Classifying English Vowel Sounds

classifying vowels

Common spellings of English Vowel Sounds

Glenys Hanson


Students learning English sometimes get the impression that the spelling rules are almost impossibly difficult to master. It can be useful for them to realize that there is a high percentage of irregular spellings in common words (that is, the 500 or so function words plus the 2000 words necessary to describe every day objects and actions) but that other words are generally regular. This means that the more English they learn, the easier it gets. It also means that just because the irregularly spelt common words are common, students will inevitably get a lot of practice in reading and writing them and learn the spellings without the need for specific exercises. Just telling beginners this can give them confidence and avoid them wasting their time learning by heart the spelling of words such as “two” or “women”. When they have advanced enough to have a vocabulary of 1000 words or more it can be salutary for them to understand that there is a certain “method in the madness” of English spelling. This is one of the objectives of the “classic” Silent Way vowel classifying exercise described below.

Students whose native language uses the Latin alphabet have a different problem: seeing the written word induces incorrect pronunciation because they spontaneously attribute to the letters the sound value of their first language. The vowel classifying exercise can be helpful for this, too.

The “classic” Silent Way vowel classifying exercise

The first step is to have a corpus of at least 50 words. This is usually done by brainstorming words from the students themselves. For example, words related to a wall picture, words related to a topic such as food or a given profession. The teacher writes the words on the board in no particular order. The corpus can also be a short text, but this is not so much fun. Brainstorming nearly always produces a high energy level in the class which is important for the next step not to be perceived initially as a chore.

The second step is for the students to classify the words in columns according to the vowel sound. They may be instructed to classify all the vowel sounds in a word or only the stressed sounds. The first possibility has the advantage of generating more sounds to be classified from a given corpus; the second means that they also have to work out which is the stressed syllable.

To do the classification the teacher provides the students with large sheets of paper (flip chart sheets) and scotch tape or Blu-tack to fix them to the walls and a marker. The teacher requests two volunteers to be “secretaries”. One secretary is to write the words in columns on the wall and the other to erase the words from the board as they are added to the columns. If all the syllables in a word are to be classified, this latter secretary strikes through the syllables of polysyllabic words until they are all done. The other secretary underlines the relevant syllable of polysyllabic words according to each column. That is because such words will be found in several columns. The other students have to tell the secretaries what to do.

Once the teacher has made it clear to the students what they have to do, s/he has almost nothing to do for the next 1 ½ to 2 hours except sit at the back of the class and listen to the students discussing where to put the words. In this situation, the only times I, personally, intervene is to suggest they change secretaries from time to time or when they have a problem they are incapable of resolving themselves. For example, Pierre has an American accent and wants to put “past” in the column “bad” while Marie with a British accent wants to put it in the column with “car”. I point out that they are both correct and why. Otherwise, I let them put the words where they wish. Often some of the words erroneously classified at the beginning of the exercise are corrected by the students themselves before the end.

Only when they have completely finished do I indicate, by writing a number at the head of each column, how many misclassified syllables there are. Then I sit down again and let them work it out. At this point, shyer students, who have been overruled earlier by a noisy majority, frequently find the courage to speak up.

After they have finished again, I adjust the numbers at the head of each column – and let them continue to work until there is a zero at the head of each. I rarely have to help them.

Students often express pride and satisfaction at having been able to solve the problem without the teacher’s help. Intermediate and even advanced students are frequently amazed to discover how many common words they had been pronouncing incorrectly for years.

If possible, the sheets are left on the walls and in the following sessions when other words pose a pronunciation or spelling problem, the students work out where to place them. In fact, words already written in the columns will often continue to be mispronounced because it is usually not enough for students to realize that their pronunciation of a given word is incorrect if they have been mispronouncing it for years. They will need practice to change an ingrained habit. Having the columns permanently on the wall, serves as a handy reference that can be used by teacher and students alike.

When they have 10 or more words in each column, the students can be asked to work out what are the common spellings for each sound. If the Silent Way Fidel charts (all the possible spellings of each sound are listed in columns and colour-coded) are available, it can be useful to take them out and compare them with the columns on the wall.

In some classes I do the classic exercise described above but I also do “pen & paper” variants if I think it useful for intermediate or higher classes.

This exercise is intended to make students aware that though there is not just one spelling for each sound, for each sound there is only a very limited number of common spellings.

Either the students work as a whole group in the classroom as described above or they start the exercise in class in small groups and finish it individually for homework.

Step 1

First I give them the following sheet of paper:

Classifying English Vowel Sounds -common - words to be classifiedClassifying English Vowel Sounds: common words (PDF)

Step 2

Then I also give them an “empty” sheet on which to classify the above words:

Classifying English Vowel Sounds -common - worksheet (PDF Classifying English Vowel Sounds: common words – worksheet (PDF)

Step 3

When they have finished their classifications, I give them the following to check their work:

Classifying English Vowel Sounds -common - keyClassifying English Vowel Sounds: common words – key (PDF)

 When they have the key, I ask them a number of questions. For example:
  • “Why was this particular layout chosen?”
  • “What is the role of the final letter “e”?”
  • “What is the role of the letter “r” after a vowel?”
  • “/ju:/ is not a vowel or diphthong. Why is it included here?”

At a later session I may get them to work in the same way with another collection of words: common words with strange spellings or words related to their profession or field of study..

For an on-line interactive version of this exercise see: Classifying vowels.

There are many other ways of working on spelling and pronunciation but this is one I have found particularly effective over the years for achieving results because it encourages students to create and refine their own internal criteria.

© Glenys Hanson 2015. A different version was published on the Une Education Pour Demain website in 2002.

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“Spelling and Pronunciation Exercises: Classifying Vowel Sounds” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

English Verb Tenses: a dynamic presentation

…using the Cuisenaire Rods

The reasons for presenting the English verb tense system

This article describes an exercise I often do in class when I hear a student sigh, after making yet another mistake, “I never know which verb tense to use!” and I see the rest of the class nodding in agreement. These people are usually French adults whose four to eight years of school English has left them with a lot of words, but very few criteria for organising them into correct sentences. They may have a few, half remembered, over simple “rules” such as “The Present Perfect means the action began in the past and continues in the present” but generally they feel that English is a language with no grammar and getting sentences right is something mysterious which hopefully just comes with practice. Others, having had a lengthy and rigorous training in French grammar, either feel that English is somehow more primitive then French or they try to apply French grammatical concepts to English. Neither of these attitudes having led to much progress in the language, they are usually quite happy to attempt a new way of looking at English verb tenses. This new way is of course only new to them; it is one that has been accepted by most academic grammarians for over a hundred years but has yet to filter down to school textbooks. My objective in writing this article is not so much to describe or defend this theory of English verb tenses, but to show how it can be presented in class in a game-like way. I shall attempt to describe step by step, everything significant I and my students say and do in a typical presentation. Naturally, each group of students responds differently, so this is a synthesis of my experience with dozens of groups over the past 30 years during which time my own understanding of English tenses has evolved considerably.

