Bruce Ballard – Teaching “A” and “The” the Silent Way

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Bruce Ballard

Bruce Ballard






In this paper I wish to present an innovative approach to teaching structures of a language to L2 learners. I contend that it is possible to teach any structure in any second language in such a way that:

  1. there is no need to resort to metalinguistic vocabulary to explain how to operate correctly in the new tongue (e.g. “noun,” “prepositional,” phrase,” “do-support”),
  2. the teacher need not speak at all.

Rather, I suggest that grammatical meanings can be made clear in perceptible situations which force the students to use the language correctly and understand why they are doing so. Thus, my primary concern is not with teaching grammar, but in how the students function.

I have found that all of the structures in English can be presented in unambiguous situations using a set of colored rods:

Cuisenaire rods

Cuisenaire Co. UK

and a word chart of necessary vocabulary. For this paper I will limit myself to a discussion of how ESL students can acquire the articles “a” and “the.” These are often considered a fine point that even advanced students have difficulty mastering, yet I know that the following lesson can be successfully grasped by students with only a few hours’ exposure to English.

In answer to the question, “Why teach structure at all?” I respond that students need this kind of work if they are to function in the new language on a par with native speakers. The vast majority of ESL students today would like to learn English well enough so that they can exist alongside native speakers in schools and jobs without being penalized for misuse of the language. To reach this state of attainment they must study the language consciously.

Thus, when I present a linguistic situation such as the following, I want my students to see it as native English speakers do, and act accordingly. In this exercise, then, the students’ responsibility is to perceive the situation and work on the appropriate language. My responsibility is to make sure the meaning is clear, and to make sure the students work properly. (I mention this last point because at times I have observed students who did not know how to look very well – they trained their eyes on the teacher or a student sitting next to them, rather than on the rods.)

I put a collection of colored rods someplace where they can be seen by everyone. They may be lying in a shallow box that is tilted slightly, or they may stand up on a table or desk. A sample collection would look like this:

Rods situation a

In this lesson I am assuming that the students are familiar with the names of the colors, the word “rod,” and the imperative “take.” They have most likely have also met the words “a” and “the,” although it is not necessary. On the wall is a chart with all of these words located in random order. If I don’t have a chart, I can easily write the words on the board. Here is an example of this chart:


Miming, I convey to the students that I want them to tell me to take a red rod. I listen to the students’ output and work with what they say. If someone says, “Take a red rod,” I have the entire class listen to and repeat. My work can be done via gestures, so I do not have to speak at all.

If no one says anything correctly, I work with a statement with errors in it. For example, if I hear, “You take a rod red,” I can stop the class, have the student repeat the sentence while I put it, word by word, on the outstretched fingers of my right hand. “You” is placed on my thumb, “take” on my index finger, “a” on my middle finger, “rod” on the ring finger, and “red” on my pinky. When this has been established, I fold my thumb down, indicating that the first word should be dropped. The student responds with, “Take a rod red.” Then I cross my last two fingers, to show a change in word order, and the student says, “Take a red rod.” At last we have a correct, working sentence. The class repeats the sentence and I take a red rod.

I mime that the class should tell me to take a green rod. They say, “Take a green rod,” and I do. I point to a black, they say, “Take a black rod,” and I do.

Then I point to the sole yellow rod. Many students will naturally say, “Take a yellow rod.” I shake my head “no” at this, which perhaps perplexes them. I let them try again, making other guesses. If someone is right (“Take the yellow rod”), I indicate this and have the rest of the class listen. If not, I go to the word chart, cover the word “a” with one hand while pointing to “the” with the other. This should be sufficient for the students to say, “Take the yellow rod,” though some may still be perplexed. I then take the yellow rod.

The remaining rods look like this:

Rods situation b

I have the students tell me to take a white rod. Some may be confused between saying “a” or “the,” but as a class we decide on “a”. I point to a red rod and we do the same. Next I point to the blue rod, and hope that some of the students will realize that it is time to say, “Take the blue rod.” I nod my head “yes” to them, shake my head “no” to the others.

As we continue to remove rods from the table, I work with the students who have still not caught on to the rules of this game. Perhaps I stop all of the class from speaking, while one confused student and I work alone. Usually this is enough not only to bring this one student “into the light,” but also the other uncertain ones who were just watching.

By the time we are through, it should be clear that “a” is used to indicate any one out of a group of like objects, while “the” is used for something unique.

To test the students, and to provide practice, I can put up a new set of rods, and repeat the exercise. If both the students and I have been doing our jobs correctly, this second set should present no problems, and we can complete it easily. As well, if the students are enjoying the activity, I can expand it by having them work on the distinction between “Take two blue rods” and “Take the two red rods.” Also, we can work on sentences like “Take a blue rod and a white one; give the blue one to me and put the white one back.”

Since the class will continue to use the rods to learn other structures, additional practice on the items just learned will naturally arise in subsequent lessons. Working with rods can occur as a whole class activity, or in small groups. Perhaps the former is best for provoking linguistic awareness, while the latter allows practice to gain facility.

The point of working in this way is to let students study the language analytically while developing a synthetic feel for it. To my mind, this is not teaching grammar at all, it is teaching students. The grammatical structures of English are something I must have conscious knowledge of, yet foremost in my mind when I teach is that I must be in contact with what the students are doing. The “model” lesson presented above can be modified when working with a single ESL student in a class of native English speakers, or when working with a group of mixed-level L2 learners. I liken teaching language to teaching music – to be good at either, one must provide the right exercises based on the student’s needs at that moment.

© Bruce Ballard 1986-2001


Bruce Ballard first met the Silent Way when he went to South Korea as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in 1975. The Peace Corps used the Silent Way to train Bruce and other volunteers to speak Korean.

Since then he has studied other languages with the approach and taken scores of methodology workshops.

From 1979-1980 he worked at Educational Solutions, where he taught English and Korean, and trained public school faculty.

Later, as a doctoral student in Applied Linguistics at Teachers College, Columbia University, he taught Silent Way courses to graduate students.

More recently, he ran business writing workshops at The Skilled Writer International with Charlotte Balfour, another colleague from Educational Solutions.

Bruce currently works at the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning as Professional Development Specialist.

In November 2012 he was awarded the 21st Eye Level Education Award from Daekyo Culture Foundation and the Korean Ministry of Education Science and Technology.

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‘Teaching “A” and “The” the Silent Way’ by Bruce Ballard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.