Patricia Benstein – Explaining Concepts Behind The Silent Way

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Patricia Benstein



The following short passages are selected from a longer paper which the author presented in Australia describing her dissertation research on “An Overview of the Silent Way – theoretical concepts and their implementation”. At several points in the following she draws on an interview with Roslyn Young (conducted during November, 1994) as well as reading in Roslyn’s forthcoming book, On Learning and observation of Silent Way classes at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Besançon.

What The Silent Way is

The Silent Way is commonly defined as a teaching method for foreign languages in which the teachers are mostly silent and use rods and charts as their main teaching tools. Although Silent Way teachers do use rods and charts most of the time there can be Silent Way teaching without these tools while at the same time there may be teachers who use the suggested tools but do not really follow the Silent Way.

The confusion occurs when the Silent Way is understood as a teaching method rather than an approach to teaching.

Method refers to “an overall plan for the orderly presentation of language material, no part of which contradicts, and all of which is based upon, the selected approach. An approach is axiomatic, a method is procedural.” (E. Anthony, “Approach, method and technique,” English Language Teaching, 17:2, 1963)

Approach refers to “a set of correlative assumptions dealing with the nature of language and the nature of language teaching and learning. An approach is axiomatic… It states a point of view, a philosophy….” (Anthony)

Gattegno used the same approach to teaching for mathematics, reading and writing, languages, and other school subjects. I would consider the common characteristic of all these approaches to be what Gattegno called “The Subordination of Teaching to Learning.” The Silent Way is the name that is given to the subordination of teaching to learning when it is applied to foreign languages. Subordination of teaching to learning means making the learners’ needs the focus of one’s teaching. Gattegno used to say, “I teach people and they learn the language.” This means that the teacher and the student focus on different things during the lesson. It is the students’ job to direct their learning; it is the teacher’s job to work on the students by presenting language in such ways that force awareness and presence to the moment.

In the Silent Way classroom, the subordination of teaching to learning can be implemented according to the following sequence of steps:

  1. Student experiments with the language. S/he produces a sentence, grammatical construction, sound combination.
  2. Teacher gives feedback on the experiment by indicating the presence of a mistake or inadequacy. This feedback represents the teacher’s own experiment or trial. Note that the feedback never involves the correction of the mistake, but only an indication of where the mistake is.
  3. Student produces an additional experiment, trying to correct herself or himself, which provides feedback to the teacher.
  4. Teacher deduces from the produced sentence whether his/her trial was appropriate/helpful.
  5. The cycle continues until the student’s utterance is adequate, correct and true.

The Self

The self, according to Gattegno, is the free creative energy which is at the core of one’s being. The self is not an organ and has no anatomical location: it is an energy.

It is the self which meets the unknown in order to become familiar with it.

The self must be distinguished from the psyche, which is locked up energy consisting of previous learnings that have become automatisms.

If a student meets for the first time the present perfect continuous form, “I have been living,” which does not exist in French or German, he or she is wise to use the self, which means to be completely open to a new awareness, rather than trying to search the psyche for what cannot be found there. If, however, one wants to type, the psyche will provide the automatisms which support this activity.

The Silent Way teacher has to make sure that students use their selves to face new learning situations and use their psyches when previous, automatized, learnings will save energy.

Silent way teachers also need to bear in mind the various attributes of the self, which include: will, adaptation, sense of truth, objectivation, patience, discrimination, imagination, sense of harmony, concentration, vulnerability, passion, freedom, awareness, intelligence, sensitivity, action, perception, abstraction.

Learning takes place when many attributes of the self are simultaneously engaged. Language learners need to be vulnerable, ready to look at the world in a fresh way via the new language. They need to employ their will to make their learning successful. They need to be curious and feel the need to know something new all the time. They need to be sensitive to achieve an ever finer tuning in the language.

Silent Way teachers use this model of the self to encourage students to “put the self at the helm” and to address specific attributes of the self which may be blocked in a learner. Thus a teacher may encourage a student to move into action by handing the pointer and asking him or her to do something when that person has been only engaged in the attributes of abstraction or imagination. Or, if a student is always moving into action without using intelligence, the teacher may address another attribute, such as the sense of truth, to slow the student down.

The aim is always to achieve harmony and balance between the attributes, appealing to all of them so that the student can keep the self at the helm.