An example of a scientific model

I introduce the activity by explaining that what I am proposing is a different model of verb tenses from that they learnt at school. I use model in the scientific sense and refer to the well-known examples of the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the planetary system to make it clear that a model is neither true nor false, but only a more or less economic and/or useful presentation of facts. The English students were taught at school was not incorrect, but it was presented in terms of a model which was originally devised to describe the functioning of a completely different language – Latin. However adequate this model may be for explaining the complex system of declensions and conjugations expressed through suffixes in Latin, there is no reason to suppose it appropriate for English which has no such declensions and almost no conjugations.

Creating a mental image: the bubble

My first step is to create a mental image in the minds of my students. I say, “As English speakers we imagine ourselves in the centre of a bubble – something like a chewing gum bubble – which is infinitely elastic. For example…” I put a red rod near one student, Catherine, and a blue rod further away from her. “Which of these rods is ‘here’ for you and which one ‘there’?” Catherine says, “Here.” pointing to the red one and “There.” pointing to the blue one. I ask the class, “Where is the limit of Catherine’s bubble?” They gesture to indicate somewhere between the red rod and the blue one. Then I put a yellow rod beyond the blue one in relation to Catherine, and cover the red one with my hand without moving it. I say to Catherine, “Now look at the blue rod and the yellow one and say which is ‘here’ and which is ‘there’.” Catherine points to the blue rod and says ‘Here‘ and the yellow rod and says “There“. I ask the class again, “Where is the limit of Catherine’s bubble now?” and they indicate a point between the blue rod and the yellow one. Then I open the door and throw a green rod into the corridor and say to the whole class, “Everybody can play now, which rod is ‘here’ and which is ‘there’?” They have no hesitation in saying that the one in the room is “here” and the one in the corridor is “there“. When I ask, “Where is the limit of our bubble?” the students reply, “The classroom.” We continue in the same way but with virtual rods, one in the building and one in the street, the one in the street and one in London, the one in London and one on the moon, etc. until we have expanded our bubble to the size of the universe.

Then I ask,

Have the rods moved?
So what causes us to say ‘here’ or ‘there’?
“Our point of view./It’s a question of relativity.”
“This image of the bubble works not only for space but for time, too. We’ll come back to it, but first I want to ask you some questions about tenses.”

What is a tense and how many are there in English

Here I check that everyone knows the difference between time and tense because in French there is only one word. Then I ask them how many tenses there are in English. The only people I have ever found (other than English teachers, and not even all of those) who could give a rapid and confident answer were students preparing the CAPES (the French competitive examination for secondary school teachers) and those who had previously done courses with my colleagues. Usually they either say they do not know or start muttering to themselves and counting on their fingers and come up with any number between 3 and 10. My next question is about the function of tenses, “What do they do? Why do they exist?” Somebody will say something on the lines of “They situate an action in time.” I accept this for the moment. Then I ask, “How do you recognise a tense when you see or hear it?” and I will get an answer about endings or suffixes to the verb. So then I ask, “How do you recognise that a word is a verb?” This usually leads to a silence so I write “gollar” on the board and ask if anyone knows what it means – so far no one has – and then if they know if it is a verb.

Of course they do not. I then write “a gollar” and ask them again and they say,

No, it’s a noun.”
“What proves it’s a noun?”
“The ‘a’ in front.”
“What can you put in front to test if a word is a verb?”

Here I often get the answer “to” so I write “to London” and ask for a better test and usually get “I“, so I write “I gollar.” I ask if in this sentence they are sure “gollar” is a verb, so far everyone has agreed they are sure. Then I point to “a gollar” and ask,

“Is there anything here which indicates time?”
“And in “I gollar.”, is there anything to indicate time?”

They are obliged to answer “No.” but it is often obvious that some people are not comfortable with this answer. So I say, “Let’s leave ‘gollar‘ and use a common action verb you all know ‘play‘.” and I write “I play.” on the board. “You said before that tense was a question of endings, so what endings can you put on ‘play’?” As they make suggestions I write them on the board like this:

I play.
He plays.
I played.

At this point someone always suggests ‘-ing‘ so I write: I playing. and of course they all point out that it is impossible, so I say, “Then ‘playing’ is not a verb according to our test.” Sometimes they accept this, and sometimes someone protests, “But ‘I am playing’ is the Present Continuous of ‘play’.” So I write up, “I like playing.” and ask what tense it is and if playing is the verb here. If I still feel there is resistance I might say, “In terms of the model you learned at school, you’re right. This model is different. Can you wait a bit to see what advantages there might be to looking at these words in another way?” and I rub out “I playing.” but put ‘playing‘ in brackets under the list. Then I ask them if the difference between ‘play‘ and ‘plays‘ is one of time or person and when they answer ‘person‘ I bracket them together on the board and then I ask them for the second time how many tenses there are in English and everybody agrees, some reluctantly, that there are just two.

The beginning of the presentation

For the next step I use a large piece (about 90 cm by 55 cm) of white flip chart paper on a table, eight paper clips, a box of Cuisenaire rods and two markers of different colours. I ask the students to come and sit around the table as close as possible. On the right hand side of the piece of paper (from the students’ point of view) I draw a large circle to materialise the “bubble”. I divide the bubble into four equal “boxes”. On the left hand side of the paper I also draw four “boxes”. When they have finished, the students will have laid rods on the paper so that it looks roughly like this (only roughly, because real rods are of different lengths).

English Verb Tenses: a dynamic presentation - coloured rectangles - labelled

English verb tense system – coloured rectangles – labelled


For the convenience of readers here, I have labelled the boxs 1S, 1C, 1PC, 1P, 2S, 2C, 2PC, 2P. (1 = base tense, 2 = distanced tense, S = Simple, P = Perfect, C = Continuous). Naturally in the classroom situation I and the students simply point to the box concerned and say “Here”.

