“Silence is Golden“: Going to Extremes to Reduce TTT
by Gabi Bonner

It occurred to me suddenly as I was leaving the lesson, and I was horrified. I’d just spent more time talking than my students – giving instructions, correcting errors, modelling pronunciation, monitoring, conducting feedback, and telling the disruptive ones to shut up and listen! I mean, it seems to be common knowledge amongst EFL teachers, and it was drilled into us during CELTA, that too much TTT (Teacher Talking Time) is something to be avoided, as it takes the focus away from the students thus making the lesson too teacher-centred. Although I’m aware that a certain amount of ‘quality TTT’, for example modelling language, is necessary and can be a positive thing, I was still convinced that I had a fairly grave case of verbal diarrhoea. I decided then and there that serious measures had to be taken to reduce the dreaded TTT. I’d heard about a somewhat unconventional yet quite intriguing approach to language teaching called the Silent Way – in which the teacher is mainly (but not completely!) silent, therefore giving the students more opportunities to speak. I decided that this could well be the solution to my problem, or at least make for a fascinating experiment, and so I made it my mission to find out more…

So what’s the Silent Way all about?

Devised by Caleb Gattegno, the Silent Way is a pedagogical approach to language teaching based on the premise that the teacher should be as silent as possible in the classroom (about 90% of the time), and that learners should be encouraged to produce as much language as possible. The learning hypothesis behind the Silent Way is that learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or creates rather than remembers and repeats what is to be learned. Also, students learn more effectively through problem solving involving the target language. It views language learning as a creative, problem-solving and discovering activity in which the learner is a principal actor rather than a bench-bound listener (Bruner: 1966). Basically, the Silent Way can be described as a problem-solving approach to language learning, and is summed up nicely in Benjamin Franklin’s words:

“Tell me and I forget,

Teach me and I remember,

Involve me and I learn .”

In a Silent Way lesson teaching is subordinated to learning (Gattegno: 1972). The teacher takes on a role that resembles that of a leader of a team of investigators on a voyage of discovery. He or she creates an environment that encourages student risk-taking and facilitates learning. The teacher’s role in a Silent Way lesson has also been described as that of a dramatist who writes the script, chooses the props, sets the mood, models the action, designates the players and is a critic for the performance.  

The Silent Way and my students

When I began reading about the Silent Way I have to say I was rather excited. You see, having had quite a few ‘motivational issues’ with my upper-intermediate intensive class, it seemed that trying out the Silent Way and giving them responsibility for their own learning might well help to motivate them. I decided to take things one step further than Gattegno proposed however, and attempt to teach the entire ninety-minute lesson completely silently! I decided that if the students knew I was not prepared to utter one word, then there would be no expectancy on their part that I would speak if they didn’t understand something. I was also hoping the ‘novelty value’ of a completely silent lesson might also capture and sustain their attention and interest. One of the principles behind the Silent Way is that through problem-solving, learners become more autonomous and responsible for their own learning. It has been proven by researchers that learner autonomy plays a significant role in increasing integrative motivation (see Dornyei: 2001). Could this possibly give me the opportunity to kill two (or more!) birds with one stone? : To get my students to speak more in class, make them responsible for their learning, AND increase their motivation. It almost sounded too good to be true!

I got mixed reactions from my colleagues when I announced what I was planning to do. Some gave me a fairly indifferent ‘uh huh’, being used to my ‘little experiments’, some were interested and wanted to know the details of my plan, and some told me I’d never be able to teach an entire ninety-minute lesson without at least giggling and/or saying something by mistake. There was no going back though… I was determined and inspired!