An understanding of the self and the psyche helps us to grasp the internal processes going on in any learner during any learning, which are called:

“The Four Stages of Learning”

Stage 1: Initial encounter with the unknown
Students need to have self at the helm to learn new skills.
Several trials may be necessary to achieve positive results.

Stage 2: Practice of skills
Skills become developed enough to be applied to various situations
Students can direct their own practice.
Skills are integrated for storage into the psyche.

Stage 3: Mastery of skills
Skills are well integrated into the psyche.
Students challenge themselves by expanding on their skills.

Stage 4: Application of skills
Skills have become completely automatic – no mental energy is required to use them.
Skills are subordinated to meet further challenges.


Awareness plays such a fundamental function in Gattegno’s model that it has been called “The Awareness Model” (C. De Cordoba, “A Proposal Based on the Silent Way and its Underlying Theory for the Improvement of Current Teaching Programs…,” Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, International College, Los Angeles, 1986). Gattegno uses the word awareness in many different contexts to describe different phenomena. Awareness is for him the result of self-observation which he requires of Silent Way teachers; awareness describes a state of being which leads to “reflection in action” for Silent Way teachers; it describes a wakefulness which includes knowledge and alertness.

In order to get a more precise definition I had to go back to the French terms of “conscience” and “prise de conscience.” The French word “conscience, ” which translates roughly as awareness/consciousness/knowing, can be defined as the knowledge which human beings have of their state of being, their acts and their moral value. “Conscience” allows human beings to feel themselves existing, to be present to themselves. The French term seems to be used in a broader sense than the English term awareness, and I think this is what Gattegno meant when he said that Silent Way teachers have to be aware as people before they can be of use to their students.

The other aspect of awareness is again only understood if one refers to the French expression “prise de conscience.” Gattegno speaks of the task of the teacher to “provoke awarenesses,” thereby indicating – by his use of the plural – that he does not mean awareness as a state of being but of multiple realizations, recognitions, understandings. “Prise” comes from “prendre,” which means to take. Gattegno thus uses the term to describe the jelling of an awareness which, as Roslyn Young has explained, “takes” or solidifies at a certain moment so that it becomes tangible and more easily observable. It is these jellings of awareness (“prises de conscience”) which Silent Way teachers try to provoke in their teaching.

Awarenesses can be big or small. If a student has a burning question which she holds with a high degree of tension, the awareness, when it comes, will be bigger than if the question was at the back of her mind and self for a shorter time.

It is the task of the Silent Way teacher to provoke awarenesses because they constitute learning. Silent Way teachers try not to transmit knowledge but know-how; they may ask more questions than give answers; they encourage students to stay with the tension and they use silence to provide the space within which students can come to an awareness.

© Patricia Benstein

Faculty of Education
School of Teaching and Curriculum Studies
Sydney, Australia

May, 1995

The Science of Education in Questions, Une Education Pour Demain, France – N° 14 – May 1996


Being an adventurer at heart, I have lived and travelled in many parts of the world. However, I have spent most of my lifetime in Australia, where I also pursued most of my education. I have a Bachelor of Arts with Honours and a Diploma of Education from the University of Melbourne and a PhD from the University of Sydney. I am also a NAATI accredited translator and interpreter. I have a DEUG from Sorbonne University in Paris and am currently enrolled in another doctoral program at the University of Aix-en-Provence.

I came across the Silent Way in my teacher training when Andrew Weiler gave us a demonstration lesson in Hungarian. I was so fascinated by it that I signed up for a Chinese course. Again, I was amazed by how quickly I could learn the language and I never forgot that experience.

It was many years before I had an opportunity to choose the Silent Way as the topic of my PhD thesis. Between 1993 and 1997 I wrote a thesis that not only satisfied Australian and international examiners but, I believe, also stayed close to the original intentions of Caleb Gattegno. It was quite a juggling act at times.

After having lived in Adelaide until 2008, I decided to move to Europe where I currently lecture in the English Department at the Goethe-University of Frankfurt, Germany.

My current research interest is the spiritual teaching of a 12th century mystic. I guess I have always been fascinated by philosophies and teachings that try to contact the essence of the human being. That is why I still love the Silent Way.

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“Explaining Concepts Behind The Silent Way” by Patricia Benstein is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.