materials are copyrighted and marketed through an organization he operates called Educational Solutions Inc., in New York. The Silent Way represents Gattegno's venture into the field of foreign language teaching. It is based on the premise that the teacher should be silent as much as possible in the classroom and the learner should be encouraged to produce as much language as possible. Elements of the Silent Way, particularly the use of colour charts and the coloured cuisenaire rods, grew out of Gattegno's previous experience as an educational designer of reading and mathematics programs. (Cuisenaire rods were first developed by Georges Cuis­enaire, a European educator who used them for the teaching of math. Gattegno had observed Cuisenaire and this gave him the idea for their use in language teaching.)

The Silent Way shares a great deal with other learning theories and educational philosophies. Very broadly put, the learning hypotheses underlying Gattegno's work could be stated as follows:

1)  Learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or creates rather than re­ members and repeats what is to be learned.

2)     Learning is facilitated by accompanying (mediating) physical objects.

3)    Learning is facilitated by problem solving involving the material to be learned.

Let us consider each of these issues in turn.

1. The educational psychologist and philosopher Jerome Bruner distinguishes two traditions of teaching - that which takes place in the expository mode and that which takes place in the hypothetical mode. In the expository mode "decisions covering the mode and pace and style of exposition are principally determined by the teacher as expositor; the student is the listener." In the hypothetical mode "the teacher and the student are in a more cooperative position. The student is not a bench-bound listener, but is taking part in the "play the principal role in it" (Bruner 1966: 83),

The Silent Way belongs to the latter tradition, which views learning as a problem-solving, creative, discovering activity, in which the learner is a principal actor rather than a bench-bound listener. Bruner discusses the benefits derived from "discovery learning" under four headings: (a) the increase in intellectual potency, (b) the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic rewards, (c) the learning of heuristics by discovering, and (d) the aid to conserving memory (Bruner 1966: 83). As we shall see, Gattegno claims similar benefits from learners taught via the Silent Way.

2. The rods and the coded-coded pronunciation charts (called Fidel charts) provide physical foci for student learning and also create mem­orable images to facilitate student recall. In psychological terms, these visual devices serve as associative mediators for student learning and recall. The psychological literature on mediation in learning and recall is voluminous but, for our purposes, can be briefly summarized in a quote from Earl Stevick:

If the use of associative mediators produces better retention than repetition does, it seems to be the case that the quality of the mediators and the stu­dent's personal investment in them may also have a powerful effect on mem­ory. (Stevick 1976: 25)

3. The Silent Way is also related to a set of premises that we have called "problem-solving approaches to learning." These premises are succinctly represented in the words of Benjamin Franklin:


Tell me and I forget,

teach me and I remember,

  involve me and I learn.


In the language of experimental psychology, the kind of subject involve­ment that promotes greatest learning and recall involves processing of material to be learned at the "greatest cognitive depth" (Craik 1973) or, for our purposes, involving the greatest amount of problem-solving activity. Memory research has demonstrated that the learner's "memory benefits from creatively searching out, discovering and depicting" (Bower and Winzenz 1970). In the Silent Way, "the teacher's strict avoidance of repetition forces alertness and concentration on the part of the learners" (Gattegno 1972: 80). Similarly, the learner's grappling with the problem of forming an appropriate and meaningful utterance in a new language leads the learner to realization of the language "through his own perceptual and analytical powers" (Selman 1977). The Silent Way student is expected to become "independent, autonomous and responsible" (Gattegno 1976) - in other words, a good problem solver in language.


Theory of language

Gattegno takes an openly sceptical view of the role of linguistic theory in language teaching methodology. He feels that linguistic studies "may be a specialization, [that] carry with them a narrow opening of one's sensitivity and perhaps serve very little towards the broad end in mind" (Gattegno 1972: 84). Gattegno views language itself "as a substitute for experience, so experience is what gives meaning to language" (Gattegno 1972: 8). We are not surprised then to see simulated experiences using tokens and picture charts as central elements in Silent Way teaching.

Considerable discussion is devoted to the importance of grasping the "spirit" of the language and not just its component forms. By the "spirit" of the language Gattegno is referring to the way each language is composed of phonological and suprasegmental elements that combine to give the language its unique sound system and melody. The learner must gain a "feel" for this aspect of the target language as soon as possible, though how the learner is to do this is not altogether clear.

