What does ‘Working on the Student’ Mean?

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What four Silent Way teachers say to their students

Glenys Hanson

Glenys Hanson




Donna L’Hôte

John Olsen

John Olsen

Roslyn Young

Roslyn Young

According to Caleb Gattegno, one of the manifestations of subordinating teaching to learning is that “the teacher works on the student and the student works on the language”. Four Silent Way teachers set out to find a way to describe what this means concretely in the classroom. Although the silence of a Silent Way teacher may be her most remarkable feature to a first time observer, the few things that the teacher does say are particularly revealing of the spirit and intent of a Silent Way course. The role of the teacher is to help the student find what he has to do in order to produce acceptable English. “Acceptable” does not mean just “getting the message across”, it means that the utterance produced respects the constraints of the English language, its pronunciation, its rhythm, its intonation, its structure and also the style and level of language appropriate to the situation in which it is used.

Here is a list of what the four teachers came up with a few years ago, roughly grouped into categories. There are some individual variations, but over 80% were used by all four, and none of the four adds more than four or five additional sentences. We do not intend to present this list in any way as definitive or exhaustive, just a description of what four colleagues were doing and saying at that time:

“Say it again!”
“Show your sentence on the word charts.”
“Show it again!” “Point to it again!” “Do it again!”
“Say it in English!” “Pronunciation!” “Use more/less energy!” “Yellow!” “English is relaxed.” “Music.” “Smoooooth!” “Change it!” “Put it together!” “Make it longer.” “Tighten it up.” “Is it a question?”
“Problem!” “One problem!” “Two/three/four… problems!”
“Try something else.” “Verb tense problem.” “The problem’s here.” “Change this!” “You’ve got too many/few words.” “One word’s missing.” “Don’t change it!” “Turn it round!” “Where’s the problem?” “Find the problem.” “Problem?”
“Out of the window!” “Not now!” “Later!” “One problem at a time.”
“Is that true?” “Your sentence is correct but not true.”
“Are you sure?”
“Stop for a moment… Now, start again.” “Do you know what you’re trying to say?”
“Ask him the question again.” “Begin the conversation again!”
“Shorter!” “Be more economical!” “It’s too long.” “It’s too heavy.”
“Another possibility!” “Something else!” “Try something else!” ” Or…” “What’s the opposite?”
“Why am I asking you to do this?”

All these are said in a class where the students are expressing their feelings, opinions and reactions to a given situation. This “situation” may be a subject of their own choosing, a picture, a text, something that has happened in the classroom or a situation deliberately constructed by the teacher in one of a number of different ways – the use of the Cuisenaire rods, which are often considered typical of the Silent Way, is just one of the possibilities. What the teacher says is one of the tools at her disposal for giving each student the opportunity of discovering how the language works for himself and developing a feeling for it as a whole. Taking these expressions group by group, I shall try to clarify the objectives the teachers have in saying them.

“Say it again!”

“Say it again!” is used in several different contexts and said with different intonations.

  1. Firstly, it is used when the teacher is not sure exactly what the student has said – because he spoke quietly or other students were speaking at the same time. For example, did he in fact put the “s” indicating the plural on the end of the word or didn’t he? Was the word “a” in the sentence or did he leave it out?
  2. Secondly, it can be used if the teacher is reasonably sure for some reason (the student hesitates, looks unsure, has previously had problems with similar sounds or sentences, etc.) that the student will be unable to repeat what he (the student) has just said – whether what he has said is in fact correct or not. That is, the teacher thinks that the student is not in full conscious control of his production. Some students have difficulty in saying the same thing twice in a row. Some can even repeat a sentence five or six times thinking they are saying the same thing whereas in fact the sentence changes each time. If the student is not aware of what he has said, what use is it to correct him? How can a student make progress in the language if he is not aware of the sounds and words coming out of his own mouth? The number of times that the teacher has to use “Say it again!” for this second reason indicates the degree to which the student is able to listen to what he (the student) is saying and to monitor his production. Through this monitoring he constructs a feedback system in English which will, when he knows the language, inform him of any lapses he might make, just as his feedback system does in his native language.
  3. Thirdly, it can be used as a synonym of “Try again!” or “Tsk, tsk!” – to draw attention to sentences which are erroneous – phonetically or structurally – due to a slip of the tongue. Often for example, after working for a long time on the intonation and pronunciation of a sentence, the student withdraws his attention from the structure, and some elements of the sentence, some of the words, get “left out”. It is a way of drawing the student’s attention to the fact that he is not concentrating on the meaning of what he is saying. It is frequently sufficient for the student to correct himself
  4. Fourthly, it is done to make sure other students can hear clearly what has been said.
    Students frequently say it to each other – usually for the first or fourth reason.

