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TEFL Masterclass – Silent Way Clarified

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Steve Hirschhorn – Award-winning Teacher Trainer, Former School Principal & Director of TESOL.

Steve Hirschhorn has been teaching and training teachers for around 40 years. He has lectured and delivered workshops from Peru to Japan and most stages in between, going the long way round! Steve has been a Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, school Principal and Director of TESOL; he was External Examiner for three UK universities’ MA TESOL and English Language boards. He has written numerous articles on various aspects of teacher-training, teaching and learning language.

What you will learn

The Silent Way has been around since the late 1950s and has been a topic of discussion amongst language teachers since its inception. The discussions circle around what it is, how it works, why a teacher should remain silent, if it’s useful for students of higher levels. Inevitably, these discussions have given rise to myths and misunderstandings.

My purpose in the workshop is to present Silent Way as I understand it, based on my direct contacts with the originator, Dr Caleb Gattegno in the 1980s and based also on my work using Silent Way or my own adaptations of it in the 40 years that I have been using it or thinking about it.

I will try to clarify the principle pillars of Silent Way, explain, to some degree the philosophy behind it and the practice of it. The workshop will attempt to demystify Silent Way and suggest that in its austerity it is very much fit for purpose as a foil to today’s overly ornate world of ELT.

Workshop Summary

The Foundations of Silent Way:

Steve Hirschhorn introduces the Silent Way as a teaching method rooted in the work of Caleb Gattegno. It encompasses three main facets: its philosophical backbone, its theoretical underpinning, and its practical application. Unlike other teaching methodologies, the Silent Way places significant emphasis on the role of silence. This silence, however, is not imposed by the teacher upon the students but the other way round, creating a space for learners to reflect and lead their own learning. This approach prioritises learners’ independence, making them responsible and autonomous in their learning journey. In the Silent Way, both praise and criticism are absent, pushing students to refine their work further. The approach to error management is unique, with teachers using tools like charts to help students recognise and rectify their mistakes. The method begins by associating sounds with colours, with Gattegno recommending an initial focus on phonetics using coloured charts. Despite its emphasis on accuracy, the core objective remains comprehension and effective communication.

Practical Application in the Classroom:

For newcomers to the Silent Way, rods are essential. These rods, coloured and of varying lengths, are introduced without explicitly naming them, prompting students to deduce the rods’ purpose and attributes. As the lessons progress, teachers use these rods to teach colours and plurals. The method is incremental, pushing students to build sentences involving various attributes of the rods and basic verbs. As the lessons evolve, pronouns are introduced, allowing for varied dialogue. Conversations in the classroom are simultaneous, creating a lively environment. Errors, both linguistic and observational, are corrected with care. A few fundamental principles of the Silent Way are that teachers should speak minimally, students should observe without overt instruction, and primarily self-correct.

Tools and Investment in Learning:

Limited vocabulary is initially introduced using rods and charts as primary teaching tools. However, the Silent Way also gradually incorporates other resources. Central to the method is the belief that to truly grasp a concept, one must invest conscious effort. Unlike innate knowledge, learning a foreign language demands deliberate mental engagement. The method also underscores the importance of sleep in consolidating new knowledge.

Silent Way in Modern Language Teaching:

Language teaching shouldn’t merely consist of repetitive drills. The Silent Way promotes efficiency and sees errors as opportunities for self-improvement. While many teaching methods focus on generating numerous sentences, it’s crucial to understand that language teaching should resonate with today’s context. The Silent Way method begins with a restricted vocabulary, allowing students to commence communication, gradually building up their word bank. This ensures that learners aren’t inundated with an overload of new words. Moreover, it focuses on understanding the inherent patterns of the language. In the Silent Way, regular interactions replace the need for consistent formal testing. The ultimate aim is genuine linguistic competence rather than mere exam success.

Addressing Misconceptions and the Value of the Silent Way:

Contrary to popular belief, the Silent Way doesn’t enforce complete teacher silence. It’s adaptable, suited for teaching advanced language structures and a range of activities. Critics who perceive Silent Way teachers as lacking warmth miss the integral role humour plays in this method. The Silent Way transcends being just a methodology; it’s a deep-seated educational philosophy. It’s imperative to understand its depths rather than adopting it superficially. Despite the rise of contemporary teaching tools, the Silent Way’s simplicity remains unmatched. Both educators and learners might face hurdles, but they emerge from the process with a better grasp and appreciation of the learning process. The method is aligned with research on effective language learning from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Conclusion and Further Exploration:

Gattegno’s teachings, though complex, remain invaluable in the world of language instruction. Those eager to explore the Silent Way more deeply are advised to engage in thorough research and connect with experienced practitioners.

Reflective Questions

Have a quick think about the reflective questions below in order to get the most out of the workshop:

  1. What if there is silence in your classroom?
  2. Who is responsible for the learning which takes place in your classroom?
  3. How do you know what your students know or don’t know?
  • Gattegno, C (1976). The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages. Educational Solutions.
  • Gattegno, C (1986). The Generation of Wealth. Educational Solutions.
  • Messum, P & Young, R (2017). Bringing the English Articulatory System into the Classroom. IATEFL Pron Sig.
  • Mullen, J (1996). Cuisenaire rods in the language classroom. Les Cahiers de l’APLIUT.
  • Stevick, E (1980). A Way and Ways. Newbury House.
  • Logan, A (ed) (2011). The Gattegno Effect. Educational Solutions.
  • Young, R & Messum, P. Other aspects for using a pointer for teaching pronunciation. Available: www.pronsci.com.

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