By looking at the material chosen and the sequence in which it is presented in a Silent Way classroom, it is clear that the Silent Way takes a structural approach to the organization of language to be taught. Language is seen as groups of sounds arbitrarily associated with specific meanings and organized into sentences or strings of meaningful units by grammar rules. Language is separated from its social context and taught through artificial situations, usually represented by rods. Lessons follow a sequence based on grammatical complexity, and new lexical and structural material is meticulously broken down into its elements, with one element presented at a time. The sentence is the basic unit of teaching, and the teacher focuses on prepositional meaning, rather than communicative value. Students are presented with the structural patterns of the target language and learn the grammar rules of the language through largely inductive processes.

Gattegno sees vocabulary as a central dimension of language learning and the choice of vocabulary as crucial. He distinguishes between several classes of vocabulary items. The "semi-luxury vocabulary" consists of expressions common in the daily life of the target language culture; this refers to food, clothing, travel, family life, and so on. "Luxury vocabulary" is used in communicating more specialized ideas, such as political or philosophical opinions. The most important vocabulary for the learner deals with the most functional and versatile words of the language, many of which may not have direct equivalents in the learner's native tongue. This "functional vocabulary" provides a key, says Gattegno, to comprehending the "spirit" of the language.

  Theory of learning

Like many other method proponents, Gattegno makes extensive use of his understanding of first language learning processes as a basis for deriving principles for teaching foreign languages to adults. Gattegno recommends, for example, that the learner needs to "return to the state of mind that characterizes a baby's learning  surrender" (Scott and Page 1982: 273).

Having referred to these processes, however, Gattegno states that the processes of learning a second language are "radically different" from those involved in learning a first language. The second language learner is unlike the first language learner and "cannot learn another language in the same way because of what he now knows" (Gattegno 1972: 11). The "natural" or "direct" approaches to acquiring a second language are thus misguided, says Gattegno, and a successful second language approach will "replace a 'natural' approach by one that is very 'artificial' and, for some purposes, strictly controlled" (1972: 12).

The "artificial approach" that Gattegno proposes is based on the principle that successful learning involves commitment of the self to language acquisition through the use of silent awareness and then active trial. Gattegno's repeated emphasis on the primacy of learning over teaching places a focus on the self of the learner, on the learner's priorities and commitments.

To speak... requires the descent of the will into the voluntary speech organs and a clear grasp by one's linguistic self of what one is to do to produce definite sounds in definite ways. Only the self of the utterer can intervene to make objective what it holds in itself. Every student must be seen as a will capable of that work. (Gattegno 1976: 7)

The self, we are told, consists of two systems — a learning system and a retaining system. The learning system is activated only by way of intelligent awareness. "The learner must constantly test his powers to abstract, analyse, synthesize and integrate" (Scott and Page 1982: 273). Silence is considered the best vehicle for learning, because in silence students concentrate on the task to be accomplished and the potential means to its accomplishment. Repetition (as opposed to silence) "con­sumes time and encourages the scattered mind to remain scattered" (Gattegno 1976: 80). Silence, as avoidance of repetition, is thus an aid to alertness, concentration, and mental organization.

The "retaining system" allows us to remember and recall at will linguistic elements and their organizing principles and makes linguistic communication possible. Gattegno speaks of remembering as a matter of "paying ogdens." An "ogden" is a unit of mental energy required to link permanently two mental elements, such as a shape and a sound or a label and an object. The forging of the link through active attention is the cost of remembering paid in ogdens. Retention by way of mental effort, awareness, and thoughtfulness is more efficient in terms of ogdens consumed than is retention attained through mechanical repetition. Again, silence is a key to triggering awareness and hence the preferred path to retention. Retention links are in fact formed in the most silent of periods, that of sleep: "The mind does much of this work during sleep" (Stevick 1980: 41).