“Show your sentence on the word charts.”

This is said by the teacher, usually for one of two reasons.

  1. Firstly, because it is not clear whether the student is using the wrong words, or the right words but mispronouncing them. For example, saying, “There are…” when he means “They are..” (because he does not understand the difference in meaning) or pronouncing “There…” instead of “They…” (because he finds the diphthong difficult). If he points to the correct words it becomes clear that he has a problem of pronunciation; on the other hand if he points to the wrong words, he has a problem of construction. Only when the teacher knows precisely what the student’s problem is, can she efficiently help the student to find a solution.
  2. Secondly, when a student has a problem of construction he has not been able to solve orally, looking for the words on the charts demands concentration and precision which in themselves help the student to deal with the problem. He can often recognize a sequence of words as correct or incorrect when he sees them. The ephemeral nature of the spoken language can make it difficult for a student to maintain in his mind the whole of a long and complex sentence for the time needed to understand the structure. The permanence of the words on the charts can simplify the task for the student by making the sentence visible. The fact that he has only to touch the words in sequence and not utter them also means that he can concentrate on the structure and not be distracted by any problems of pronunciation he may have. These can be tackled later.

Pointing on the chart is also a way of involving the other students in the class in the work of an individual.

” Show it again!” “Point to it again!” “Do it again!”
Teachers tend to use these expressions indifferently. They are used when a student has come to point out sounds, spellings, words or sentences on the colour rectangles, on the fidel or on the word charts. If he has pointed too slowly he can be asked to speed up his pointing so that words come at approximately that of the spoken language. Occasionally, it is necessary to point again simply because another student has missed the sequence. This is fairly rare, since usually, if a student looks away at the moment of pointing, it is because he feels he does not need to look. In this case, there is no sense in just pointing again.

If a student is inattentive, the teacher may ask him to come out and point the same sequence again so that he becomes aware of the fact that in this case, he lost his concentration too easily The aim of this, of course, is not to punish or humiliate the student, but to bring his attention to the fact that learning a language requires a number of things, and in particular it requires being present. Nobody ever learns a language, to play the guitar, how to tie knots, or anything else while daydreaming about his last girlfriend or his next meal. Most students accept this and spontaneously jump up to point to sequences when they feel they need to verify something they have missed. Others have difficulty in focusing their presence. The physical act of pointing to words often helps them to channel their attention to where it is needed to solve the problem they are working on at that moment.

(There are certain techniques which allow the teacher to help the students find the words on the charts easily and retain the sentences they have produced. One of them is to get the student to point to all the words on the charts with the pointer, then to do it again from his seat (i.e. not actually touching the charts) and then a third time pointing in the air with his eyes closed. Students are usually amazed at how well they can do this. It helps them to interiorise and therefore retain the sentence rapidly.)

“Do it again!” is also used when a student has performed an action in such a way that the relationship between what is done and what is said is unclear. For example, if a student says, “I’m going to take a rod’ when his hand is already on the rod, the distinction between “I’m going to take a rod’ and “I’m taking a rod” is not being respected. If the action that is being described is not clear, the students cannot rely on their perception of the situation to understand the language being used.

“Say it in English!” “Pronunciation!” “Use more/less energy!” “Yellow!” “English is relaxed.” “Music.” “Smoooooth!” “Change it!” “Put it together!” “Make it longer.” “Tighten it up.” “Is it a question?”

Once a student has managed to get the right words in the correct order, the teacher sometimes asks him to “Say it in English!” On a relatively advanced group this has the effect of a bomb the first time it is used, since the student believes he has just said it in English. It makes him aware of the fact that, for the teacher, correct structure is not enough to ensure that what he is saying is really English. It is only English when the overall impression is that of English and this depends far more on the melody, rhythm and intonation of the sentence than on correct grammar.