If I give it to the students as a handout it is not labelled and looks like this:

The colour code

Sometimes I let them choose their own colours, sometimes I direct them to using certain colours so that I can use a paper version later on as a reference. The colours I use are:

pink = any action
red = the verb be
yellow = the verb have
black = the verb do
orange = any modal verb
green = -ing
a white cube = -ed or the past marker in irregular verbs
a beige cube = the past participle (often called the -en form)

I use two slightly different coloured cubes (I take advantage of the fact that in different boxes of rods, the “white” rods can be a little different in colour) because sometimes it is useful for students to pay attention to the difference between the Past form and the Participle form, but often it is not.

Here is what the rods represent written out as sentences plus the other words the students will have written on the paper by the end of the exercise:

English Verb Tenses: a dynamic presentation - words

English verb tense system – words

English verb tense system – words (PDF)

The beginning of the exercise

I ask the students to give me the shortest form of their verb beginning with “I...” they say, “I play“. I pick up a paper clip and say “I” and then a pink Cuisenaire rod and say “play” and ask, “Inside the bubble or outside?” The students answer, “Inside” and I place them side by side in the top right hand quarter inside the bubble, 1S. Then I ask for another construction beginning with “I“. They usually say “I played” and I ask again, “Inside or outside the bubble?“, they answer, “Outside” and I pick up a paper clip, a pink rod and a small, white rod and place them, in that order, in the top right hand “box” outside the bubble, 2S. I ask for another construction; they might say, “I am playing”. I push the box of Cuisenaire rods and the paper clips towards them and say, “Now, it’s your turn to play.” They understand that they have to take a paper clip and a certain number of rods and put them on the paper. It is usually clear for them that they have to decide to put the “sentence” either inside or outside the bubble, but it is not always clear to them that they have to put it in one of the “boxes”. Neither is it always obvious to them that “-ing” should be represented by a separate rod. They discuss these questions among themselves and when eventually (it can take ten seconds or ten minutes) they agree on which rods to use and where to put them, I do not indicate whether or not I consider they are right but ask for another construction. They continue in the same way until they have found the eight constructions. If someone suggests, “I will play” I say, “Keep it till later”.

The discussion around “I have played”

A good group – I mean one that is sensitive to the problems and willing to discuss them – can spend over an hour on this. The most interesting discussions are usually about where to place “I have played“. Many French people feel that it should be half in and half out of the bubble. I insist that they choose one or the other. Only if it is clear that they have no criteria for making this choice do I intervene. I ask them which part of “I have played” (represented by a paper clip and three rods of different colours) represents the action. If they point to all three rods, I pick up the white rod and ask,

“What does this represent?”
“Is that an action?”

Then I pick up the rod representing “have”, maybe a yellow one, and ask the same questions. Then I ask again which rod represents the action and they point to the pink one. My next question is, “Which rod represents the verb?” If they again point to all three rods, I point to, “I gollar.”, which is still written on the board, and ask them to remember what their criterion was for saying it was a verb and to apply the same criterion in the case of “I have played“. If they accept that the verb is “have”, they no longer have any problem in deciding whether it is inside or outside the bubble.
For a few people it can help to make them aware of why they have been taught that the verb is “have played”. I ask,

“In Latin, how many words are needed to express, ‘I have played’?”
“So in Latin, one word expresses both the action, the verb and the subject. That’s why you’ve learned to look at several English words and call them all ‘the verb’.”

All this is usually unnecessary for groups with a scientific or technical bent because they are used to playing around with different models and are willing to suspend judgement on what I am presenting until they have seen how it works.

Questions about the eight constructions

Once they have found the eight constructions and placed them in a regular way inside and outside the “bubble” as indicated in the second diagram, I ask them to look at the colours and say:

“What happens when you move from 1S to 1C?”
“You add red and green.”
“And from 1P to 1PC?”
“You add red and green.”

This is enough for many people, but for some I have to continue with 2S to 2C and 2P to 2C before they can say, “Ah, it’s the same.” Which shows me that they have had the awareness that each construction at the top has a parallel construction at the bottom. Sometimes they make it explicit,

“There are 4 constructions with “be” and “-ing” and 4 constructions without.”
Then I ask:

“And if you go from 1S to 1P?”
“You add yellow and beige.”
“And from 1C to 1PC?”
“You add yellow and beige.”

And the same with 2S to 2P and 2C to 2PC until everyone has noticed a second pattern in the constructions.

Finally for this part, and for me the most significant awareness to force here, I ask,

“And if you go from 1S to 2S?”
“You add white.”
“And from 1C to 2C?”
“You add white.”

And the same with 1P to 2P and 1PC to 2PC. For those with a mathematical background I point out that the constructions outside the bubble are a translation of those inside the bubble. (I don’t really know what this means; a mathematical student told me this years ago and every time I trot it out the mathematical types go, “Ah!” so it seems to be worth saying.)

By this point some students will have tried to use the traditional grammatical labels. I ask them if words like “preterite”, “participle” or “pluperfect” really have meaning for them. 99% of my students have declared they do not, so I suggest we give each construction a new label using words we are sure we understand. (The 1% for whom the traditional terms do have meaning are welcome to continue using them, but not to say them aloud.)

Naming the eight constructions with “time words”

I point to the 1C construction and ask them to say it aloud and add the time word that comes spontaneously. Almost without exception, they say: “I am working now.” I hand a marker to a student and ask him to write now in the 1C box. I point to the 2S construction, and without exception, they say: “I worked yesterday.” A student writes yesterday in the 2S box.

Then I say:

“If this (2S) is yesterday what is this (2P)?”

This often gets the response before yesterday, in which case they write it in the box. But just as often the answer given is, “The day before yesterday”. If this is the case I tell them I am going to use a different model, and I draw a line:


I ask, “If this point is now (I point to it), where is yesterday?” A student will come and add it, usually like this:


Then I ask them to put in the day before yesterday and someone will draw this:


Then I say, “This is perfectly logical if we’re naming days, but it’s not the logic of English tenses. If we have another reference point, we would need another tense and English only has two.

So I remove the day before yesterday to return to the second diagram, and make a sweeping gesture with my hand from the point yesterday towards the leftwards end of the line, “What’s all this?” “Before yesterday.” “How far can I continue?” and I continue the gesture along the wall beyond the board. “As far as you like.”/”To infinity.” I go back to the paper and someone writes before yesterday in the 2P box.