Awareness is educable. As one learns "in awareness," one's powers of awareness and one's capacity to learn become greater. The Silent Way thus claims to facilitate what psychologists call "learning to learn." Again, the process chain that develops awareness proceeds from attention, production, self-correction, and absorption. Silent Way learners acquire "inner criteria," which play a central role "in one's education throughout all of one's life" (Gattegno 1976: 29). These inner criteria allow learners to monitor and self-correct their own production. It is in the activity of self-correction through self-awareness that the Silent Way claims to differ most notably from other ways of language learning. It is this capacity for self-awareness that the Silent Way calls upon, a capacity said to be little appreciated or exercised by first language learners.

But the Silent Way is not merely a language teaching method. Gattegno sees language learning through the Silent Way as a recovery of innocence — "a return to our full powers and potentials." Gattegno's aim is not just second language learning; it is nothing less than the education of the spiritual powers and of the sensitivity of the individual. Mastery of linguistic skills are seen in the light of an emotional inner peace resulting from the sense of power and control brought about by new levels of awareness. Silent Way learning claims to "consolidate the hu­man dimensions of being, which include variety and individuality as essential factors for an acceptance of others as contributors to one's own life" and even moves us "towards better and more lasting solutions of present-day conflicts" (Gattegno 1972: 84).



The general objective of the Silent Way is to give beginning level students oral and aural facility in basic elements of the target language. The general goal set for language learning is near-native fluency in the target language, and correct pronunciation and mastery of the prosodic elements of the target language are emphasized. An immediate objective is to provide the learner with a basic practical knowledge of the grammar of the language. This forms the basis for independent learning on the learner's part. Gattegno discusses the following kinds of objectives as appropriate for a language course at an elementary level (Gattegno 1972: 81-83). Students should be able to correctly and easily answer questions about themselves, their education, their family, travel, and daily events; speak with a good accent; give either a written or oral description of a picture, "including the existing relationships that concern space, time and numbers"; answer general questions about the culture and the literature of the native speakers of the target language; perform adequately in the following areas: spelling, grammar (production rather than explanation), reading comprehension, and writing.

Gattegno states that the Silent Way teaches learners how to learn a language, and the skills developed through the process of learning a foreign or second language can fee employed in dealing with "unknowns" of every type. The method, we are told, can also be used to teach reading and writing, and its usefulness is not restricted to beginning level stu­dents. Most of the examples Gattegno describes, however, as well as the classes we have observed, deal primarily with a basic level of aural/ oral proficiency.

The syllabus

The Silent Way adopts a basically structural syllabus, with lessons planned around grammatical items and related vocabulary. Gattegno does not, however, provide details as to the precise selection and arrangement of grammatical and lexical items to be covered. There is no general Silent Way syllabus. But from observation of Silent Way programs developed by the Peace Corps to teach a variety of languages at a basic level of proficiency, it is clear that language items are introduced according to their grammatical complexity, their relationship to what has been taught previously, and the ease with which items can be presented visually. Typically, the imperative is the initial structure introduced, because of the ease with which action verbs may be demonstrated using Silent Way materials. New elements, such as the plural form of nouns, are taught within a structure already familiar. Numeration occurs early in a course, because of the importance of numbers in everyday life and the ease with which they can be demonstrated. Prepositions of location also appear early in the syllabus for similar reasons.

Vocabulary is selected according to the degree to which it can be manipulated within a given structure and according to its productivity within the classroom setting. In addition to prepositions and numbers, pronouns, quantifiers, words dealing with temporal relations, and words of comparison are introduced early in the course, because they "refer to oneself and to others in the numerous relations of everyday life" (Stevick 1979). These kinds of words are referred to as the "functional vocabulary" of a language because of their high utility.

The following is a section of a Peace Corps Silent Way Syllabus for the first ten hours of instruction in Thai. It is used to teach American Peace Corps volunteers being trained to teach in Thailand. At least 15 minutes of every hour of instruction would be spent on pronunciation. A word that is italicised can be substituted for by another word having the same function.

