William Bernhardt – Notes on the Gattegno Learning Materials and their Application to the Teaching of Writing

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William Bernhardt

William Bernhardt


I have been using the Gattegno learning materials in my own teaching since 1971, after I first encountered them in a workshop in Spanish taught by one of Dr. Gattegno’s colleagues. Because they made a powerful impact on me in a field where I was a struggling learner and had repeatedly met with failure, I felt they might also be helpful to my students. Certainly my experience as a teacher and a learner has been profoundly affected by Gattegno’s work from that time to the present. However, I doubt that I can convey what I have gained from this long apprenticeship in the following pages. If they have the effect of stimulating the reader’s curiosity to find out more for himself or herself then I will have succeeded. Dr. Caleb Gattegno developed many learning materials during his long and varied career, not all of which are easily available today. I am referring here only to the following:

  1. Color-coded Phonic Code Charts “Fidels” for working on the sounds and spellings of English and other languages:

    Caleb Gattegno - English Fidel 1978

    Caleb Gattegno – English Fidel 1978, © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

  2. Color-coded Word Charts for literacy in native languages “Words in Color – Word Wall Charts”, example:

    Caleb Gattegno - Words in Color Chart 3, 1978

    Caleb Gattegno – Words in Color Chart 3, 1978 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

  3. Color-coded Word Charts of functional vocabulary in second/foreign languages “The Silent Way – Word Charts”:

    Caleb Gattegno - Silent Way US English Word Charts 1977

    Caleb Gattegno – Silent Way US English Word Charts 1977. © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

  4. Wooden rods “Algebricks”, “Cuisenaire rods” for illustrating grammatical structures and spatial/temporal relations, evoking imagery, etc.
    Cuisenaire rodsCuisenaire co. UK
  5. Wall Pictures for triggering description, narrative, etc.

(All of the above, as well as instructional materials for teachers describing their use, can be purchased from Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc. in New York and its representatives in a number of other countries throughout the world. Practical, hands-on workshops–which I consider essential and indispensable–are also available through Educational Solutions.)

I have used all of the materials listed above in various situations: teaching remedial and regular composition courses on the college level; tutoring learners of all ages from kindergarten to graduate school; conducting teacher-training courses, seminars and workshops in the U.S., China, and Japan. I have always found them to be extremely powerful in eliciting writing from learners of all ages and conditions, as well as in prompting people to reflect on their own experience as writers. I have also found them to be compatible with whatever other materials — textbooks, novels, magazines, films, worksheets, etc. — I provided myself or were required to use. (I have found them to be particularly compatible with the various “writing process” approaches advanced by people such as Elbow, Calkins, Graves, Moffett, et. al. as well as Freire’s concern with “empowering” learners.)

Gattegno’s materials are fundamentally different from virtually all other commercially available learning/teaching aids in at least four respects:

  1. they have absolutely no entertainment content or component;
  2. they are multivalent and can be used with learners of all ages and degrees of competence, and in any number of diverse ways that are not immediately obvious;
  3. the concepts and language (some might say jargon) used by Gattegno to present his materials and their use is unfamiliar and difficult;
  4. the only way to understand what they offer is to experience them directly for oneself, and not as a one-shot deal but repeatedly.

These characteristics may in part account for the resistance of many teachers and educational administrators to the Gattegno materials. In any case, I haven’t found much resistance among my own students.

The longer I work with the materials, the more possibilities I see for their application. Indeed, the possibilities inherent in the rods, charts and pictures seem infinite. Virtually every conceivable real-life situation can be quickly and easily illustrated by the rods and used to trigger descriptive, narrative, and dramatic writing. The word charts provide the essential vocabulary for every conceivable type of writing (lyric poetry, philosophic prose, comparison/contrast, cause and effect, describing a process, etc.). If my students ask me how to spell a word, the meaning of a certain prefix, etc., I can throw them back on their own resources by pointing to certain items on certain charts.

Perhaps if I were a different kind of person, I would have been able to develop my use of these materials completely on my own. Instead, I have found it necessary to take a lot of workshops at Educational Solutions, read widely in Dr. Gattegno’s books, and observe other “Silent Way” and “Words in Color” teachers. All of these cost something, both in terms of time and money. Still, when I compare this investment to what I paid over the years for graduate school courses, educational conferences, pedagogical journals, teachers’ manuals, etc., the cost seems minimal and the return extraordinarily high.

There are several areas in which I have found the Gattegno materials especially powerful:

1. Providing learners with a valid basis for confidence in their own ability to find ‘something to say’

Clever assignments may elicit unexpected quantity or quality of writing from students, but often with the result that the writer ascribes his success to the teacher rather than himself/herself. However, if I say “write a paragraph using all of the words on Chart 6 plus any other words you wish”, and each learner in the group makes his/her own unique response to the challenge, the distinction between the role of the “trigger” (the words on the chart) and the abilities of the learner becomes visible to everyone. The students see that they are the ones doing the writing, not the teacher–a critical awareness.