Then I point to 1S and ask, “What about this one?” This one, too, can take a little while. Though I accept as correct suggestions such as every day or often, I say, “For the sake of simplicity and economy we are going to use as few different words as possible. Which of the words we have already used can be used here?” With lower level groups it may be necessary for them to find a few examples before they are sure that now is also possible for 1S. Then I say:

“We have the problem of distinguishing the two “nows”. What does now mean in 1C?”
“At the moment./At this moment.”
“And what does it mean in 1S?”

I push them until they find, “in general” or “generally” and agree it is more useful as a label than every day or often. Then I say (if necessary -students often find it spontaneously),

If this is yesterday and this before yesterday, what is this (1P) if this is now (1S)?
“Before now

and this becomes the label for 1P. Even if the more analytical students can make the jump for themselves, I make sure that everybody sees that 1PC is made up of the addition of 1P and 1C by temporally moving the red and green rods from 1C to 1PC and the yellow and beige ones from 1P to 1PC. Then they can label 1PC “before now and now” or “before now and at the moment,” or some similar paraphrase. In the same way, 2C is labelled at a/that moment yesterday, 2P before yesterday and 2PC before and at a/that moment yesterday.

Making examples for the eight constructions

The next step is for the students to make examples for each of the eight constructions. I insist that the examples not only be true ones, but that their truth can be verified by everyone in the classroom. This is so that the students really feel the meaning of the constructions, and are not just mechanically making sentences. Here are some of the questions I ask them during this work to help them develop criteria for using each construction and how each one corresponds to a different perception or feeling to be expressed:

Inside the bubble questions:

1.Which construction is the longest?
2. Which construction is the shortest?
3. Which one is most/least frequently used?
4. Which one gives the most/least information?
5. In 1S how many pieces of information are given?
6. In 1S is there anything which explicitly indicates time?
7. What is the meaning of the green “-ing”?
8. What is the meaning of the red “be”?
9. What is the meaning of the yellow “have”?

The “-ing” form

For the last three questions they often need some help to find the base meanings. They often think “-ing” form in itself indicates time. I write some examples on the board where this is clearly not the case:

1. Running keeps you fit.
2. I like running.
3. I wore my running shoes yesterday.

If it seems necessary for the group, it might be the moment to distinguish between an action (performed by a subject) and an activity (a general performance where the actors are not specified) by writing on the board:

1. Glenys likes to box.
2. Glenys likes boxing.

And then asking:

  • which sentence creates the ridiculous picture in their minds of elderly me in the ring, dressed in shorts and boxing gloves;
  • which sentence is compatible with me sitting comfortably in front of my television watching a match.

“Have” and “be”

These frequently dismissed as mere auxiliaries with no particular meaning – which is why some students seem to use one or the other more or less at random. It can be useful for them to understand that, though it is not as easy to create a mental picture of their meaning as it is for “dance” or “ski”, they do have separate and identifiable meanings.


For “be” I have yet to find an elegant way of doing this. I have tried putting a marker on a table and saying or writing, “The marker is on the table” and getting them to see that the only reason for saying a sentence like this is to situate the marker in relation to the table – for someone who was looking for the marker. The only way to situate an object in space is to situate it in relation to another object. The verb we use for situating in space is “be”. It is also used for situating in time. The only way of situating anything in time is in relation to an event, action or activity. The only way I can know myself in the present is by situating myself in some activity, “I am writing this article.” (No, I have never actually said this last sentence in class, it’s just for you, Reader.)


For “have” I think I do a little better. I write the following sequence of sentences on the board. For each sentence I ask them what the relationship is between “I” and the words I have underlined:

1. I have a watch. (What I have/possess is an object)
2. I have a mother. (What I have/possess is a relationship, not the person herself)
3. I have lunch at 12 o’clock. (What I have/possess is a habit, not the lunch itself)
4. I have visited Paris. (What I have/possess is the experience of visiting Paris)

Other points I try to make clear to the students

For reasons of space, I will not write out step by step how I do these:

  1. The 1S form is the base form. They do not have to have any particular reason for using it. It is the choice by default. It is all the other constructions they need a reason for using.
  2. The reason for using the 1C construction is to situate the subject in an activity at the present moment, in spite of its traditional label (Present Continuous) it does not express past to presentt duration.. Of course, activities take place in time and therefore have duration, but a sentence such as “I am sitting” does not in itself express the duration of the sitting any more than the sentence, “The marker is on the table” expresses the dimensions of the table.
  3. Sentences such as “We are staying here for 18 weeks” are possible but they have present to future reference. When my French students said such sentences they intended them to have past reference and mean they arrived 18 weeks previously.
  4. If they wish to express duration the construction to use is 1PC.
  5. 1P and 1PC are not only used to describe recent events, “The universe has been expanding since the Big Bang.”
  6. The only reason for going outside the bubble, is because they want to attach an event or an action to a moment other than now – often referred to as dating.
  7. My decision to say, “I have had breakfast” or “I had breakfast” is not directly related to how long ago I had the meal, to objective time, but to whether I perceive the meal as inside my bubble or outside my bubble.
  8. Outside the bubble, 2S is the base form and the most frequently used one.
  9. Not only do they have to have good reasons for using 2C, 2CP and 2P (the same, mutatis mutandis, as for 1C, 2CP and 1P), but they have to be related to some other action or event often expressed by 2S, but which may also be a significant date or time.
  10. In spite of its traditional label, 2C is not used just because an action lasts a long time.


As the students make examples, it is often useful for them to write down next to each form the time expressions particularly associated with that form. We (my colleagues at the CLA and I) call them “triggers”. For example, “How long…?” and “For…” are written, in a second colour, in 1PC.

Interrogative forms – do

Another useful exercise is to get them to turn each of the forms into questions. I get them to start with 1C. They invert the paper clip and the red rod and say, “Am I working?” or “Are you working?” – the second often comes more naturally to them. They continue with 1PC, 2C, 2PC and 2P in that order. Then I cover 2S with my hand in order to force them to move to 1P.

Then I ask them to make explicit what they have been doing to create the question form. “The pink rod, the action, has never been moved.” I let them take a black rod from the box to represent “do” and place it in IP so as to represent “Do you work?“. Then I remove my hand from 2S and say to them: “This is a trap. I’m going to catch some of you. How many rods do you need to take from the box to make this form?” They all know they want to represent “Did you work?” Up to now at least one person has always answered, “Two.” I never allow the faster people to show how it is only necessary to take one, in fact I drag it out as long as possible so that the tension of the moment will provide a high moment of energy when the realisation comes that they have to move the white cube from the pink rod to the black one to make “did“. For me, this is a good example of how to work on retention – as opposed to memorisation. I ask the students to invert the rods and paper clips back to their original positions. Some students will try and remove the black “do” from the system at this point. I suggest they switch it in the same way as the other forms, i.e. “I do work” and “I did work”. Lower level students may not even be aware these forms exist, but for me, what is now presented by the rods is the basic system in English .

