Beginner Silent Way exercises using Cuisenaire rods

Some quotations from The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages:

Words can become a reality to which we can relate, but they are retained only when they trigger images, their meaning …
… we need to find ways of working that first bring the truth to the fore and then present an associated sign that can stand for that truth when consistently associated with it.
… it was found that a set of Cuisenaire rods is a very good way of achieving that end.” (1)


Working with situations made with the rods… The meanings come from the situations not from the words… The overall result is that there are no really difficult forms which cannot be illustrated through the proper situation involving rods and actions on them about which [students] make statements… whose associated meaning is obvious.(2)

This means that the rods can be used by the teacher to create visual situations (or tactile ones for blind students) which trigger in the students a direct understanding of the meaning and to which they can give expression through the elements of the language they already know, relying on the teacher for those items, and only those, which they lack.

On pp 35-44 of The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages Caleb Gattegno gives some examples (a red rod, two red rods, five yellow rods and two brown ones, pick up, Take a —- rod, Give it to me, Take a rod and give it to her, Take a blue rod and a black one, give the blue one to her and the black one to him, Take seven rods, put one here, two there and give me three, This rod is yellow and that one is blue, I am here, you are there, Is his rod blue?) of how to achieve this in the very first moments of learning a language. There are many other possibilities, of which a few are given below.

Some general considerations

For many of these exercises, the teacher sets out the rods on a table that can be clearly seen by all the students. If the class is large, the table can be raised and slightly tilted towards the students or the rods can be stuck on the wall with blu-tack. For other exercises the teacher may or may not distribute rods to one or more students. If the class is more than about 15 students in size, the teacher often uses the “fish-bowl technique.” That is, 2 to 6 students come to the front, take or are given rods and carry out the actions while the other students learn by proxy. Depending on the situation, the students at the front may be the only ones to speak or all the students may contribute. Naturally, the students working at the front are rotated frequently. After a structure has been presented in this way, all the students are given time to practice it in small groups.

Having set out the rods, the teacher indicates to the students by gesture that s/he is waiting for a response. In certain cases, the teacher also indicates by gesture that one or more students are expected to perform a certain action with the rods. In other cases, in addition to setting out the rods, the teacher might point to a rod or group of rods and say “Mr. Green” or “A street”.

The first response from the students may not be the one anticipated by the teacher. If it is appropriate to the situation, and does not demand a level of language beyond that of the students’, the teacher can accept it and the work will continue in the direction proposed by the students. If the response is inappropriate, or would involve structures too complex to provide a do-able challenge for the students, the teacher invites the students to make other suggestions.

The students’ first propositions will usually not be wholly correct. The teacher will help the students to correct themselves in various ways such as through finger correction(3), pointing to words on the Word Charts

Caleb Gattegno - Silent Way US English Word charts

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

and indicating pronunciation with the Sound/color rectangles chart and and/or with the Fidel (spelling charts). From time to time, the teacher may direct the students’ attention to a critical aspect of the situation they have been ignoring by a carefully worded question. The teacher can also ask students if they are sure of their answers (whether the answers are in fact correct or not) to encourage them to reflect on their criteria. The teacher’s silence is a tool, not a dogma.

American English sound-color chart

Caleb Gattegno – American English sound-color chart 1977
© Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

The teacher may have to create 2 or 3 parallel presentations with the rods before the situation becomes unambiguous to all the students. Even when most of the students have shown by their responses that they understand the situation, the teacher continues creating parallel situations to give the students time to practice the new words and structures to gain facility and fluency. These new situations can be suggested by the students and can be done in small groups. The time necessary for this practice will be very variable depending on the complexity of the new structure and the rapidity of the students.

Caleb Gattegno - American English Fidel 1967 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

Caleb Gattegno – American English Fidel 1967 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

When students reply to questions, encourage them to give the shortest answers, as these are by far the most frequent in conversation. The nuances between the different possible answers can be worked on later. If you wish them to practice saying full sentences, do it in situations where it is most natural to do so, that is, in making spontaneous affirmative declarations.

At the end of a session the students can write the sentences they have said. At the beginning of the course this is best done by having several students all writing at once on the board. When they have finished their sentences, the other students are allowed to come and underline exactly (that is the exact letters, not necessarily the whole word) where they think they see a mistake. When the students have underlined all the mistakes they can see, the teacher underlines any others. At first, only the author of a given sentence is allowed to correct it. Only if s/he is unable to, can other students make corrections and only if none of them can, does the teacher, as a final resort, make gestures, ask questions, or use the wall charts to lead them to the answer. Later on, when students have developed most of the criteria they need for writing and spelling their sentences, this work can be done in small groups or set for homework.

The teacher may want to write down the students’ sentences, type them up, record them and then make them available for the students via email or an on-line site. That way students will have something to work on at home and feel they have “their” course in a tangible form. Beginners Dictations is based on such notes taken by teachers.

In what follows, the sentences in italics are said by the students only. The teacher provides unknown words by pointing to them on the word charts, on the Fidel spelling charts or on the sound-color chart
as s/he thinks appropriate. S/he may also write the word on the board if it is not on the word charts and will be used frequently during the lesson. Occasionally, the teacher will point a whole sentence, often to ask a question, but usually it is the students who are invited to point their sentences on the word charts. Pointing a sentence on the word charts is a way for the student pointing, and the others watching, to check their control and understanding of a new structure.