What is interesting to note is that even low-level students know without being told what they have to do to “Say it in English “. Students seem to know what many foreign languages sound like. In order to test this, readers might like to ask students to “Say it in Chinese” or in some other language. They may well be surprised at the quality of what their students say in these circumstances. This is because what has to be changed in order for the production to sound authentic is exactly what is available to people when they hear a language they do not speak, i.e., its energy content – the relative intensity of syllables, the intonation, the pitch, etc. In our experience, as regards English, which is so widespread on this planet, almost all the students we have ever taught have been able to effect a considerable change in their pronunciation in response to “Say it in English “.

Though “Say it in English” is frequently a sufficient indication for the student, especially as the course advances, sometimes the student cannot manage it and needs more precise indications. “Put it together” can be used when a student has laboured over the word order and now needs to speed up his production.


This is somewhat similar to “Put it together” but indicates that the student should get rid of a certain jerky, choppy, quality in the delivery. It is often necessary for French students who sometimes have a tendency to use French intonation or rhythm.

“Use more energy” ” Use less energy” “Tighten it up” and “Yellow”

These are expressions which are often used early on in the course. Whatever the first language of the learner, one of the aspects of the work will be to get the students to distribute their energy in the way this is done in the new language. In particular, for English, many students have difficulty lowering the energy content in order to say the English “schwa” (or neutral “e” sound, yellow on charts). This sound and what is called the “schwi” (the neutral “i” sound) make up around 50% of the spoken vowels in English, and they only sound right if the energy content (very little is needed) is correct. It requires continual work in the early stages of the course but becomes much easier if the students perceive it as an energy problem.

“Make it longer” accompanied by a downward gesture from the teacher, is a device to encourage a falling intonation on the last syllable of a sentence. French speakers not only tend to finish with a rising intonation, but they also often end English sentences too abruptly.

“Is it a question?”

This is another way of drawing the student’s attention to the fact that he has ended a sentence with a rising intonation when it should be a falling one and, in so doing, he has changed the meaning of his sentence. It can also be used to make a student realise that he has used an interrogative construction where it is not appropriate. For example, “I don’t know where is the rod.”

“Change it!”

This is quite commonly used when the student proposes a sound or a sentence and somehow gets locked into it. When the teacher indicates that it is not acceptable, the student finds that he cannot say anything else but that. Until the student changes something – anything – the teacher cannot help him. This is because homing in on a sound means comparing one production with another and learning first of all to recognise which of them is closer to the target. Here again, though it may seem strange at first, the student almost always knows which of the two attempts is closer to the target sound. Once he has begun to modify his production, he can slowly move towards the right one until he can say it as and when he wants to. “Change it!” simply means something like “Try something else!”

“Problem!” “One problem!” “Two/three/four… problems!”

“Problem(s)!” is one of the words most frequently used by a Silent Way teacher. It is used to indicate to the student that it is necessary to change something in the sentence that he has just uttered. Rather than tell the student what to say or even where the problem lies, the teacher simply informs him that there is a problem (or problems). In fact there is a whole hierarchy of types of response a student may have to being told there is a problem in his sentence. If he is able to correct the sentence immediately, then it is possible that the error was nothing more than a “slip of the tongue” such as a native speaker might make. It may be a mistake he can catch after the event, when he hears the words said aloud, though he is not yet able to monitor the sentence for correctness before he actually says it. As the course progresses and the student becomes more accustomed to this way of working (that is to say he monitors his own productions and has sufficient understanding of how the language works to need very little outside help in solving the problem of how to express himself in English) then “Problem(s)” is enough for the student to reconsider what he has just said and attempt to correct it even though the particular difficulty may be new to him.

At the other end of the spectrum, the student may indicate that he has no idea of what the error is, or where it is in the sentence he has just said. In this case, the teacher has to work quite differently on the student. Perhaps the student requires that a new example be given to make the language clearer. Or the teacher may have to set up a situation (with the Cuisenaire rods or in any other appropriate way) to illustrate what the problem is.