Lesson Vocabulary
1. Wood colour red. wood, red, green, yellow, brown, pink, white, orange, black, colour
2. Using the numbers 1—10 one, two,... ten
3. Wood colour red two pieces. take (pick up)
4. Take (pick up) wood colour red two pieces give, object pronouns
5. Take wood colour red two pieces hive him where, on, under, near, far, over, next to, here, there
6. Wood red where? Wood red on table. Question-forming rules. Yes. No.
7. Wood colour red on table, is it? Yes, on. Not on. adjectives of comparison
8. Wood colour red long. Wood colour green longer. Wood colour orange longest.  
9. Wood colour green taller. Wood colour red is it?  
10. Review. Students use structures taught in new situations, such as comparing the heights of stu­dents in the class.  
  (Joel Wiskin, personal communication)

Types of learning and teaching activities

Learning tasks and activities in the Silent Way have the function of encouraging and shaping student oral response without direct oral instruction from or unnecessary modelling by the teacher. Basic to the method are simple linguistic tasks in which the teacher models a word, phrase, or sentence and then elicits learner responses. Learners then go on create their own utterances by putting together old and new information. Charts, rods, and other aids may be used to elicit learner  responses. Teacher modelling is minimal, although much of the activity may be teacher directed. Responses to commands, questions, and visual cues thus constitute the basis for classroom activities.

Learner roles

Gattegno sees language learning as a process of personal growth re­sulting from growing Student awareness and self-challenge. The learner first experiences a "random or almost random feeling of the area of activity in question until one finds one or more cornerstones to build on. Then starts a systematic analysis, first by trial and error, later by directed experiment with practice of the acquired sub areas until mastery follows" (Gattegno 1972: 79). Learners are expected to develop independence, autonomy, and responsibility. Independent learners are those who are aware that they must depend on their own resources and realize that they can use "the knowledge of their own language to open up some things in a new language" or that they can "take their knowledge of the first few words in the new language and figure out additional words by using that knowledge" (Stevick 1980: 42). The autonomous learner chooses proper expressions in a given set of circumstances and situations. "The teacher cultivates the student's 'autonomy' by deliberately building choices into situations" (Stevick 1980: 42). Responsible learners know that they have free will to choose among any set of linguistic choices. The ability to choose intelligently and carefully is said to be evidence of responsibility. The absence of correction and repeated modelling from the teacher requires the students to develop "inner criteria" and to correct themselves. The absence of explanations requires learners to make generalizations, come to their own conclusions, and formulate whatever rules they themselves feel they need.

Learners exert a strong influence over each other's learning and, to a lesser degree, over the linguistic content taught. They are expected to interact with each other and suggest alternatives to each other. Learners have only themselves as individuals and the group to rely on, and so must learn to work cooperatively rather than competitively. They need to feel comfortable both correcting each other and being corrected by each other.

In order to be productive members of the learning group, learners-thus have to play varying roles. At times one is an independent individual, at other times a group member. A learner also must be a teacher, a student, part of a support system, a problem solver, and a self-evaluator. And it is the student who is usually expected to decide on what role is most appropriate to a given situation.

  Teacher roles

Teacher silence is, perhaps, the unique and, for many traditionally trained language teachers, the most demanding aspect of the Silent Way. Teach­ers are exhorted to resist their long standing commitment to model, remodel, assist, and direct desired student responses, and Silent Way teachers have remarked upon the arduousness of self-restraint to which early expedience of the Silent Way has subjected them. Gattegno talks of subordinating "teaching to learning," but that is not to suggest that the teacher's role in Silent Way is not critical and demanding. Gattegno anticipates that using the Silent Way would require most teachers to change their perception of their role. Stevick defines the Silent Way teacher's tasks as (a) to teach, (b) to test, and (c) to get out of the way (Stevick 1980: 56). Although this may not seem to constitute a radical alternative to standard teaching practice, the details of the steps the teacher is expected to follow are unique to the Silent Way.

By "teaching" is meant the presentation of an item once, typically using nonverbal clues to get across meanings. Testing follows immediately and might better be termed elicitation and shaping of student production, which, again, is done in as silent a way as possible. Finally, the teacher silently monitors learners' interactions with each other and may even leave the room while learners struggle with their new linguistic tools and "pay their ogdens." For the most part, Silent Way teacher's manuals are unavailable (however, see Arnold 1981), and teachers are responsible for designing teaching sequences and creating individual lessons and lesson elements. Gattegno emphasizes the importance of teacher-defined learning goals that are clear and attainable. Sequence and timing in Silent Way classes are more important than in many kinds of language teaching classes, and the teachers' sensitivity and man­agement of them is critical.