(And you, Dear Reader, are you feeling some resistance to this? It is true that having invested so much of my time and energy on considering how tenses work, I find reading what others have to say about the subject a great opportunity for observing whether I can still keep myself open to different ideas or whether I meet them with my prejudices.)

I point to 1C,
“How do you say this one?”
“I am working.”
“And if you speak quickly?”
“I’m working.”
“And this one?”
and I make an emphatic gesture towards the yellow rod.
“I have been working.”
“And if you speak quickly?”
“I’ve been working”
“And this one?”
“I have worked.”
“And if you speak quickly?”
“I’ve worked.”
“And this one?”
“I do work.”
“And if you speak quickly?”
and I remove the black rod.
“I work.”

It can be important for some students to realise that “do” does not just come from nowhere in an arbitrary fashion just to form questions and negatives but is an essential part of the system. The most basic thing we can do with an action is to simply do it. It is so basic that it is almost a tautology – which is why we don’t usually feel the need to make it explicit.

I realise I am making it seem as if the whole lesson is a neat question and answer routine. In practice, of course, it is not really like that, it’s much messier! The students spend a lot of time discussing things among themselves (in French, if their English is not sufficient to express themselves accurately on such a topic) while I listen and wait for the appropriate moment to provide another challenge. I should, perhaps, say here for non Silent Way readers, why I ask questions rather than just explaining the system. Some people feel it is illicit and manipulative for a teacher to ask questions to which she already knows (or thinks she knows) the answers. For me, it serves two purposes. It puts the student in an “actively seeking” state of mind; when he finds the answer it is hisanswer – it is irrelevant to his learning whether or not someone else has found that answer before. It also serves to give the teacher feedback about where the student is in his process of learning so that she can decide what exercise to propose next.

The future

If they have not already done so, at about this point students will start to ask, “What about the future?” I throw the question back to them as, “Which of the forms we already have here can be used in a sentence about tomorrow?” I am always amazed at how many French people are surprised at the fact that such sentences as, “I start work at eight tomorrow” or “I’m going to New York in November” are possible. Even though the Present Tense in French is also frequently used to refer to the future, they feel that, because a Future Tense (there are suffixes which are traditionally thought to indicate future time) exists, it is not “correct” to use the Present in this way. And as for using Past forms with future reference…. I often have to give examples myself, in English and in French. So certain are many people that they cannot exist, they will not even start to look for them. If students have school English behind them (this is generally the case for the people I teach) they will already have proposed “will” several times, and each time I put them off with, “Later, later!” Even at this point I feel it is useful for them to become aware of other ways of referring to future time before considering “will” which has been drilled into them as “the Future in English”. I slide the pink rod in the 1 P form to the right, then I take another pink rod from the box and lay it next to the paper clip leaving a space between it and the first pink rod. In the space I put an arrow drawn on paper.

want to

From the work done at other times on prepositions they usually recognise the arrow as a trigger for “to”. I point to the pink rod next to the paper clip and ask the students, “Which verb could this represent?” Sometimes they have enough English to suggest “want” or “hope”, otherwise I give them the word “want” and ask them to read the new form:

“I want to work.”
I point to the two pink rods, “Are the forms of these verbs the same or different?
“The same.”
“And the real time this one refers to?” and I indicate the one representing “want”.
“The present.”
“And the real time this one refers to?”
and I indicate the one representing “work”.
“The future.”

Then I take another arrow and another pink rod and lay them to the right of the others.

“What could the sentence be now?”

They might suggest, “I want to work to earn money.” I represent “money” by any small object handy, but not a rod.

“What about the time of “earn”?
“It’s further in the future?”
“And the form?”
“It’s the same.”

I continue to add arrows and pink rods until the length becomes inelegant but not incorrect, “I want to work to earn money to buy a car to go to Paris to see a friend.” As a student recently put it, “The action on the right is the target of the action on the left.” This target is not necessarily in the future of course, it depends on the meaning of the verb. In for example, “I like to swim” though “swim” can be seen as the target of “like”, it is not in the future in relation to “like”.

After this, I take an arrow and a pink rod and lay them to the right of the 1C form.

“If I change this to another verb (I indicate the first pink rod), what could this be?”

Unless it is a very small, low level group, someone manages to find:

“I’m going to work.”
“How many actions are there in this sentence? What are they?”
“Two, go and work.”
“Are they used as metaphors or do they have a physical meaning?”
“Go is a metaphor and work is physical.”

This may be clear for some of the students but I can often see from the dubious looks on faces of others that more needs to be done. So I go and stand with my back to a wall of the room,

“Can I say I’m going physically at the moment?”

I use mime and facial grimaces to indicate a sudden interest in something on the other side of the room, say a pen, and start to walk towards it slowly,

“Can I say I’m going physically, now?”

I freeze in mid-stride and ask,

“What happened inside me when I was at the wall, just before I started to move? It’s normally something you can’t see.”
“You made a decision.”
“And what’s the pen for me?”
“Your target.”

I go and pick up the pen. Then, so that we can refer to it when they give examples, I make a simple representation on the board with lines and a stick figure something like this:

going to

Even if I could draw better, I would not make the drawing more realistic. More details are just a distraction. Then I get the students to find examples – true ones – and to make it explicit how the subject is metaphorically moving between his decision and his target. For example, Catherine says, “I’m going to walk in the mountains with some friends on Sunday.” Someone points to the blue line which represents the time when she and her friends made their plans, then points to the stick figure which represents Catherine, who though physically immobile in the classroom, is moving in time towards her objective, the red line, the time when she will be walking in the mountains with her friends. Later, the stick figure can be Bob, Mary or whoever. It can sometimes take a little while before they can let go of what they have often been taught: that the “going to” form is only used for actions in the “near future”.

