Teaching silently: The case of Silent Way Japanese

Over the past three months, I have been taking Japanese introduction classes through the Silent Way language-learning approach, which comes from Caleb Gattegno’s [1] methodology for a “students as the content” approach to learning how to learn, cultivating one’s own learning power.

What is Silent Way? [2] In this case, we the students are given the front-seat ownership to guide the lesson where we want, focusing on what we want, building a feeling for the language before an understanding of the meaning, and reusing the knowledge in order to build new knowledge. Resources used include colored rods, color charts that indicate pronunciation through colored bars, Fidel charts that indicate all the different spellings for each sound color represented in the color chart, cuisinaire rods to allow students to show and help each other as well as to teach grammar through situations [3], and word charts that indicate words that are used to build sentences, various sentence constructions, and high-frequency words.

Photo of Silent Way classroom with students working on aspects of English

My experiences. My first experience with Silent Way (SW) was at a Taiwanese SW intensive training in February, 2022 with Yoann Goudin [4]. We were delved into the world of SW as a different way of approaching the eight tones to Taiwanese. After each exhausting but very engaging class, we came together to have a feedback session, which generally included discussions on the intense level of learner presence that SW classes required [5], the pride they had in themselves after acquiring a new language structure, and so on.

Curious about the potential for different levels of English classes, I tried Silent Way in my English classes at the language center. I noticed quickly that the upper levels had much greater difficulty seeing the use of Silent Way than the beginners, who were overall ecstatic to learn pronunciation and interact and do trial-and-error in a hands-on way. My older students had more fun with the approach whereas the twenty/thirty-year-olds were much more precise and could adapt more quickly. Students in my intermediate classes asked for more Silent Way practice, but students in Upper Intermediate classes asked to switch to another approach. In the end, all students agreed that no matter the difficulty, they loved being put in the driver’s seat of their learning, especially when it pertained to something they complained quite often about: their pronunciation in English.

Fast-forward to September 2022, where I attended a SW British English teacher training in Lyon [6] with Eric Lepoint. Experiencing a learner’s perspective to my native language made me reflect upon the pronunciation and expression-based difficulties that learners of English might be having. It became even frustrating for me at one point because as someone who is used to fast-paced teaching-and-learning environments, I was concerned that the training would end before I could actually accomplish something. In fact, it became a question of teacher legitimacy: after this training, could I feel confident and competent in my ability to teach using the Silent Way approach?

American English SW Color chart
American English SW color chart

This led to conversation in December 2022 with Roslyn Young, a master trainer (my term) of Silent Way methodology. She surprised me when we first got on the call by saying that she had read one of my articles, and that she could tell based on my teaching perspective from the article where I would have difficulties with the Silent Way approach. First, the pace of the class is dependent on the students: they are the content. As I have an animator teaching personality, much of the content and pace is dependent on me; one day I might want to play Wordwall games in competition, the next might be confidence methodology short film class. So, letting go would be my biggest challenge with Silent Way. This leads me to her second point – as the students are the content, although SW methodologies may be combined with other methodologies and resources like ICTEs, OIR, TPRS, Story Write/Movie Talk, the students are the content of the SW approach because the goal is not to teach the content, but to cultivate one’s own learning power.

This last part was taken from Silent Way Tokyo’s [7] Yoko. After speaking with Roslyn, I attended her SW Japanese class the following week, with Yoko, and immediately discovered a new angle of learning through Silent Way. It was an online Silent Way course with interactive applications through Zoom annotation features and Keynote’s design functions. The relaxed yet productive ambiance in the class pushed me to participate in Yoko’s one-week intensive Japanese SW training, which I completed with another student.

SW Japanese – learning SW online. As a learner, being able to interact and guide the lesson in the same way as I would as a teacher was exciting for me. Although the pace was methodological, ensuring that each student understands and can reuse the language content explored before moving on to something new, the instructors were open to me bringing in new words and asking questions about Japanese I heard through music or on Netflix. Each time, a similar process was used: marking it on the color or the Fidel chart, showing the intonation on the double-line chart, and using it in new sentences and questions to talk to each other (putting it into context). The other student and I decided to continue the Japanese SW classes for another set of eight weeks (eight classes).