 

The Control Lesson

I taught a control lesson which had the exact same stages as the silent lesson would, working on a receptive skill followed by a productive skill. The receptive skill we focussed on was intensive reading. Students read a series of mini-sagas (English File Upper Intermediate) and we paused after each one to fill in a missing word and re-tell the story in the students’ own words. I then had students complete a (productive) Task-Based problem-solving activity, in which they were required to organise a class trip to Venice. The unit in the textbook is ‘A Moment in Venice’, so it was connected to the theme of the lesson. I gave instructions, checked them, and conducted whole class feedback as usual. I administered a short feedback questionnaire at the end of the lesson (see appendix). At the end of the control lesson I announced what I was planning to do in the next lesson. They were used to my experiments and had learned to tolerate them, but this time they looked at me as if I had completely lost it. Maybe I had… but then I convinced myself that some guy with a really cool name who has written heaps of books and even invented a whole approach to language teaching MUST at least have some idea what he’s talking about. I begged my students to promise to come on Thursday.

The Silent Lesson

 Thursday morning 8.45am. I enter the classroom with a feeling of slight trepidation riddled with excitement and anticipation. I have eight students. Not as many as had promised to come, but enough. I wrote ‘Please try to speak only English’ on the board, as I’d been warned that these type of experiments can lead to students reverting to their L1 if they don’t understand something. I waved hello, pointed to myself and then a smile and thumbs up to let them know I was well. I then pointed to my students with a questioning expression. “I’m fine and looking forward to the lesson”, said a shy girl who hardly ever speaks. Not a bad start, I thought to myself, encouraged by this initial positive response. I then pointed to other students and they told me how they were. My next aim was to find out what they’d been up to since I last saw them on Monday. Easier said than done, or easier said than gestured! I wrote ‘Today’ on the board. “Thursday”, someone called out. A nod and smile from me. I then gestured behind me to try to elicit the past. “Wednesday”, someone else said. Again. “Tuesday”. I wrote these days of the week on the board and pointing to each day, mimed what I’d done. For example, Wednesday I read a book, Tuesday I went for a walk etc. I then pointed to several students and in turn they told me what they’d done since Monday. So far so good!

Next, as a lead-in to the extreme sport of mountain climbing, I showed the students pictures of some extreme sports such as bungee jumping, hang gliding and skydiving. I elicited the names of these sports using a hangman-type procedure where students guessed the letters. I then used gestures to put them into pairs. I drew a smiley face and a sad face on the board, pointed to each sport picture and made myself lose all traces of self-consciousness (and possibly sanity as well!) by miming each of the sports and whether I would like it or not like it or be scared etc. I had the students in stitches, but they understood that I wanted them to discuss with their partner how they felt about these sports. I monitored as unobtrusively as possible. I then conducted a whole class feedback session in which I got several students to report on what their partner had said, using gestures and/facial expressions to let students know how I felt about students’ opinions on each of the sports. If I heard a ‘silly’ mistake, I put on my ‘sad face’ to let students know that something wasn’t correct, and to my great delight one of the other students was able to correct their colleague’s mistake! I then wanted to know if any of the students had ever tried any of these ‘extreme’ sports. I drew a timeline on the board and labelled it ‘now’ on the right-hand side and ‘past’ on the left-hand side. I then pointed to a sport, then to the students, and drew several crosses on the timeline at different points before ‘now’, and put on my ‘questioning’ face. “You mean have we ever tried it?”, someone asked. Triumphant nods and smiles from me. It was actually working!

Next came the pre-teaching of the vocabulary needed for the subsequent reading task. I held up the handout I’d made and gestured that they were to match the words on the left with the definitions on the right in pairs. I then managed to check my instructions using gestures. I pointed to the handout and put on my ‘questioning face’. Some lovely person got the idea and said, “matching”. I wanted to hug them. The whole class feedback for this task was fast and efficient, with me picking students to share their answers and then using my by then famous ‘questioning face’ to check if the other students agreed. I pointed to my mouth to let them know that I wanted to hear the pronunciation of each word. I waited until I heard the correct pronunciation, and then I got that student to repeat it again and I drilled the word several times. I even managed to ask a CCQ using gestures and miming; I have to admit I was fairly impressed with myself for this J . The word was ‘horrified‘. I wrote a number one and a number two on the board, and then I pointed to number one and made a happy and relaxed face and then pointed to number two and made a horrified face. Then I pointed to the numbers and made my ‘questioning face’. “Number two!” YES!!!