Only after exploring these other ways of talking about the future, do I take an orange rod out of the box and say, “This represents will.” Then I take seven other orange rods from the box and distribute them, one each to eight students, “Now, put will into the system.” They often look quite flabbergasted at the idea that there can be eight places for will in the system. Somebody will start by putting an orange rod between the paper clip and the pink rod in 1S. I ask them to say it aloud, “I will work.” Many students feel this is the end of the story and I may need to gesture to 1C or 1P and say, “Do the same here” before they will place the orange rod after the paper clip in the other forms inside the bubble. Each time I get them to say the sentence aloud. Then I gesture to the forms outside the bubble. There are often objections: “You can’t have will in the past!” I pick up a black rod and ask: “What happened when you put do here?” and I point to 2S. “Ah!” and somebody will quickly lay down the orange rod after the paper clip in 2S and move the white cube from the end of the pink rod to the orange one. “I would work.”

The other three forms usually pose no problem for the form, though “I would have been working” often provokes exclamations, “It’s too long”, “I don’t understand”, “I’ll never use it”, etc. With lower level groups, I do not ask them to find examples, for if the forms are outside their experience of the language, such examples can only be mechanically formed with no feeling for the meaning.

If it seems useful for the group, I ask questions to make sure they understand how modals function differently to other verbs. I point to 1S and ask:

“Do you need do to ask a question, now?”

I pick up an arrow, “Do you need to place this between the orange and pink rods?”
“What other words function like will/would?”

Depending on their level, they will take from a few minutes to over an hour to find and discuss can/could, (shall)/should, may/might and must (no student has ever suggested need or dare so far). As they find them, I write the modals on the board and we look for a base meaning for each of them in the same way as we did for be, have and did. As this article is already long enough, and the work does not directly involve the Cuisenaire rods, I shall not describe it here. Nor shall I describe how to demonstrate the Passive in the system. I scarcely ever do so with students as it usually takes two three-hour sessions to get this far and, by this time, they are in need of a different type of activity.

© Glenys Hanson 1996-2015

An earlier version was published in: Caleb Gattegno’s Science of Education: Ten Years After – Conference Proceedings and Related Offerings, Association for the Science of Education, New York 1999.

A shorter version of this article was published in the proceedings of the 1996 Colloquium of TESOL France: An Update on Grammar: How it is learnt – How it is taught.

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“English Verb Tenses: a dynamic presentation using the Cuisenaire Rods” by Glenys Hanson”is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Agnes and the Temporal Hierarchies


At that time my neighbour, Agnes, was eleven years old and was in a special class at school for children with mild learning difficulties. One day when she was visiting us, I called to her from the sitting room to tell me the time from the kitchen clock. She said, “I can’t. I can’t read the numbers on your clock”. I came into the kitchen and looked at the clock which has Roman numerals and realised that when I tell the time I don’t read the numbers, I look at the pattern made by the two hands. As long as I can identify the top of the clock, I don’t need any numbers to be marked at all. I concluded that Agnes, in fact, was unable to tell the time and asked her if she would like to learn. She said she would, so I got out my Cuisenaire rods and we sat down at the kitchen table.

First Lesson

I made a clock with a red rod at each hour position and two red rods at the 12 position. I put white cubes to represent the minutes between the red rods. I took a long orange rod to make the minute hand and a shorter black rod to make the hour hand and I centred the whole clock on a small flower on the oilcloth which covered the kitchen table.

I put the minute hand at the 12 position and moved the hour hand to the 3 position and said, “Three o’clock”. I moved it to the 6 position and said, “Six o’clock”. Then I moved the hour hand back to the 3 position and invited Agnes to speak. She said “Three o’clock”. I moved it to the 6 position and she said, “Three o’clock”. I said, “Listen again” and repeated what I had said and done the first time but beginning with the six o’clock position. Then I placed the hand at 6 and this time she said “Six o’clock”. I placed the hand at 3 and she said, “Three o’clock”.

I went on in the same way with the 9 and 12 positions. She quickly learned to recognise the 6 and 12 o’clock positions but tended to confuse 3 and 9 o’clock. Tending to confuse left and right myself, I have developed techniques to eliminate the “sameness” of left/right symmetry by focusing on an object on my right and saying to myself, for example, “Right is doorside”. As I was sitting on Agnes’s right, I asked her each time she made a mistake, which was near me, the 3 or the 9, until she could identify the 3 as “Glenys’s number” and 9 as the other one.

Then I picked up the two “hands” and gave them to her and said “Six o’clock”. She was able to put one end of the black rod near the 6 position but the other end of the rod was nowhere near the centre of the clock and she didn’t know where to put the orange minute hand. Her actions gave me the feedback that though she had been giving correct answers, she had not paid attention to certain essential elements in the situation. So I took the hands and put them in the 3 o’clock position. Agnes told me the time correctly. Then I asked her,

“Where is the orange hand?”
“On the twelve.”
“Where is the other end of the orange hand?”
“On the flower.”
“Where is the black hand?”
“On the three.”
“And the other end?”
“On the flower.”

Of course, she didn’t answer neatly like this the first time and I had to ask her other questions to make her pay attention to the flower and the fact that one end of each hand was always on the flower.

We went through the other times she already knew how to say in the same way. Then I gave her the hands again and said, “Nine o’clock”. This time she was able to put both hands in their correct position on the edge of the clock but their other ends did not meet in the centre on the flower, but when I asked her, “And what about the flower?” she moved the other ends of the hands so that they were no longer in the correct position on the edge. It took her some time and several attempts to position the hands correctly. She enjoyed being the one to position the hands even though it was, to me, surprisingly difficult for her to do so. I was also surprised that though she had already noticed, before the lesson began, that the hands moved in relation to the numbers on the edge, she had never noticed that the two hands met in the centre.

Remembering that children are in the absolute of action and that I had started off with what was an exercise in perception but not action for her, I tried some simpler action exercises, “Touch the 3”, “Touch the flower”,” Touch the orange hand”, “Touch the flower end of the orange hand”, and so on.

I picked up the hands again and said, “Six o’clock”. This time, she inverted the minute and hour hands. I picked up the hands and, appealing to her power of evocation, I asked her to touch the hand that moved and she touch the black one. “So which one didn’t move?” She touched the orange one. “Where did it stay all the time on the clock?” She placed it with one end on the 12 but the other end was not in the centre. I reminded her of the flower and she repositioned it correctly. I said, “Make the two hands make a straight line” and she was able to adjust them correctly.

Then I said, “Nine o’clock. Put the hand that doesn’t move first”. Though she had problems centring the hands, she didn’t confuse them.

When we did 12 o’clock, she wanted to put the two hands side by side, though that wasn’t of course the way I’d done it when I’d showed her that time initially. Instead of doing it myself again, I took my kitchen clock off the wall and said, “Look what my clock does” and turned the hands to show 12 o’clock on the kitchen clock.