Quote from an email from Yoko-san, Silent Way Tokyo

A question that bugged me was the online nature of the class. The other two SW trainings I had (Taiwanese and British English) had been in-person. Would the technological barrier inhibit me from being able to perform the same tasks as in the in-person learning space?

After the trial class with Roslyn and Yoko, the intensive week of Japanese SW, and eight weeks of SW classes, I can wholeheartedly say that I prefer online SW classes. With the common worry of “network connectivity as a barrier to learning” [8], which I experienced when I tried having SW class at my university, I was hesitant of my ability to learn constructively and cognitively. In short, I lacked security in my learning due to limited network connectivity.

At home, I connected to the box directly through an Ethernet cable, which got rid of the problem altogether. I was able to focus on learning as an enjoyable task, with improvement as the byproduct.

  • Fluidity. Each week, by connecting the lessons and the content together, and by building off of it each week, not only did lessons become more fluid in the sense of being easy to follow, but also did my ability to speak. I felt confident in my ability to create and express myself using bits of language that were linked to what I already knew. Even though there was a week in between each lesson, I was able to remember [9] quite a bit from prior weeks and connect the bits together to widen my Japanese language-learning frontier. Both habit-formation and stamina aided in creating coherence and fluidity in my speech and determination to succeed.
    • Habit-formation. Through connection, spaced repetition, references to color charts and Fidel charts, free interaction between all the different content resources, and constant interaction between the students, I quickly formed habits that immersed me into the methodology without having to think too much about it. The reflection, which was also a habit formed, came with my choice in language creation, meaning the language point used or the sentence communicated to the other student. By forming habits, I felt more prepared for class, whether I studied Japanese in between classes or not.
    • Stamina. The first class was exhausting. The amount of presence required for a SW class is quite high, meaning that I was always either interacting and participating or on my toes ready to respond to something said. Mixing habit-formation with effective comprehension checks allowed me to reinforce my prior knowledge as well as develop my stamina for more reflection-heavy or presence-heavy classes. What also allowed me to upgrade my stamina was the flexibility of the class content to meet my interests, my needs, my limitations, and my concerns. Differentiation plays a huge role in SW classes.
  • Hunger. Perhaps the pace of the class mixed with the flexibility of the content and learning structures allowed my to grow a hunger for diversifying the lesson content from the student’s perspective. I had never seen this before in a language classroom – I began to grow my own learning habits and confidence became less about my ability and more about my involvement in the language and in my own language-learning. In fact, “hunger” here could be synonymous with “drive” or even “inquisitiveness”. This hunger is leading to a redefinition of my personal confidence in language learning.
  • Confidence. As each online SW class encompassed a different culture of interactions that pushed me away from comparing it to in-person SW classes, I started to think of SW as having two main, different types of methodologies: the digital methodology and the in-person methodology. Both SW “methodologies” developed a different confidence within me: in-person classes developed the methodology and my confidence within the methodology through confidence in the collective, or confidence in the learner group. Online SW classes developed my ability to be confident in myself: I interacted in order to add my input, try new things, add to the collective knowledge of the class by asking questions that pushed us one step further (and I noticed that my colleague did the same, which made me smile throughout class). We were not only building on the content, but also building on each other’s knowledge. Confidence became less about performance and more about the connections we had with each other: I noticed that the more the other student and I interacted, laughed, and worked together, the more we learned, the stronger the linguistic connections were, and the further we were able to go in each lesson. Despite the amount of learning and the high level of presence, the psychological affect felt quite insignificant: we were just three people working together to strengthen our learning through Japanese.

As a precaution, perhaps Silent Way methodologies should be thought of like a workout: sometimes, some people might need more of a warm-up than others. This translates to a warm-up into the lesson, a warm-up into the methodology, even a warm-up into learning how to learn. However, that is the beauty of the Silent Way methodology: its flexibility and inclination for differentiation-based strategies, not to mention the slower pace, allow learners to adjust the pace to their needs and desires. As Roslyn once phrased it to me: the SW teacher’s job is “to correct, to correct, and to correct!” Could this also include correcting the pace of the class to give students an equal footing?