More generally, the teacher is responsible for creating an environment that encourages student risk taking and that facilitates learning. This is not to say that the Silent Way teacher becomes "one of the group." In fact, observers have noted that Silent Way teachers often appear aloof or even gruff with their students. The teacher's role is one of neutral observer, neither elated by correct performance nor discouraged by error. Students are expected to come to see supportive but emotionally uninvolved.

The teacher uses gestures, charts, and manipulates in order to elicit and shape student responses and so must be both facile and creative as a pantomimist and puppeteer. In sum, the Silent way teacher, like the complete dramatist, writes the script, chooses the props, sets the mood, models the action, designates the players, and is critic for the performance.

  The role of instructional materials

The Silent Way is perhaps as well known for the unique nature of its teaching materials as for the silence of its teachers. The materials consist mainly of a set of coloured rods,  coded-coded pronunciation and vocabulary wall charts, a pointer, and reading/writing exercises, all of which are used to illustrate the relationships between sound and meaning in the target language. The materials are designed for manipulation by the students as well as by the teacher, independently and cooperatively, in promoting language learning by direct association. The number of languages and contain symbols in the target language for all of the vowel and consonant sounds of the language. The symbols are colour coded according to pronunciation; thus, if a language possesses two different symbols for the same sound, they will be coloured alike. Classes often begin by using Fidel charts in the native language, colour coded in an analogous manner, so that students learn to pair a sound with its associated colour. There may be from one to eight of such charts, depending upon the language. The teacher uses the pointer to indicate a sound symbol for the students to produce. Where native-language Fidels are used, the teacher will point to a symbol on one chart and then to its analogue on the Fidel in the other language. In the absence of native-language charts, or when introducing a sound not present in the native language, the teacher will give one clear, audible model after indicating the proper Fidel symbol in the target language. The charts are hung on the wall and serve to aid in remembering pronunciation and in building new words by sounding out sequences of symbols as they are pointed to by the teacher or student.

Just as the Fidel charts are used to visually illustrate pronunciation, the coloured cuisenaire rods are used to directly link words and structures with their meanings in the target language, thereby avoiding translation into the native language. The rods vary in length from one to ten centimetres, and each length has a specific colour. The rods may be used for naming colours, for size comparisons, to represent people  build floor plans, constitute a road map, and so on. Use of the rods is intended to promote inventiveness, creativity, and interest in forming communicative utterances on the part of the students, as they move from simple to more complex structures. Gattegno and his proponents believe that the range of structures that can be illustrated and learned through skilful use of the rods is as limitless as the human imagination. When the teacher or student has difficulty expressing a desired word or concept, the rods can be supplemented by referring to the Fidel charts, or to the third major visual aid used in the Silent Way, the vocabulary charts.

  The vocabulary or word charts are likewise colour coded, although  the colours of the symbols will not correspond to the phonetics of the Fidels, but rather to conceptual groupings of words. There are typically twelve such charts containing 500 to 800 words in the native language and script. These words are selected according to their ease of application in teaching, their relative place in the "functional" or "luxury" vocab­ulary, their flexibility in terms of generalization and use with other words, and their importance in illustrating basic grammatical structures. The content of word charts will vary from language to language, but the general content of the vocabulary charts (Gattegno 1972) is paraphrased below:

Chart 1:           the word rod, colours of the rods, plural markers, simple im­perative verbs, personal pronouns, some adjectives and question words

Charts 2, 3:       remaining pronouns, words for "here" and "there," of, for, and name

Chart 4:            numbers

Charts 5, 6:       words illustrating size, space, and temporal relationships, as well as some concepts difficult to illustrate with rods, such as order, causality, condition, similarity and difference

Chart 7:            words that qualify, such as adverbs

Charts 8, 9:       verbs, with cultural references where possible

Chart 10:          family relationships


Charts 11, 12:    words expressing time, calendar elements, seasons, days, week, month, year,  


Other materials that may be used include books and worksheets for practicing reading and writing skills, picture books, tapes; videotapes, films, and other visual aids. Reading and writing are sometimes taught from the beginning; and students are given assignments to do outside the classroom at their own pace. These materials are of secondary  im­portance, and are used to supplement the classroom use of rods and charts. Choice and implementation depends upon need as assessed by teachers and/or students.