“Oh! It goes underneath!”
“Do the same with your clock. Which one goes underneath on the kitchen clock, the long hand or the short one?”
“The short one.”
“Do the same on your clock.”

We continued for a little while alternating between me placing the hands and her saying the time, and me saying the time and her placing the hands for these four times.

This first lesson took about an hour. What I have not brought out in the above description is the fun we both had. Every time Agnes realised something new she bounced up and down in her chair and laughed with pleasure. She remained attentive and interested the whole time, making me realise that it is possible to be a good student though extremely slow. She also made me realise how many different awarenesses are involved in learning to tell the time because I had to do something specific to force each one for her.

As Agnes was getting up to leave, Christian, who had passed through the room a few times during the lesson, asked Agnes, “One o’clock”. Of course she didn’t know how to place the hands for this and I was slightly annoyed with Christian for asking her.

Second Lesson

Agnes came again the next day and showed that she had spent some of her night integrating the previous day’s work because she was able to do everything she had done before but faster and with more confidence. Her only problem was remembering to make the two hands meet in the middle. So we went on showing and saying the other “hour” times, i.e. “one o’clock”, “two o’clock” and so on. I continued to “place” the hand and not to “turn” to avoid the distraction of having to turn the minute hand at the same time and to focus on the position of the hands rather than on their movement. Agnes, anyway, already knew that the hands turned and in which direction. When she needed to find the name of an “hour position” she knew where she had to begin counting the red rods and in which direction to turn. These were awarenesses she had already had and which I did not need to force. On the other hand, she did not at first realise that for the positions of, for example, “ten o’clock” she did not need to start counting from the beginning but could start from “nine o’clock” which she already knew. When I saw this, I started asking her to show me “one hour before six o’clock”, “two hours after nine o’clock”, etc. It was a surprise to her to see that, for example, “one hour after six o’clock” was the same as “two hours before nine o’clock”. I could see she did not understand why this was so, it was just a happy coincidence, but I did not choose to work on that problem as it was not essential to learning to tell the time.

I did work a lot on “opposite” pairs such as “two o’clock” and “ten o’clock” as she continued to make left/right confusions. I got her to sit slightly to the left of the clock so that the “big” numbers could become “Agnes’s numbers” and, as I was sitting on the right, “small” numbers became “Glenys’s numbers”.

I also asked her questions such as:

“How many red positions are there?”

She counted them and said, “Twelve”. (I had wondered whether the two red rods on the “12” position would cause a confusion, but she accepted them as a convention to know where to begin counting.)

“How many hours does this clock show?”

As the lesson took place in French, this transfer was easy for her because in French “twelve o’clock” is “douze heures”, literally “twelve hours”.

However, when I asked her how many hours there are in a day, she was unable to answer. So I asked her what time she had lunch – at about eight o’clock or about twelve o’clock? She knew she had lunch at about twelve o’clock. I asked her more questions about what time she did various things. She was unable to give times for many things but she did know whether she did them in the morning, the afternoon, the evening or at night. So I drew a vertical line on a piece of paper to represent her day and first marked on it large intervals representing morning, afternoon, evening and night. Then we wrote in some of the things she did in a day: got up, had breakfast, went to bed, slept, etc. Then I wrote in the numbers of the hours from one o’clock in the morning to twelve midday. With this she was able to say that she got up at about eight o’clock in holiday time and had breakfast at about nine, that at four o’clock in the morning she was asleep. I pointed at the kitchen clock and asked her what time it was now. She was able to say, correctly:

“Four o’clock.”
“In the morning or the afternoon?”
“In the afternoon.”

So I showed her on the line of her day how after lunchtime we start counting the hours again from one to twelve to finish in the middle of the next night. I asked her about times she did things in the afternoon and evening and she situated them on the line. I asked her how many hours there were before lunchtime and after lunch. She was able to answer 12 in each case but when I asked her how many hours there were altogether in a day, she was unable to answer because she was unable to add 12 and 12. So I put a red rod next to each hour on the line and she was able to count them and say there were 24 hours in the day.

I asked her if she knew another way to say “twelve o’clock” when it was lunchtime; she did, it was “midday”. She also knew that “twelve o’clock” in the middle of the night was called “midnight”. But when I asked her how she knew when she looked at the clock and it showed 12 o’clock if it was midday or midnight, she couldn’t answer. So I said: “If you look out of the window and it’s dark, is it midday or midnight?“Oh! Midnight!” she answered, emphasising the part “-night” and with a look of triumph on her face and I realised she was hearing the “night” in midnight” for the first time. (In French, the word for midday “midi” is not transparent in the same way so we couldn’t have fun with it.)

This second lesson took about an hour and a half and at the end Christian again teased me by asking Agnes to show the time “half past four”. I say teased me and not Agnes because she was not in the least bothered by the question, she didn’t know, she knew she didn’t know and was not at all upset by her ignorance.

Third Lesson

On the third day, I set up the clock without hands and with a sheet of A4 paper covering the left half of the clock along the 12-6 line.

“Agnes, can you see all the clock?”
“How much can you see?”

I took away the paper.

“How much can you see now?”
“All of it.”

I covered the right half of the clock and asked her the same questions. She had no hesitation in answering any of them.

Then I gave her the paper and asked her to cover half the clock. This was more difficult for her to do physically and it took some time before she could place the paper exactly on the 12-6 line.

For the next step, I used two sheets of A4 paper and placed one as in the first exercise and the second covering the bottom half on the 9/3 line so that only a quarter of the clock was visible. The word “quarter” did not come spontaneously from Agnes as “half” had, but when I asked her “Can you see all, half or a quarter of the clock?”, she had no hesitation in choosing “A quarter”.

I continued by showing her the other 3 quarters and then by alternating between showing halves, quarters and the whole clock. She made no mistakes. When I gave her the pieces of paper and asked her to show me “a quarter”, “A different quarter”, “A half”, etc., she found it more difficult but the problem seemed to be one of lack of physical dexterity rather than not understanding what was needed. I say this because whenever I asked her to say if the way she had put the papers was correct, she never said it was so when it was not.