The rods can be configured in unlimited numbers of ways to mobilize the imagery, creativity, and intuition of the learners in response to the question “what do you see?” Thus the learners can discover the importance of perception in becoming a writer. A similar use can be made of the wall pictures, which, through their deliberate ambiguity, permit writers to focus on those attributes they wish to stress and ignore others.

2. Using highly restricted writing situations to dissolve inhibitions and free the learners to focus on the demands of expression

Imposing restriction on which words can be used (as when a certain selection is made from the charts) often has the result of making learners feel more rather than less “free”. Because the restrictions are purely arbitrary and formal, they are not perceived by the students as a manipulation. Furthermore, the learners generally discover that words trigger other words so that “keeping going” is a matter of letting oneself go rather than straining.

Sets of words can be chosen by the instructor (or the learners) as starting places for writing according to any number of criteria including eliciting particular inner states of feeling, evoking certain subject matters or topics, focusing on particular parts of speech or grammatical constructions, etc., etc.

3. Providing opportunities for increased facility and coherence in a wide variety of written convention

All of the materials provide triggers for narrative: a street scene can be suggested by an arrangement of rods, or a story dynamically portrayed by simulating movement; a word on a chart can be proposed as the starting place for a recollection; what happened prior to the scene illustrated in a wall picture can be reconstructed…

Opportunities for precise description/directions can be easily created by placing a few rods on top of one another on a desk; ever more challenging situations can be devised by the addition of more rods or through establishing more complex spatial/temporal relationships.
Modes of composition (comparison, cause/effect, etc.) can be elicited through the use of the rods, pictures, or the identification of relevant vocabulary on the appropriate chart.

4. Mobilizing the powers of the learners’ spoken language as a support for correctness in standard written English

The technique of “visual dictation”, using a pointer and words on the charts, helps learners to understand the complexity of the encoding process, which includes using the melody and rhythm of the language to hold the words of an utterance in mind.

Using groups of often confused or misused words chosen from the charts (such as “to”, “too”, and “two” or “where” and “were”) within the same sentence can help learners become aware of differences between the demands of speaking and writing.

The Phonic Code Charts (“Fidel”) can be used to clarify the sounds and syllables (often at the ends of words) critical to the grammar of the language.

5. Helping students master the written code of English (spelling)

Both the Phonic Code and Word Charts can be used to clarify the mysteries of English spelling, allowing the learners to perceive both the visual and aural dimensions of the challenge. (Detailed suggestions are provided in The Common Sense of Teaching Reading and Writing.)
The rods, charts and pictures all lend themselves to group activities and collaborative learning. When students work together on composing, revising, and proof-reading in response to a certain assignment triggered by, say, a selection of words from a particular chart, they all have access to the same sources of information and can form criteria for truth, rightness, and correctness based on their own perceptions, rather than the teacher’s authority.

If you are new to these materials, let me end by suggesting two simple activities you can do by yourself and reflect on afterwards:

1) Construct a “still life” using several of the rods. Looking at what you have made, write each of the following:

  • A brief, literal description of what you see that leaves nothing out.
  • A brief narrative of your process of construction that starts with choosing which rods to use.
  • An imaginative description of what you see that is as fanciful as possible.
  • Precise directions for someone else to make the exact, same construction in as few steps as possible.
  • A poem composed of images supplied or suggested by the still life.

2) Examine one of the Silent Way or Words in Color word charts (for this purpose, ignore the colors) to determine:

  • Which words on the chart can be used to start a sentence? Why?
  • Which words on the chart form pairs or triads with other words on the same chart? Why?
  • Which words on the chart seem to possess a strong charge for you? Can you find a way to express that charge in a piece of writing that uses those words?
  • Write a paragraph using all of the words on the chart and as few other words as possible.
  • Write a story or poem using as many of the words on the chart as possible plus any other words you wish.

Do the exercises above offer any new possibilities for you in your teaching?
Can you see any further possibilities beyond those suggested here?
Do you feel that the materials could provide you with a useful resource in your classroom?

© William Bernhardt
The College of Staten Island, City University of New York

The Science of Education in Questions – N° 15 , Une Education Pour Demain, France. February 1997.


William Bernhardt teaches at The College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

He studied with Dr. Gattegno starting in the early 70s, and all of his teaching and writing since that time has been part of an effort to integrate what he learned from Gattegno with his everyday life and work.

In recent years, he has been particularly concerned with applying the principles of Words in Color and The Silent Way to teaching and learning with computers, while trying to always keep in mind that technology is a human invention and must be used with respect for the powers of learners that transcend all technologies.

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“Notes on the Gattegno Learning Materials and their Application to the Teaching of Writing” by William Bernhardt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.