As in every town, there’s an area where nobody would choose to live – high crime rate, high unemployment, mainly immigrants living in high-rise public housing, low expectations of what the children will achieve in school. On a cold, sunny morning in February I went to one of these neighborhoods to watch a class of six-year-olds (also some seven-year-olds who had failed to learn to read the previous year with a different method and were repeating the year) learning to read, write and do arithmetic. The teacher, Françoise Lazare, had told me that only two of the children are French in origin, the others are African, Yugoslav, Arab, Turk, Vietnamese and Portuguese, so for most of them French was their second language. Many of them suffer from gross neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse while others have already embarked on a life of crime.
The reason I had chosen to visit this class was that the teacher was using la Lecture en couleurs (the French version of Words in Color), so I was not surprised to see the Fidel charts (which group by color all the spellings of a given sound) on a board at the front of the room:
and the word charts on the wall on either side of the blackboard. Four of the 16 French charts shown here:
In every other way it was a standard French primary school classroom.
After settling at their desks, the children started the morning by singing a song of several verses without accompaniment or help from the teacher until the very last verse. The song seemed to me to have a lot of words not normally within a six-year-old’s vocabulary range, but otherwise it was an unexceptional start to the school day.
Pointing sentences on the the Fidel
The reading lesson began when the teacher said, “Who’s got a sentence?” About half the children put up their hands. The teacher waited a few seconds for some more children to take their time to think of a sentence, and then named one of the children (In fact, I don’t remember her name – as nearly all the children had unfamiliar, foreign names. I’ve only retained a few). The little girl said, “Daddy is at home.” The teacher gave the girl a pointer and she came to the front of the class and pointed to the graphemes (letters or combinations of letters) which spelled her sentence on the Fidel. The teacher watched and then turned to the class and asked, “Do you agree?” Several voices said, “Yes.” The teacher gave no indication that it was correct but asked for another sentence. A second child proposed, “Granny went shopping.” and was about to go and point it when another child said, “Teacher, you said we’d play a different game. We choose someone else to point our sentence.” The teacher said, “You’re right. Who do you want to point your sentence, Zara ?” The girl named another child who came and pointed and the teacher again asked the class if they agreed. This time several did not, so the teacher asked one of these to come and point something different. This second pointing still did not satisfy the class and other children came to try until everyone was satisfied with the result. Though remaining very attentive to the children’s work, the teacher gave no indication as to whether or not the successive pointings were correct and the children did not turn towards her for answers. At this moment, her main role was to decide who should come to work on the charts. When they had finished, she asked one of the children to write the word that had caused the problem on the blackboard. It was written correctly. The class continued working in the same way for about an hour, sometimes pointing their own sentences, sometimes suggesting sentences for another child to point as they wanted. Very occasionally, when the class saw nothing wrong with a pointing, the teacher said, “I don’t agree,” to make them realize there was an error. Two or three sentences that took the children some time to point correctly, the teacher herself afterwards wrote on the board. I write “the children” because, though only one child was allowed to point at a time, all the others were actively monitoring what was being shown and frequently proposing alternatives. The teacher also intervened after all the first six or seven sentences had started with Mummy, Daddy (“Daddy killed a burglar.”) or Granny to suggest they try something different. This led to more varied sentences of which perhaps the most ambitious was, “The hunters killed a wild boar and cut it up so that they each had a piece.”