Going forward, I have several questions I want to explore further [10]:

What does a post-pandemic, in-person Silent Way class look like? What about blended synchronous SW classes?

How could elements of SW classes be incorporated in “between-class” learning spaces?

How could this divergence of two different types of confidence be transferred to other learning approaches?

What could online SW learning approaches teach us about online learning?

How could the virtual world benefit from Silent Way teaching approaches?

After all, it is an approach that maximizes student interaction and autonomy well before the two were even specks on the educational horizon (late-1960s). I believe this method could have strong implications on developing (and encouraging) learner autonomy in language education. With respect to the “silent” aspect of Silent Way, perhaps giving students the terrain, the frontier as I put it, to discover their own confidence in themselves and develop that confidence on their own terms might allow teachers to develop their own confidence in guiding students toward their own goals. As learners will follow their own path, teaching a classroom of 30+ different paths could prove quite complicated, if not impossible within a 45- to 1-hour class period. SW gives students that terrain on which to develop their own learning frontier, their own learning world. Would maximizing the potential to grow this frontier, thus growing student interest and discovery, enable stronger teacher self-confidence and more trust in the teacher’s ability to provide meaningful, effective learning all while meeting learning objectives that benefits continued learning? Could more learning approaches like Silent Way reinvigorate teacher employment?

Lastly, how would Silent Way approaches redefine learning methodologies and practices? ✺

Copyright of featured image: C. Gattegno, 1988. Japanese SW Color Chart. Permission for use granted 10/03/2023.

Blog post image credit: Ektal12, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Copyright American English Silent Way chart: Pronunciation Science Ltd 2011 using copyright materials from Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc. used under license. With acknowledgements to C. Gattegno – ver 3.0 Dec 2017. www.pronsci.com. Permission for use granted 11/03/2023.

[1] Gattegno, C. (2010). Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools: The Silent Way. United States: Educational Solutions Incorporated.

[2] For more information, read Roslyn Young’s book: Young, R. (2012). L’anglais avec l’approche Silent Way. Editions Eyrolles.

[3] The site https://silentway.online/ gives a comprehensive explanation of the Silent Way approach, with resources.

[4] Magnat, E. & Goudin, Y. Voir pour entendre et prononcer, entendre pour lire et écrire. Les Langues Modernes, 2020.

[5] Presence versus attention. Presence refers to active intervention and engagement from the students – they have to be directly involved in the class for it to be labelled “(learner) presence”. Attention, on the other hand, could be described as a more passive way of absorbing information, rather than interacting with it.

[6] Lyon SW trainings can be found through the Aster Formation website: https://www.aster-formation.com/

[7] Take a look at Silent Way Tokyo’s website and Facebook page.

[8] Selvaraj et al.’s questionnaires toward students, university students, teachers, and university professors elucidates during-COVID thoughts and perceptions on e-learning. The participants had already experienced several months of online education, which is why I decided to include the source here. Network connectivity and limited data were, according to the participants, the two factors that most impeded access to online education. Selvaraj, A., Radhin, V., Ka, N., Benson, N., & Mathew, A. J. (2021). Effect of pandemic based online education on teaching and learning system. International Journal of Educational Development, 85, 102444.

[9] Here, the space in between each lesson seemed similar to spaced repetition, if only for one week between each review of the learning content. Through comprehension checks and cognitive scaffolding, I was able to strengthen my understanding of the content matter while building upon it in a way that felt like traversing a wide-open frontier of Japanese language learning.

[10] The following questions are not at all my own private research questions that I alone want to answer. If you have any research or advice on the topic, please comment below. I welcome any and all doubt, further reading, and independent research on these questions.

Cite this blog post
Brendan Geer (2023, March 12). Teaching silently: The case of Silent Way Japanese. Confidence: language learning. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vvqb

Brendan Geer

Language teaching expert and researcher in language confidence. Founder of Prism: Language Confidence. Also director of the HeOnTe online teaching program, co-director of the Rennes Café des Langues, and cat dad.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search