The second “One problem!” gives the student much more information. When the teacher says this, she knows that only one element needs to be changed and that all the rest must stay as it is. A student may well be less puzzled by “One problem!” than by “Four problems!” which would mean that the whole sentence needs reconstructing. This would be work for the whole class. The teacher can encourage this by just glancing at the other students for suggestions. Very quickly, students come to know when they should leave the speaker to correct his sentence on his own and when they can intervene to solve a common problem. They learn, too, that it is worthwhile struggling to find a sentence when they realise that it is the sentences they have sweated over that are the ones they retain.

“Try something else.” “Verb tense problem.” “The problem’s here.” “Change this!” “You’ve got too many/few words.” “One word’s missing.” “Don’t change it!”

The above are used by the teacher as alternatives or in conjunction with finger correction when the student is unable to situate his problem in a sentence or is unaware of the nature of his problem. In “finger correction” each finger on the hand of the teacher or of the student, represents one word of the sentence the student has said. The student “reads” the sentence as the fingers are pointed to in turn. Problems are indicated, for example, by pressing two contiguous figures together to show the need for a contraction; one or more fingers are bent down to eliminate unnecessary words; two fingers are crossed to show that the position of the two words represented should be inverted. “The problem is here” is said and a particular finger or fingers are pointed to so that the student can locate the position of the problem. All these conventions are quickly developed between the teacher and the class without any need for overt explanations. The teacher always tries to give the minimum amount of information the student needs to solve his problem at a given moment. When the teacher gives more help than the student needs the teacher is robbing that student of an opportunity to use his own judgement and thus develop criteria for controlling his use of the language.

“Where’s the problem?” “Find the problem!”

Asking the student to locate his problem forces him to reconsider and evaluate what he has just said. Often just asking the question clears up the problem because the student focuses his energy on how he has said something instead of on what he has just said. It gives the student a starting point for attempting to correct his sentence. It often does not matter where he begins, as long as he sees it is possible to begin somewhere. Teachers often use “Where’s the problem?” in the middle of a course, when students no longer need their attention drawn step-by-step to where their problems lie, but are not yet independent enough to find and correct themselves without a little nudge from outside.


The teacher uses this when the student seems in doubt about something. It gives the student the opportunity to bring his problem into the forum of the class where it may be worked on. It gives the student the opening to say, “I don’t understand….” or “What’s the difference between … and…?”

“Out of the window!” “Not now!” “Later!” “One problem at a time.”

The teacher uses these to stop the students running after too many hares at once. Some groups and individuals are particularly “butterfly-minded” and need reminding of the necessity of dealing with one problem at a time. It is also a way of postponing problems that are off the subject at that particular time while not ignoring an individual contribution. Though the Silent Way recognises the student’s right to work on his own problems when and as he perceives them, the teacher also has a responsibility to help the student concentrate and focus his energy and not dissipate it over too wide an area at one time. In addition, the teacher’s experience of the language and of learning the language give her criteria for determining in which order it is most efficient for problems to be tackled. The balancing of these priorities is a delicate matter which can only be decided by the teacher’s sensitivity to the needs of the student – a sensitivity which she learns to refine by practice and observation of her own mistakes over the years.

“Is that true?” “Your sentence is correct but not true.”
These are said, for example, to a student who answers in the place of another student. If one student (holding several blue rods) says, “My rods are blues” and another student (without any rods, or rods of a different colour) says, “My rods are blue” the teacher might respond by asking the second student if his sentence is true.

Here again, there is a reason. Setting up visible situations allows the teacher to elicit unambiguous sentences to describe it. They only remain unambiguous, however, if each student respects the perceptible facts before them. It is remarkable, and quite stunning to see how many people who have studied English at school for seven years have to go through their native language to use a simple word such as “blue”. When asked to describe a situation which only demands that they say “a blue rod, a green one and a brown one” they stumble over it, looking for their words as if it were complicated beyond all hope. The reason for this is that they have never been asked to use precise language to describe the situation they are looking at. Most of the time the language they used at school was divorced from the reality of the concrete world. When they used the first person they were pretending to be someone from a book or at best a character in a role-play. They were not simply expressing their own feelings, ideas or perceptions – the only time the first person is used in spontaneous speech. The word “I” does not come naturally to them to refer to themselves simply because they have done it so rarely. They can have serious problems in understanding why it is impossible for a person actually in France to say “I went to France” even though “go” and “come”, in this context, function in French exactly as they do in English and they have no problem with the form of the verb. They have no feeling that “I” can express the subjective reality of “je” or “go” the direction of “aller” and therefore are not physically, mentally or emotionally present in what they say in English. Of course, students know intellectually that people over the Channel do use this language to live their lives, but they don’t feel it in their bones!