Then I wrote ‘page 43 please’ on the board. Students turned to page 43 of their textbook, and I pointed at which task I wanted them to do. It was to read the first paragraph of the text about mountain climbers and decide what they would’ve done had they been one of the climbers in the story. I then checked my instructions by pointing to the other paragraphs and putting on my ‘questioning face’. “Just the first one”, someone said. I nodded in agreement. Feedback for this task was conducted as a whole class and consisted of me picking a few students to tell the class what they would’ve done had they been in this situation. This led to a bit of a debate too, which I sat back and watched as a spectator. My students were actually taking responsibility for their learning and giving themselves opportunities to speak!

I was ecstatic J This routine of the students reading the paragraph and then responding to the questions continued for the five paragraphs of the story. I then drew several smiley faces on the board with different expressions, and I pointed to the story, and students discussed their impressions of the story and how they felt about it. By this time it was half way through the lesson, and I was ready for the fun part to begin!

I decided it was time for some re-grouping. I motioned for the students to stand up and come into the middle of the room. I pretended to draw a straight line on the ground with my finger, and then I stood at one end of the line and reached my arm up as high as it would go, and then I stood at the other end and put my arm down low. I then picked the tallest student and got him to stand at one end and then I got the shortest student to stand at the other end, and I gestured for the other students to find their place in the line according to height. When they’d accomplished this I put them into new pairs according to who they were next to in the line and they sat down with their new partner.

I drew several mountains on the board, and then pointed at the highest one. “Everest”, someone shouted out. I nodded in approval, and then pointed to the map of the world on the wall with my ‘questioning face’. “Himalayas”, “Tibet”, “Nepal”, right! I then showed them an OHT with instructions for their first task. It was to select five people for their team in the race to the summit of Mount Everest to win the £5 million prize. The team members could be famous people or people the students knew, but they had to justify their choice. I then had them come and write their proposed team members on the board, and they then had to explain why they’d chosen these particular people, and they debated it and eventually came to an agreement. Task two was to select their equipment from a list of possible items (including English File Upper-Intermediate, a teddy bear and roller blades!). The same procedure was followed as for task one, with a debate and finally an agreement. Subsequent tasks included choosing their guide, choosing a team member to lose when the food supplies ran out, choosing a piece of equipment to lose, deciding whether or not to let Pavel Bem join the team when we run into him on the last leg, and planning the party for when we reach the summit. While students were discussing and carrying out the tasks, I sat on the sideline thinking about how proud I was of my students for making their lesson such a success, and I was aware that I was witnessing the almost complete subordination of teaching to learning. I have to say I was thoroughly entertained as well! I mean, listening to people discuss whether Superman, Batman, David Beckham or Tom and Jerry would be most efficient at getting to the summit of Everest can only be hilarious!

When I finally spoke at the very end of the lesson, the students seemed really surprised, and not the least bit relieved. They filled in the same questionnaires as for the control lesson, and they gave me some oral feedback. One student told me he thought I should act in the theatre! I’m not sure if this was a compliment or not.. but I think I’ll take it as one, because as mentioned above, the Silent Way teacher is supposed to take on the role of a ‘dramatist’!