A Silent way lesson typically follows a standard format. The first part of the lesson focuses on pronunciation. Depending on student level, the class might work on sounds, phrases, or even sentences designated on the Fidel chart. At the beginning stage, the teacher will model the appropriate sound after pointing to a symbol on the chart. Later, the teacher will silently point to individual symbols and combinations of symbols, and on monitor student utterances. The teacher may say a word and have a student guess what sequence of symbols compromised the word.

The pointer is used to indicate stress, phrasing, and intonation. Stress can be shown by touching certain symbol more forcibly than others when pointing out a word. Intonation and phrasing can be demonstrated by tapping on the chart to the rhythm of the utterance.

After practice with the sounds of the language, sentence patterns, structure, and vocabulary are practiced. The teacher models an utterance while creating a visual realization of it with the coloured rods. After modelling the utterance, the teacher will have a student attempt to produce the utterance and will indicate its acceptability. If a response is incorrect, the teacher will attempt to reshape the utterance or have another student present the correct model. After a structure is introduced and understood, the teacher will create a situation in which the students can practice the structure through the manipulation of the rods. Vari­ations on the structural theme will be elicited from the class using the rods and charts.

The sample lesson that follows illustrates a typical lesson format. The language being taught is Thai, for which this is the first lesson.

1.      Teacher empties rods onto the table. .

2.      Teacher picks up two or three rods of different colours, and after each  rod is picked up says: [mai].

3.      Teacher holds up one rod of any colour and indicates to a student that a response is required. Student says: [mai]. If response is incorrect, teacher elicits response from another student, who then models for the first student.

4.      Teacher next picks up a red rod and says: [mai sti daeng].

5.      Teacher picks up a green rod and says: [mai sii khiawj.

6.      Teacher picks up either a red or green rod and elicits response from stu­dent, If response is incorrect, procedure in step 3 is followed (student modeling).

7.      Teacher introduces two or three other colors in the same manner.

8.      Teacher shows any of the rods whose forms were taught previously and elicits student response. Correction technique is through student model­ing, or the teacher may help student isolate error and self-correct.

9.      When mastery is achieved, teacher puts one red rod in plain view and says: [mai sii daeng nung an].

10.  Teacher then puts two red rods in plain view and says: [mai sii daeng song an].

11.  Teacher places two green rods in view and says [mai sii khiaw song an];

12.  Teacher holds up two rods of a different color and elicits student response.

13.  Teacher introduces additional numbers, based on what the class can comfortably retain. Other colors might also be introduced.

14.  Rods are put in a pile. Teacher indicates, through his or her own ac­tions, that rods should be picked up, and the correct utterance made. All die students in the group pick up rods and make correction is encouraged.

15.  Teacher then says: [kep mai sii daeng song an].

16.  Teacher indicates that a student should give the teacher the rods called for. Teacher asks other students in the class to give him or her the rods that he or she asks for. This is all done in the target language through unambiguous actions on the part of the teacher.

17.  Teacher now indicates that the students should give each other com­mands regarding the calling for of rods. Rods are put at the disposal of  the class.

18.  Experimentation is encouraged. Teacher speaks only to correct an incor­rect utterance, if no peer group correction is forthcoming.

(Joel Wiskin, personal communication)


Despite the philosophical and sometimes almost metaphysical quality of much of Gattegno's writings, the actual practices of the Silent Way are much less revolutionary than might be expected. Working from what is a rather traditional structural and lexical syllabus, the method exemplifies many of the features that characterize more traditional methods, such as Situational Language Teaching and Audiolingualism, with a strong focus on accurate repetition of sentences modeled initially by the teacher and a movement through guided elicitation exercises to freer communication. The innovations in Gattegno's method derive primarily from the manner in which classroom activities are organized, the indirect role the teacher is required to assume in directing and monitoring learner performance, the responsibility placed upon learners to figure out and test their hypotheses about how the language works, and the materials used to elicit and practice language.