CALEB GATTEGNO AND THE SILENT WAY

John Pint

If the Silent Way is a method for teaching foreign languages, it is a most unusual one, for its inventor, Dr. Caleb Gattegno of Alexandria, Egypt, repeatedly insisted that "the Silent Way is not a method at all."

Gattegno, in fact, dedicated his life to a much broader field which he called The Subordination of Teaching to Learning. He held that good teaching must always conform to the demands of learning and he spent most of his life investigating what those demands might be. Gattegno dismissed traditional teaching as being too concerned with filling memories rather than educating students'awareness, which, he declared, is the only thing in us that is educable. Over the years he applied his discoveries about awareness and learning to ordinary school subjects such as mathematics, reading and language teaching, in every case transforming a traditional discipline into something the world had never seen before.

In the Silent Way, Gattegno developed a number of highly adaptable "tools" that can be used to make students aware, for example, of the intricacies of a language's grammar or the pitfalls of its pronunciation. Typically, these tools permit such clear insights into complicated subjects that no explanation by the teacher is necessary. In an effort to show teachers that repetition and explanation were of far less importance in language teaching than educating awareness, Gattegno would teach Arabic, Hindi, English or Spanish "the Silent Way," without ever uttering a single word. Whether he was teaching languages, algebra or adult literacy,Gattegno's classes were so dramatically successful that he was frequently referred to as "The World's Greatest Teacher."

Whereas a typical teacher might walk into a classroom with a lesson plan in mind and a textbook in hand, a Silent Way teacher might enter the room with a box of colored rods and a very open mind. In their attempts to describe a situation created with the rods, the students might find themselves in need of an expression like "It won't fit because it's too long," or they might run into problems trying to ask "What did she do?" Neither of these situations may have been planned by the teacher, but both offer possibilities for further exploration and practice by the students. Since there are no book pages to cover, the teacher and students can spend as much time as they want on understanding and using "did" for example. Allowing all the time necessary to get to the bottom of a new structure and practice it thoroughly often means that the students have "got it for life" the first time around and don't need to review it again and again as they do in normal language courses.

The open ended materials and games developed by Gattegno for the early stages of language learning include a box of rods of various lengths and colors, a set of pictures and worksheets, charts showing the principle function words of the language and special charts presenting all the sounds and spellings of the language in one panoramic view. But more important than these materials is the way they are used. For example, self correction techniques play a key role in a Silent Way classroom. Various gestures, especially those employing the fingers, are used to help students correct their own mistakes, rather than rely on the teacher to make the correction. Here teaching is subordinated to learning because good learning demands that any language student carefully observe his or her own speech.

Self correction could be called a Silent Way technique, but in reality, it is a common sense technique that has been and will always be discovered by anyone trying to serve the best interests of learning. This might clarify why Gattegno referred to the Silent Way not as a method but as a common sense way to teach foreign languages.

If I may add a personal note, teaching a language the Silent Way feels very much like leading a team of investigators on a voyage of discovery. Like detectives, the students pounce upon each piece of the puzzle they find and as they put them all together, they become as confident as their teacher in their mastery of the new language. In fact, it is not unusual for both teacher and students to feel exhilarated after working for six hours during an intensive course.

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2003, John J. Pint - All rights reserved