Discussion and Implications

In the feedback questionnaire results, unlike the control lesson, all but one student had a strong opinion on the lesson. Out of the eight students, five gave very positive feedback about the lesson, saying that they enjoyed the lesson, they learned lots, they had more opportunities to speak than usual, they’d be happy to have similar lessons in the future and the teacher’s behaviour helped them to learn. One lovely person even said that the lesson was super! One student wasn’t sure about the lesson, saying that he enjoyed it somewhat and learned a bit, but wasn’t sure if he wanted similar lessons in the future. He did say that he had more opportunities to speak than usual though. Two students gave negative feedback, saying that they didn’t enjoy the lesson, they didn’t learn anything and that they didn’t have any more opportunities to speak than usual. It’s interesting to note that these two students are the strongest in the class and usually speak the most. Possible reasons for this negative feedback could be that they know they’re the strongest in the class and they’re used to this idea and they like it, and so when suddenly the nature of the lesson is such that linguistic competence is not the only necessary quality or skill, but also problem solving – a different type of intelligence – and extracting meaning from gestures and taking risks, they’re suddenly not the best anymore. It’s possible that when they discovered that they didn’t stand out as the best in the class anymore, they felt a bit ‘put out’ by this and became negative towards that particular learning situation. It may also be due to different learning styles. The language teaching approaches adopted by the Czech state school system are particularly conducive to oral learners. A likely possibility is that the stronger students in the class are mainly oral learners, and the Silent Way, being geared more towards visual and/or kinaesthetic learners, did not fit their learning style. This suggests that the weaker students in the class could be more visual and/or kinaesthetic learners and their learning styles have not been sufficiently catered for.

In the oral feedback session most students said that the lesson wasn’t at all frustrating, that it was different, fun, and entertaining. They said they spoke more and cooperated better with each other and worked as a team. They said they all got lots of practice asking questions (to check my instructions) and they helped each other ask questions and corrected each other. They said they didn’t have a problem with being corrected by their peers, as the atmosphere in the class was supportive, relaxed, friendly, and full of laughs.

This (slightly crazy!) experiment of mine shows that even though it’s commonly associated with low-level classes, the Silent Way definitely has some value for higher-level classes; novelty value as well as linguistic value. If there is any sort of focus on vocabulary, I think it would facilitate things by having the teacher model the pronunciation rather than waiting for a student to say it correctly, however for classes in which students are familiar with phonemic script this would not be a problem. I also noticed that even the ‘quiet’ students spoke a lot more, and quite often it was them who were first to interpret my instructions.

I suspect you probably want to know if it was difficult to stay completely silent for ninety minutes. To tell the truth I didn’t actually feel tempted to speak at all. I think this may have been due to the fact that I had planned the lesson in detail and considered exactly how I would convey and check instructions etc, and fortunately I’m also able to think on my feet fairly well. However I can see how the temptation to speak could exist if one were faced with a serious communication barrier. I must admit though that I was on the verge of laughing throughout a good chunk of the lesson. I think this was due to being aware of just how ridiculous I must have looked while making my ‘over the top’ gestures and facial expressions, and extremely poor (and embarrassing!) attempts to draw recognisable objects on the board. But I also wanted to laugh with excitement and delight while watching my students work together and cooperate and speak more English than I’d ever heard them speak before. By no means am I suggesting that language teachers all adopt the Silent Way, but just that teaching a silent lesson is something pretty fun and a bit different, and it might well get those less-talkative students speaking!

So, to those sceptical colleagues of mine who doubted my ability to be completely silent for ninety minutes, not only did I achieve it, but I also proved that a silent lesson can be very successful, effective, fun, entertaining and rewarding, and I recommend you try it sometime. It turns out that silence truly can be golden!

References

Bruner, J. 1966. On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand. New York: Atheneum.

Dornyei, Z. Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. CUP.

Gattegno, C. 1972. Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools: The Silent Way. New York: Educational Solutions.  

Appendix  

Please take a few minutes to answer these questions about the lesson you’ve just had

  1. Did you enjoy this lesson? yes/no/somewhat
  2. How much did you learn? a lot/a bit/nothing
  3. Did you get enough opportunities to speak? yes/no
  4. Would you be happy to have similar lessons in the future? yes/no
  5. How did you feel about the behaviour of the teacher?

It helped me to learn/it didn’t help me to learn/it was crazy!

Biodata

Gabi Bonner has been teaching at Akcent International House in Prague since completing her CELTA there in 2006. She has an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and her current research interests lie in motivation in Second Language Acquisition, methodology and using songs and music in the EFL classroom.

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