Learning to spell “kiwi”
One of the things that bothered me at first was the fact the teacher accepted pointings that though in the correct column of the Fidel, were not the correct spelling. I gradually came to see that she had criteria for demanding correct spelling from certain children but not others, and for certain words but not others. One of the sentences proposed by the children that provided an interesting problem was “There are thirteen pips in the kiwi.” “Kiwi” is a foreign word that does not follow conventional French spelling rules for the consonants. The child’s first proposition was to point the first spelling, the most frequent one in French, in the /k/ column which is “c”. Another child volunteered another possibility, pointing “qu” in the same column. The teacher indicated that they could go on looking and a third child found “k” in the same column. The teacher asked the first child to point the whole word. He pointed -k-i- very confidently and then hesitated and looked at the teacher. This was one of the rare times that the teacher pointed herself saying, “Do you remember the other day we had the word “clown” and we took the “w” from here…” and she circled the “w” in the “ow” in the /u/ column. It was clear that her reason for intervening was that the children did not have enough experience of this particular spelling to find it on their own. The child who had suggested the sentence was now able to point the whole sentence correctly. The teacher then said, “I’m going to write the first spelling on the board,” and she wrote “ciwi” and asked the class to pronounce it. Many voices provided /siwi/ which showed they had correctly internalized the French spelling convention that “c” followed by “i” is pronounced /s/, without of course ever having heard such an explicit rule. She then said, “Alex proposed this…” and wrote “quioui” and the children pronounced it /kiwi/. She said, “The spelling’s not right for this word but it is for others. For example…” and the children provided examples. Then she asked a child to come and write “kiwi” correctly, which he did without hesitation.
During this hour all the children but one followed each other’s pointing of words very attentively, competing for the privilege of being allowed to come and point suggestions when a problem arose by excitedly raising and waving their hands and even standing up in their places. Only one child, Aziz, and he only occasionally, called answers out of turn when another child was working. These were the only times when I saw the teacher take any kind of disciplinary action – she spoke to him very sharply. Most of the time he managed to control his obviously burning desire to participate actively all the time. Several times after being forced to wait in silence while a slower child looked for, and found, a solution to a problem, he would engagingly admit, “I would have made a mistake. I thought it was different.” It was obvious that the control the teacher exercised over his behavior gave him the opportunity of realizing that in spite of his intelligence, over hasty answers could lead to mistakes. It was clear too that he did not resent her remarks as he maintained a good humored attention to the work of the others.
A child with special needs
During this time, Catherine was the only child who did not appear to be working. She wandered around the class, played with some toys at the back of the room and sometimes came and leaned against the teacher. She was quiet and appeared happy and relaxed. The teacher told me afterwards that this was enormous progress from when she had arrived in September and had spent the days crouching in a corner of the classroom with her hands over her mouth and eyes. At the end of this period the teacher asked the class to propose a sentence for Catherine to point. The girl refused, “Catherine can read” and “Catherine goes to the Center” (the psychiatric unit where she goes several times a week for treatment) but she accepted, “Catherine takes a taxi.” (which she does to go to the Center). Catherine then took the pointer and walked slowly towards the Fidel. The teacher said, “Do you want me to come with you?” Catherine nodded and the teacher took a chair and sat about three feet from the Fidel. Catherine then pointed her sentence, her own name spelled correctly and the sounds of the other words in the correct columns of the Fidel.
The transformations game
The teacher then suggested a different “game”. She asked the children to close their eyes and look at the word “mouche” (fly) in their heads. It was obviously not a new game because, though her instructions were very brief, it was clear that the children were visualizing the written word. I could see that some of the children were “cheating”, some of them opened their eyes to take a quick look at the Fidel, one boy “wrote” the word with his finger on his desk. The teacher paid no overt attention to this, just waiting until all the children indicated they could “see” the word. “Now,” she said, “remove the first one with three legs and put the lazy one blowing a bubble in its place. Can you see another word?” The children knew that the rule of the game was not to shout out the word but just to say that they could “see” it. The teacher again waited for all the children to take the time to do the work and then asked one of the slower children to say what the new word was. He said, “bouche” (mouth). She asked him to come and write it on the board, which he did correctly. I knew that when she used expressions like “letter with three legs” that this was not baby talk but a way of avoiding the confusion that using the name of a letter can cause with the sound or sounds associated with it in a given word. French, like English, is not written phonetically – most letters are used to represent several different sounds, and all sounds can be written in a number of different ways. In this example the name of the letter “m” is pronounced “em” which has two sounds: /e/ and /m/, while in the word “mouche” it represents only one sound: /m/. (On reading over this article F. L. told me that an even more important reason is to say something that makes the children create a visual image of the letter.) The teacher proposed several more words to be transformed by substitution in the same way. The children appeared to be confident in their powers of mental imagery and evocation. It was very impressive to see a whole classroom full of little children sitting with their eyes shut and such an air of concentration on their faces. When the teacher proposed a substitution not of a letter but of a sound, one which happens to be written with two letters, the /u/ in “coucher” to /a/. One boy said he was unable to do this. So she asked him to come to the board where, without further help, he was able to write “coucher”, rub out the “ou” and substitute “a” thus demonstrating that the powers of perception and action can be relied on when there has not been sufficient practice of a particular skill to make virtual manipulation of mental images possible.