Then I gave Agnes the “hands” and asked her to put them in the twelve o’clock positions, which she did. Then I slowly turned the minute hand and stopped it on the 6 position and asked her now much of the clock it had travelled over. She was unable to reply. So I covered the left half of the clock with a sheet of paper and did the exercise again. This time she was able to say “Half” or to be exact, she said in French, “La moitié”, the word she had used in the previous exercises. I asked her if she knew the word “demi” and whether it was the same or different in meaning from “moitié”. She knew they had the same meaning and she even knew that “demi” was the word used for telling the time. So when I put the hands to the twelve o’clock position and then to the half past twelve position, she was able to say the time correctly in each case. I gave her the hands and asked her to show me successively “Twelve o’clock” and “Half past twelve”, which she was able to do after reminders to “Centre on the flower!”

We went on with “half past” the other hours in the same way and then with “quarter past”, which posed no special problem. “Quarter to” naturally took more time as it involves a different way of looking at the clock – counting backwards and not forwards from the 12 position. As she had started off already knowing the direction the hands turned, she had a solid criterion for “backwards” and “forwards” and by using these words, she was able to distinguish between a “quarter before” and a “quarter after” a given hour. Again she already knew the conventional way of saying these times and had no trouble switching from the words which more clearly express the mental operation to those conventionally used.

At the end of this lesson, Christian yet again asked her something she could not do, “Ten past eight”. I snapped at him angrily, “But that’s for tomorrow!” and then I suddenly saw the method in his teasing questions. They were not just any question that Agnes was unable to answer about telling the time; they always concerned the very next step. For someone reading this account, this was probably obvious long ago but it was not to me at the time. I had never taught anyone to tell the time before and had never even thought about it much so when I started, I had no idea what the steps would be, of what the “right way” to go about it was. Up to the end of the third lesson, I felt I was just being guided by what Agnes could and couldn’t do. Christian’s intervention made me realise that I (and he too, of course) did have, on the intuitive level, criteria for ordering the different exercises I suggest to Agnes. Up until then, though I had seen that for other teachers (Maurice Laurent in particular in maths seminars) it could be obvious which awarenesses had to be forced and in which order to master a given skill, Gattegno’s description of the “temporal hierarchies” in learning had remained an intellectual notion for me. I was as pleased and excited at being capable of recognising an example of the temporal hierarchies actually functioning in a learning situation as Agnes was at learning to tell the time.

It is perhaps not necessary to describe the following lessons in detail – Agnes learned to tell the time in about 6 hours spread over a week. From then on, every time she came to the house, I would ask her the time and though at first it took her a minute or two to find the answer, she seldom made a mistake. The mistakes she did make were to confuse the left and right sides of the clock or the minute and hour hands. There was one further important awareness about telling the time. This was that to be able to tell the time, a single position on the edge of the clock has to be able to trigger up to five different numbers, for example: nine (o’clock), quarter (to), forty-five (minutes past), fifteen (minutes to), twenty-one (o’clock). Each different number is part of a specific numbering system which implies a different way of perceiving and interpreting the clock.

On a different level is an awareness I didn’t have and haven’t had yet: which awareness I had to force for Agnes to realise that the two hands were joined at the centre of the clock. Each time she set up the clock, she had to be reminded to “centre the hands on the flower”, which showed that it never became obvious for her.

Maths Lessons

Encouraged by our success with the clock, I continued working with Agnes two or three hours a week all that summer, using the Cuisenaire rods to work on basic arithmetic. This was a quite different experience from working with the clock. I could quite easily find individual exercises involving addition, subtraction, multiplication or division for Agnes to resolve using the rods but I had little idea of what order to do them in or, having finished one exercise, what to do next. The temporal hierarchies in this area were not (and are still not) evident to me.

This was no surprise to me. I think I may say that telling the time is a skill I fully master – it is something I do quickly, correctly and effortlessly on every occasion. This is not true for the basic operations of arithmetic. I get by in every day life but with a lot of effort and many mistakes in anything to do with calculation and numbers.

What did surprise me was that this made no difference to Agnes. She was just as happy to come to these disjointed arithmetic lessons as she had been to learn to tell the time. It made me realise the difference between children and adult students. Agnes had no expectations that I should be a quick or efficient maths teacher, that the lesson should have any particular objective or that as a teacher I should not make mistakes. Several times I would have to stop in the middle of an exercise and say to Agnes, “I don’t know how to go on from here. Can we try something different?” and she’d happily gather up all the rods, put them away and wait for a new challenge. This lack of social pressure meant that I could devote all, or nearly all, my energy to the pedagogical work in hand. It is an experience which has helped me since then to identify when I am putting my energy into social consideration in the classroom when I’m working with adults, and through being able to identify it, to control and reduce a use of energy which is extraneous to the essential teaching/learning situation.

I realised that if I compared myself to an experienced primary school teacher with a thorough grasp of the temporal hierarchies involved in learning arithmetic, I was very inefficient in helping Agnes gain arithmetical know-how in exchange for her time. This consideration was, however, outside Agnes’s realm of concerns. As long as I was present to her learning needs on the microsecond by microsecond level, she was motivated to continue.

At the time, Agnes made me realise that a slow learner can nevertheless be a good learner in the sense of being effortlessly present to the challenges of a situation for a considerable period of time. As long as I did my job right, Agnes was never fidgety, naughty or distracted during our lessons. Writing this article has made me see that in one way I was a better maths teacher (that was my one and only attempt) than I am an English teacher (my usual occupation): having little knowledge in the field and no experience, I was forced to be continually and totally present to my student and her needs.

© Glenys HansonThe Science of Education in Questions, N° 13, September 1995, Besançon, France.

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“Agnes and the Temporal Hierarchies” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Learning to Read with Words in Color…

 … in an Inner City Neighborhood

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

© 1998 Une Ecole Pour Demain. Lecture en couleurs - 4 des tableaux de mots

© 1998 Une Ecole Pour Demain. Lecture en couleurs – 4 des tableaux de mots

on the wall on either side of the blackboard. In every other way it was a standard French primary school classroom.

A song

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

© 1998 Une Ecole Pour Demain. Lecture en couleurs - Fidel.

© 1998 Une Ecole Pour Demain. Lecture en couleurs – 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 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 others’ pointings 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 session 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 new “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.

Respecting conventions

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 /pɑ̃dɑ̃/ (which is actually another word written “pendant” meaning “while”) instead of as one syllable /pɑ̃d/. Her mistake showed that she knew that “ent” can be pronounced /ɑ̃/ (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 /pɑ̃dɑ̃/ … ah! /pɑ̃d/ 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 HansonThe Science of Education in Questions, N° 13, September 1997, Besançon, France.

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“Learning to read with Words in Color in an Inner City Neighborhood” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.