The silent way - A method for the german classroom?

Seminar Paper, 2007

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Analysis of the Silent Way
2.1 The Method in a Nutshell
2.2 Analysis of Certain Aspects of the Silent Way
2.2.1 The Ideal Learner
2.2.2 The Typical Silent Way Class
2.2.3 The Silent Way Curriculum and the Learning Process
2.2.4 Materials

3 Conclusion

4 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Teaching languages silently, teaching without words, seems to be an insoluble paradox which is contained in the name of the method under question in this paper: The Silent Way. At the first glance, it seems as if teaching languages, structural systems based on phonemes and their combination, could never be done silently.

For Caleb Gattegno, however, this paradox does not seem to exist at all. It was him who developed this method in the late 1970s. According to the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, methods can be seen as sets of techniques which are used by teachers to convey a foreign language. They are supposed to be linked to linguistic as well as pedagogical assumptions. For each teaching situation, methods entail assumptions about the limitation or restriction of knowledge to be transmitted, the staging of this transmission, the way of its presentation and finally the testing of transmitted knowledge.[1] In the course of this paper, some of these aspects will be examined with regard to the Silent Way.

The Encyclopedic Dictionary opposes methods with another term: approaches. Approaches are seen as a “set of correlative assumptions dealing with the nature of language, teaching and learning.”[2] Thus, they form the theoretical basis of methods but do not contain specific procedurals for the classroom. The basis for the Silent Way, however, is to be seen in the Cognitive Approach. This approach arose in the early 1970s out of an academic quarrel about the nature of the learning process: Noam Chomsky’s idea of a Language Acquisition Device consisting of principles and parameters which enable the learner to acquire languages in a deductive and cognitive way on the basis of a Universal Grammar questioned the behaviourist model. Behaviourists such as Skinner or Pavlov see learning as a formation of habits – a correct reaction to stimuli is rewarded until this reaction has become habitual and no reward is needed anymore. As a matter of fact, this paper will not be concerned with the whole of the Cognitive Approach and other methods linked to it. It will be focused on the Silent Way itself and thus attempt at a thorough analysis of certain important aspects of the method.

As pointed out above, the Silent Way rejects the behaviourist model and considers learning to be a conscious, cognitive process. However, the Silent Way tries to involve the whole of the learner, considering cognitive and affective aspects. That is why Roslyn Young can conclude: “The Silent Way is usually considered to be one of the alternative or humanistic approaches to language teaching.”[3]

Taking this into consideration, the question can be of interest whether the Silent Way is a method which can easily be used at a typical German grammar or comprehensive school. It seems obvious that there are several factors which prevent the method from being applied at German schools – other alternative methods such as Suggestopedia, Superlearning or the Birkenbihl Method cannot find their way into German classrooms either. Sometimes only small parts of the method are applied as in the case of Suggestopedia whose traces can be found in the way some texts are dealt with in modern text books such as the new Green Line books. Therefore, this paper will try to see whether the thesis that the Silent Way is not suitable for a typical German classroom will prove to be the result of a superficial prejudice or not. To achieve this aim, the paper will give a short overview over the method in a first step. Secondly, some aspects which seem to be important for the role the method could play at German schools will be considered: The roles of learners and teachers and especially the image of the ideal Silent Way learner will be concerned as well as the learning process in its various stages and aspects like group sizes or materials that are needed. The latter do also often prove to be of note in the decision for or against a method at school. Finally, those aspects will be evaluated in order to find out whether they support the thesis or not. Needless to say, there are essential differences within the German school system. Therefore, especially in this last point, the grammar schools of Saxony-Anhalt shall serve as representatives of the German system because this seems to be the most obvious solution for a paper written at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg. As little has been written on this method and its implementation in Germany in general and Saxony-Anhalt in special, this approach seems to be the most recommendable one.

2 Analysis of the Silent Way

Before the analysis moves on to more specific aspects of the method, an overall view of the method will be provided in order to give an idea of the Silent Way and its most striking features that distinguish this method from other alternative ones.

2.1 The Method in a Nutshell

Gattegno’s Silent Way is dominated by those principles which arose out of Chomsky’s view of learning. Learning is seen as hard work done by the student in a conscious way:

The Self, through its intelligence, not only works at the beginning of the learning process; it also works consciously.[4]

The outcome of this conscious process is the formation of inner criteria within the learner. Forming hypothesises, the learners try to figure out the system of the target language. Testing those hypothesises while producing language according to these rules shows the students whether they have set the parameters in the right way. As a matter of fact, they will probably have to revise their assumptions at some stages of the learning process. Finally, the learners gain inner criteria that enable them to judge on their own whether an utterance is grammatical or not and, hence, to produce grammatically correct sentences.[5] This development of inner criteria is a very basic aim of the Silent Way. Thus, a feeling of self-reliance is formed within the learner that will lead to the autonomous use of the target language.

