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Cuisenaire Rods and Silence
by Tim Hahn

Currently based in Barcelona, Tim Hahn is a freelance teacher and trainer. He has co-authored several cousebooks for secondary and adult students and is a contributor to a number of professional magazines. He is closely associated with Pilgrims and has led training courses for them and for the British Council in the UK, and throughout Spain and eastern Europe.
Tim can be contacted at

As Alistair said in his Teaching Tip of November 27th, silence can be golden.

Think a bit about the following.

There are times when we it's natural to keep silent. No one teaches us to go quiet when we listen intensely to someone or something that has caught our attention. Depending on our culture silence may or may not be called for in different situations. When we are in the wrong and someone is berating us or stating their point of view we many times fall silent. Our mood often affects our silence. A common reaction of people who are angry or upset is to go silent purposefully and refuse to speak. Some games or contests require silence as well.

Since in life we often use silence for an effect, it follows that it can be a very powerful tool in the classroom. For many teachers "keeping them busy and quiet " is a relief. But silence can be useful when we learn to apply it to specific ends. Teachers who rush to correct or answer questions they've posed can help themselves and their students by keeping quiet for a short time. This gives the learners space and time to formulate their answers or to correct their statements.

Of equal importance to the silence of the teacher is the acceptance of student silence. It's a matter of encouraging and inviting participation without forcing it. This allows people to participate when they are moved to do so and not when it's their turn. Many are the individuals who want to be sure before speaking, many are they who gloat silently when the class loudmouth gets something wrong. Many are those who've decided that they are not as bright as their classmates or on the contrary, cleverer. Many are the reasons for not speaking up. Too many to enumerate. When the game is such that one participates on one's own terms and when one is ready those who have been labeled (or who have labeled themselves) as slow or dull, can flower and often come up with the correct response just when everyone else has given up on finding the solution.

The Cuisenaire rods are a very useful tool for creating situations in which creative silence becomes an integral apart of the learning activity. In the activities outlined below the teacher's input can be minimal. When this is so, the teacher gives the learners the space and time needed to work things out on their own, which if you stop and think about it is what learning is all about.


OBJECTIVES: Introducing the rods as a classroom tool; the colors; the definite and indefinite articles; basic singular and plural forms of nouns in English; ONE/S used as substitutes for a previously mentioned noun.

LEVELS: all.

TIME: No more than 15-20 minutes.

PREPARATION: Write the following words and letters on the board:


1. Hold up the box and shake it till you get the group's attention. Be careful to make this amusing and mysterious rather than aggressive or bossy. After all it's a learning game.

2. Put the box on an empty table or desk and look at it. Take the lid off slowly and dramatically and tilt or hold the box up so the group can see inside and say "The rods". Invite the group to repeat.

3. Stand the lid up in front to block the students' view. Take out one rod and say "A rod". Repeat the action with a different colored one and indicate silently or through words that you want the group to say "A rod" each time you hold one up. Continue doing so with all ten of the colors.

4. Repeat the above process indicating that you want individual students to say "A rod" each time you hold one up.

Have students modify each other's pronunciation when necessary. You're not looking for instant correct pronunciation, but rather a close approximation to a neutrally accented one. If you choose to use this as a warmer or energy raiser stop here and ask if the group has any questions or problems. With most groups you'll find someone who wants to know what "rod" means. If you speak the students' native language ask them for their own translations and accept them all as possible. If you don't speak it there's not much you can do but shrug your shoulders and point to the rods. In fact the rods are for many teachers and learners the only noun they use for the first few hours of class and the meaning is not all that important. Leaving it open and ambiguous can add to the mystery and help keep the level of concentration high.

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To the cuisenaire rods illustration page that accompanies the December 2000 newsletter

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