To be obliged to say “green” because the rod is green is quite new for many students. The reason that the teacher demands that the student speak for himself at all times is to force him to realise that the foreign language relates to the real world as directly as his own language. When this “rule of the game” is established between teacher and students in relation to directly perceived situations from which the concept “green”, for example, can unambiguously be derived, students get to know that they can rely on their own sense of truth for understanding other concepts and relationships when they come up. When they realise this, they also gain a way of functioning that can help them to learn independently of the teacher.

By only using English as a response to real situations the student discovers its meaning as part of his experience and this gives him a tool for monitoring what he and others say. Real situations do not, of course, exclude imaginary situations. When a student says something that is not true and the teacher draws his attention to the fact, he, the student, may say, “Yes, but if…” Here, the teacher can force him to finish his sentence so that either the student gets into working on how to express imaginary situations in English or he realises that such situations are too complex for his present level in the language and, if he is wise, turns his attention to the more concrete problems within his grasp. In any case, the student will have had a direct experience of English in relation to himself and something he wanted to say and this helps him to realise that even though it is a foreign language it is used to express feelings and perceptions in the real world in the same way as his mother tongue.

“Are you sure?”

This is emphatically not to tell students that they have made a mistake – though this is often the way they interpret it at first. The teacher says it both when what the student has just said is correct and when it is not. It gives him an opportunity to judge his own English. Often at the beginning of a course, a student is unable to answer, “Yes” even when his sentence is correct. So the teacher might go through his sentence bit by bit, asking him, “Are you sure of this…? And of this…?” until he discovers that he is in fact sure of the sentence or, on the other hand, that he has a problem to work on. As the course progresses, students usually become more and more able to answer confidently “Yes” or “No” which indicates that they have developed criteria for judging the correctness of what they say. This is another way in which they can become independent of the teacher. The question “Are you sure?” makes the student aware of his own feelings towards the language. It gives him an indication about where he is at in his own analysis of the work he is doing.

“Stop for a moment… Now, start again.” “Do you know what you’re trying to say?”

These are used when a student has laboured over some part of a sentence – the word order or the intonation, perhaps – and has lost the thread of what he wanted to say. One of these two (or an equivalent sentence) is usually enough to put him back into the situation where he regains contact with his message. Very often, after a moment’s pause, the student is able to say the sentence much better than before.
It is important to remember that learning a language means the student is in contact simultaneously with two different dimensions – the message he wishes to express and the language in which he wishes to express that message. When there is an imbalance between these two, it is always necessary to stop and bring the weaker of the two up to its rightful level.

Ask him the question again!” “Begin the conversation again!”

The teacher sometimes says one of these when a student has been working for a certain time on a sentence which is part of an exchange with another student. When a student has spent a long time on making the structure, intonation, etc., of a sentence correct, he may lose sight of its meaning. By recontextualising the sentence in this way the student can refocus on the content of what he wants to say. It may also be necessary to make the meaning clearer to the other students present, especially if the subject of conversation is not something visually present in the classroom.

“Shorter!” “Be more economical!”
“It’s too long.” “It’s too heavy.”

These are used when the student’s sentence is correct, but a shorter and more commonly used variant exists – using pronoun replacements; or when a student answers a question with a whole sentence. For example, to the question, “How many rods do you have?” a student may reply, “I have six rods.” when most native speakers would be more likely to answer, “Six”.In fact, the student can be helped to see that there are (at least) three possible answers to that question: “I have six rods.”, “I have six.” And “Six”. Each is equally correct but not equally common. The student usually realises immediately the difference in emphasis between the three when his attention is drawn to the fact of their existence, because all languages, as far as we know, have similar “long” and “short” versions of replies.