These principal goals shall be achieved through a maximum of output from the learner’s side which is opposed with a minimum of input provided by the teacher:

It [the Silent Way, P.G.] is based on the premise that the teacher should be silent as much as possible in the classroom but the teacher should be encouraged to produce as much language as possible.[6]

It may possibly be out of this principle that the method gained its name. The silence is seen as necessary for the learning process because it offers the opportunity of analysing the little input there is thoroughly.[7] Thus, typical teaching situations involve a model provided by the teacher and then complete silence while the students are trying to listen to the echo of the utterance inside them, to formulate rules and prepare themselves for the output the teacher will ask for.[8] The students will probably have to realize that there is a gap between their utterances and the correct model provided by the teacher. In this case, the teacher silently points out that there is an error and leads the student to self-correction. If a student cannot correct the utterance or has serious problems, the teacher just moves on and lets another student provide a correct model. This mechanism of peer correction, which can also be initiated by the students on their own, is very important for the Silent Way:

Student-student verbal interaction is desirable (students can learn from one another) and is therefore encouraged.[9]

Not only is the aspect of learning by teaching the other members of the group a decisive factor. A feeling of group spirit and security within the group that arises from this work done together is an even more important feature of the Silent Way. It is because of this attention paid to the student’s feelings that one calls it one of the alternative methods. Moreover, with the teacher being very passive, the students learn that they are utterly responsible for their success and their progress in learning. Errors, by the way, are not seen as bad habits as in behaviouristic methods such as the Audio-Lingual or the Audio-Visual method. They are understood as indicators of the learning process. Without the students making mistakes, the teacher would not be able to guide the learners on their way, to introduce new structures or to realize the need for revision.

Even though the students’ native language seems to be avoided during class, nearly all papers on the Silent Way stress the importance the knowledge of the native language has for the structure of the learning process. Larsen-Freeman expresses this thought in a very concise way:

More important, knowledge students already possess of their native language can be exploited by the teacher of the target language […] the teacher knows that many of the sounds in the students’ native language will be similar […] to sounds in the target language […] he can build upon this existing knowledge.[10]

Meaning, however, is never conveyed through translation. The most famous feature of the Silent Way has to deal with the transmission of meaning. Coloured Cuisenaire rods[11] can be used to express approximately every semantic relationship there is in a language such as number, position, movement and length, to name only a few. The students’ autonomy is highly promoted by these rods because control over them is very often handed early to the learners. The teacher keeps a low profile and withdraws from the centre of attention, following a three-step formula which Stevick puts very bluntly: “Teach, then test, then get out of the way.”[12]


[1] Cf. John Roberts, “Approach,” Encyclopedic Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, eds. Keith Johnson and Helen Johnson (Oxford: Blackwell 1998) 11-13 and John Roberts, “Methodics,” 214.

[2] John Roberts, “Approach,” 11. This paper will not discuss the views of Anthony, who supposes methods to be on a lower hierarchical level as approaches, and Rodgers and Richards. The latter see a method as the output of the interplay of approach, design and procedure. The main difference between the terms “approach” and “method” pointed out above is the basis of both views.

[3] Roslyn Young, „Silent Way,“Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning, ed. Michael Byram (London and New York: Routledge 2002) 546.

[4] Earl W. Stevick, Teaching Languages. A Way and Ways (Boston, Massachusetts: Heinle & Heinle Publishers 1980) 37.

[5] Cf. Diane Larsen-Freeman, Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (Oxford: OUP 2002) 64. Confer also Stevick, A Way and Ways, 37: he gives a very detailed account of the ideal learning process within the “Self”.

[6] Jack Richards & Theodore S. Rodgers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Cambridge: CUP 2001) 81.

[7] Cf. Richards & Rodgers, Approaches and Methods, 83.

[8] Cf. Larsen-Freeman, Techniques and Principles, 54-56.

[9] Larsen-Freeman, Techniques and Principles, 66.

[10] Larsen-Freeman, Techniques and Principles, 71.

[11] Cf. Jon [sic] Roberts. “The Silent Way,” Moderne Sprachlernmethoden. Theorie und Praxis, eds. Richard Batz and Waltraud Bufe (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1991) 317. He gives a very detailed description of the set of 70 rods used in the Silent Way.

[12] Stevick, A Way and Ways, 56.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


The silent way - A method for the german classroom?
Martin Luther University  (Angewandte Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Proseminar "Traditional and Alternative Teaching Concepts" SS 2007
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ISBN (Book)
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Die Dozentin war sehr zufrieden mit der Arbeit, der Darstellung der Methode und der Argumentationsstruktur. Sie bemängelte einen fehlenden Forschungsüberblick zum Thema in der Einleitung. Diesen Mangel habe ich behoben - zum speziellen Thema selbst gibt es kaum Abhandlungen.
Proseminar, Traditional, Alternative, Teaching, Concepts
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Peter Grube (Author), 2007, The silent way - A method for the german classroom?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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