Individual writing exercise
After ten or fifteen minutes of this “game”, the teacher said they were going to write sentences and asked the children to get out their slates. The first sentence she proposed was, “Elle a mis son pantalon rouge” (She put on her red pants). She said the sentence aloud but did not allow the children to write it down until they had counted the number of words in the sentence on their fingers. She held up her own fingers one by one as the children said the words of the sentence. She did this several times until all the children were able to raise a finger for each word of the sentence. She had to help one child of foreign origin to pronounce the first vowel sound of “pantalon” correctly. Then she let them write the sentence. I walked around the classroom to see what the children did. About half the children wrote quickly and neatly on a (virtual) line “elle a mi son pantalon rouge” and most of the others wrote the same words but had problems with the lay out – the letters were not well proportioned and/or having started the sentence too low or too much to the right they had difficulty getting in all the words. When I saw that nearly all the children had only one spelling mistake and that it was the same one, “mi” for “mis”, I realized that it was not a slip, but something that had not yet been worked on in this class. Two or three children had more serious problems – the breaks between the words were not right and words other than “mis” were misspelled. One boy, after being made to recount the words in the sentence on his fingers – which was far from easy for him – and then the “words” on his slate – which he could do easily (which indicated that his problem was not with counting but with picking out the words), was then able to correct his work. While the teacher was taking the time to help the weaker children in this way, the faster ones, of their own accord, turned over their slates and quietly made drawings on the back until the teacher judged that everyone had had time to write the sentence as well as they could. The teacher did not choose to make this the moment to work on developing the necessary criteria for the children to understand why it should be “mis” and not “mi” so, at the end, she simply wrote the correct sentence on the board. For some of the children – I heard their intake of breath or saw them nod – this was probably enough, others would need more work on the problem. Three or four sentences were treated in the same way.
Correcting drawings on the board
While the children were working on the last sentence the teacher made four drawings on the board and wrote a sentence next to each one. The drawings however lacked something that was in the corresponding sentence. For example, next to the sentence “There is smoke coming from the chimney of the house” there was a picture of a house but no smoke coming from the chimney. When the teacher drew the children’s attention to what was on the board, she stated the rules of the game, “When you know what’s missing in this picture (she pointed to the house), put up your hands.” As usual, half the children immediately put up their hands but the teacher waited until all had done so. The quicker children, though they waved their hands and cried excitedly “I know! I know!” kept to the rules of the game and did not shout out the answer. Finally the teacher chose one of the slower children to come to the front and gave him a piece of chalk. The boy stood uncertainly in front of the board looking at the chimney of the house which was too high for him to reach. The teacher said to him, “You need something else.” and the boy pulled up a chair, stood on it and drew in the smoke on the chimney. I realized that by not telling the boy directly to go get a chair but just directing his attention sufficiently so that he could find his own solution, the teacher was applying the same educative principles to this practical problem as she was to the academic subject matter. With another drawing one of the children made an interesting mistake. The sentence was “My car is in the garage” and there was a picture of the car but no garage. The little girl drew a garage next to the car. The teacher asked the child to say the sentence aloud which she was able to do easily and immediately the expression on her face changed indicating that she had understood the sentence and she erased her garage and redrew it around the car. I realize, writing this, that I was witness to a clear demonstration of comprehension coming from the spoken language, not the written as Caleb Gattegno had realized. None of the other sentences on the board were said aloud, proving that in those cases the children were able to create virtual spoken sentences in their minds from what they read.