“Another possibility.” “Something else.”
“Try something else.” “Or…”
“What’s the opposite?”

One of the things that characterises a native speaker of a language is that he always has at his disposition a number of alternative constructions which allow him to express the nuances of what he wants to say. Students also need to develop alternative ways of expressing what they want to say.

However there is another even more important reason than this. Finding alternative expressions allows the student to learn with great precision exactly what a particular statement means. When a student makes a statement about a situation and is then encouraged to make another, to be able to do so he has to change his perception of the situation slightly. “The blue rod’s longer than the pink one.” “The pink rod’s shorter than the blue one.” Because the change of viewpoint comes from the student, he feels from the inside the change in emphasis and so the exercise is not just a mechanical drill – and is not entirely predictable. Instead of responding with, “The pink rod’s shorter than the blue one” even a near beginner might suggest, “The pink rod’s not as long as the blue one.” In the hands of a competent Silent Way teacher, the generation of alternative constructions becomes a real tool for the student to expand the range of his English – and this at all levels from beginner to advanced. Sometimes five or six statements can be generated by the students (the more students in the group the better, for this) with, or without, the teacher’s help, each of the statements shedding light on the exact meaning of the others. Examples: “Could I have…?” /”Give me…” /”Would you be so kind as to pass me…?” or “In 1979.”/”When I was thirty.”/”The year Mrs Thatcher came to power.”/”Twenty-one years ago.” It is also instructive for the students when they come up with expressions which they may believe to be equivalent, such as: “How are you?” and “How do you do?” or “actually” and “at the moment” to realise that they are not. In this way students can build a very precise picture of the nuances of the language in a surprisingly short time. It is a point in the class during which the students can concentrate intensively on “how” to say something without being distracted by needing to find a “subject” at the same time. Many students quickly realise the value of this technique and begin to propose alternatives of their own accord. They start to test their hypotheses about sentences and often ask if such and such an alternative is possible. This is one of the reasons why a Silent Way class becomes a highly participatory class.

Nearly all these instructions can be, and frequently are, conveyed through gestures rather than by spoken sentences. When working with beginners or low level students whose language the teacher does not speak, gestures, of course, are the only option. Where, however, the teacher can communicate in the student’s native language, the spoken word can reduce the unnecessary stress a student may experience if he is unsure of what is required of him.

“Why am I asking you to do this?”

Sometimes the student’s body language indicates resistance to doing a particular exercise, or he may specifically ask, “What is the point of doing this?” (learning the colour code, for example) Before giving an explanation herself, it is often useful for the teacher to turn the question back to the class. Looking for a reason already partially reduces the student’s resistance. It also means that other students in the class can offer their views. In every group there are individuals for whom the teacher’s objectives are obvious and who can explain them to the other students. Those who have difficulty in understanding the purpose of certain activities are often less resistant to the explanations of their fellow students than to the teacher’s. There are often times, though, when the teacher herself may need to take the time to talk to the students at some length to make clear the reasons for her way of working, in much the same terms as we have done in this article. This will be done in English if the students’ level is sufficient, or in their native language if it is not. There are other ways of dealing with resistance than through verbal explanation, but it can be a rapid and effective tool. It is not only the content of what the teacher says that is important, but also the fact that she demonstrates that she has noticed what the student is feeling and thinking and is treating him as an intellectual equal by explaining the reasons for her actions that has an effect. As long a student is putting his energy into resisting and contesting what is being proposed, he cannot put it into learning the language.

We would be interested to know what other Silent Way teachers elsewhere in the world say to their students.

© Glenys Hanson, Donna L’Hôte, John Olsen and Roslyn Young, 1998.

Caleb Gattegno’s Science of Education: Ten Years After. Conference Proceedings and Related Offerings, Association for the Science of Education, New York 1999.

A translation and synthesis of the individual contributions of the four teachers pp 443 – 460 in YOUNG R. (1990) Universaux dans l’enseignement et l’apprentissage du français et de l’anglais dans des situations pédagogiques diverses. Thèse de doctorat, Science du langage, Université de Franche-Comté, France.

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“What does ‘Working on the Student’ Mean? What four Silent Way teachers say to their students” by Glenys Hanson, Donna L’Hôte, John Olsen and Roslyn Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.