The exercise was to be continued individually with sentences accompanied by drawings on a sheet of paper. The teacher was about to hand out the papers herself, when the children reminded her that it was Lionel’s turn to do this kind of job. When he gave out the papers each child politely thanked him without any prompting. This little incident brought home to me children’s sensitivity to conventions of all kinds, from the rules of football to those of spelling, and their pleasure in respecting them.
The meaning is in the oral language
The teacher again went round the class responding for requests for help. They asked me too. One little girl had a problem reading the sentence, “Cinq pommes pendent de l’arbre” (Five apples are hanging on the tree). There were only three apples in the drawing. Her first difficulty was that she was pronouncing the “c” of “cinq” as /k/ instead of /s/. By telling her it was green (the color on the Fidel) she was immediately able to say the word but I realized, too late, that I had not helped her to develop criteria for another time. I could, for example, have referred back to the earlier misspelling of kiwi as “ciwi” which might have acted as a trigger because the combination “ci” (which is always pronounced /si/ in French) had obviously been worked on before in the class. I had noticed that the teacher frequently used well known words as triggers for certain spellings “It’s the /e/ of maison”. Her second problem was that she was pronouncing the word “pendent” as two syllables /pãdã/ (which is actually another word written “pendant” meaning “while”) instead of as one syllable /pãd/. Her mistake showed that she knew that “ent” can be pronounced /ã/ (as in “dent” for example) but that she had not realized that here it is a verb ending which is never pronounced. I asked her to say the sentence very quickly which she did, “Cinq pommes /pãdã/ … ah! /pãd/ de l’arbre,” and took up her pencil to draw in the additional apples.
Catherine writes my name
At one point I happened to be standing near the Fidel charts when Catherine came up to me and asked me my name. I told her and asked her if she would like to point it on the Fidel. She nodded and pointed: g – e – and hesitated. I asked her if she would like me to point it, she nodded again so I quickly pointed it. She went to the other side of the room and started to write on the board. I went to look a few minutes later and saw she had written “glenis” demonstrating that, if she had not paid exact attention to my pointing of the fifth letter, she had criteria for knowing how the sound /i/ is usually written in French. I was surprised because until then I had not realized she could write so much. Needless to say, on the social level, I also felt extremely flattered that she had taken so much trouble with my name.
Then it was time for the break, after which they worked on arithmetic in the same way. That is with F. L. making sure, step-by-step, that each child, through having the succession of necessary awarenesses, created the appropriate mental structures for the permanent acquisition of each micro skill. Watching these children working happily and eagerly I found it difficult to see them as the victims of social deprivation and abuse (the details concerning some of them are quite horrific). For thirty hours a week at least, they were in a privileged environment, functioning as human beings in the highest sense, discovering themselves and their capacities through learning.
Note: All of the children in this class learned to read and write by the end of the school year; none of them had to repeat the year.
© Glenys Hanson, 1997
After an MA in Politics at Edinburgh University, Glenys Hanson moved to France in 1972: first to Paris, then to Bordeaux and finally to Besançon.
She taught English as a foreign language, mainly to adults from 1974 to 2010. She worked with a team of 7 other Silent Way teachers at the Centre de linguistique appliquée at the Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon, France. At the CLA she also participated in running teacher-training courses – particularly for primary school teachers.
In 2000 she created a resource site for teachers and learners of English: English Online France which includes numerous interactive exercises inspired by the Silent Way.
From 2004 to 2010 she ran many distance learning courses for health professionals and others.
“Learning to read with Words in Color in an Inner City Neighborhood” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.