Have – has and I – she – he – you – we – they

The teacher gives a long rod to a student. To indicate possession, the teacher firmly closes the student’s fingers on the rod, which however remains visible to the other students.

(Later, the teacher will give one or more rods to other students.)

The teacher indicates to the students that s/he is waiting for them to speak.
(The students will probably already know “I& “you” but not necessarily the other pronouns)

Student A, “I have a blue rod.” (4) Only the student holding the rod is allowed to say this sentence.
Student B, “You have a blue rod.” This can only be said if the student speaking is speaking directly to Student A. who is holding the blue rod. It may be necessary to get the student speaking to stand up and face Student A to make this clear.
Student B, “Student A. has a blue rod.”Student B. must not look at Student A.
Student C, “She (or he) has a blue rod.”Student C. must not look at Student A. but address a third student or the teacher. Sometimes it may be necessary for the teacher to physically turn the speaker’s head to make this clear.

The teacher gives different rods to other students to create this situation:

Some students have to share rods so that “we” and “they” can be elicited:

“We have an orange rod.”
“They have a brown one

too – either – neither

The desire to say “too” often comes up spontaneously without any special prompting from the teacher who can then seize the opportunity to introduce the related words “either” and “neither”.)
Student A,“I have a blue rod.”
Student B,“I have a blue rod, too.”
Student C,“Me, too.”
Student D,“I do, too.” The teacher can ask which of these last two is the more informal – in the native language or by using gestures.
Student E,“I don’t have a blue rod.”
Student F,“Me, neither.”
Student G,“I don’t, either.” The teacher can again ask which is the more informal.

do / does for questions

The teacher indicates that questions should be asked, either by saying, “Now, ask a question” or by writing a large “?” on the board.

Student A to Student B,“Do you have a blue rod?”
Student B,“Yes, I do.”
Student A to Student F,“Do you have a blue rod?”
Student F,“No, I don’t.”or“No, but I have a green one”
Student E to Student F,“Does Student E. have a green rod?”
Student F,“Yes, she does.”
Student B to Student A,“Does Student G have a blue rod?”
Student A,“No, he doesn’t.”or“No, but he has a green one.”

Other possible student sentences:

“Do they have a brown rod?”
“Yes, they do.”
“No, they don’t.”
“No, but they have an orange one.”

different – same

and my – her – his – your – our – their

and mine – hers – his – yours – ours – theirs

My rod’s blue and your rod’s blue, too.
My rod’s blue and yours is, too.
Our rods are the same colour.
His rod’s blue and her rod’s green.
Their rods are different colours

The “same as” and “different from/than” should probably be left to another time if all this is new to the students.

For practice outside of class they can do this interactive exercise: my – your – his – her – its – our – their

some – any

(This is maybe not the best way to introduce them for the first time but is good for practice afterwards.)

The teacher gives additional rods of the same colour to each student. For example, one more blue rod to the students who already have blue ones, two or three more green rods to the students who have green ones, etc. The teacher indicates to the students that they should continue to ask questions.

“Do you have any blue rods?”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“No, but I have some green ones”
“Does he have any green rods?”
“Yes, he does.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“No, but he has some blue ones.”
“Do they have any blue rods?”
“Yes, they do.”
“No, they don’t.”
“No, but they have some red ones.”

How many… ?

The teacher ostentatiously counts out different numbers of same coloured rods to each of the students but in such a way that only the student receiving the rods knows the actual number. At least one of the students is not given any rods. The teacher indicates s/he wants a question asked.

Student A,“How many rods do you have?”
Student B,“Two.”I would accept“I have two”but ask them which is more frequent in conversation. For me,“I have five rods” is not really acceptable at this level because it is too difficult to make clear the slight difference of emphasis.
Student B,“How many rods do you have?”
Student L,“None.”or“I don’t have any.”

Long and short

The teacher lays a blue rod and a green one on the table like this:


The teacher makes a gesture indicating the length of the blue rod and indicates that the students should say something. If necessary, s/he points to the word “long” on the word charts.

“The blue rod’s long.”
“A long, blue rod.”

The teacher makes another gesture indicating the shortness of the green rod.

“The green rod’s short.”
“A short, green rod.”

Comparing rods

The teacher makes a gesture indicating simultaneously the lengths of the two rods. As necessary, the teacher points to “-er”, “longer” (making sure the students notice the difference in colour on the charts of the “g” in “long” and the “g” in “longer” and pronounce each correctly) and “than”. To ensure that the students pronounce “than” with the reduced schwa vowel (and not with the full pronunciation as shown on the word charts) the teacher could point it first on the sound-color chart or on the spelling charts. With the teacher’s help, the students should be able to work out for themselves how to say:

“The blue rod’s longer than the green one.”


“The green rod’s shorter than the blue one.”

without the teacher having to say or point on the word charts to the whole sentence.


Then, the teacher adds a red rod like this:

and points to “-est” on the word charts.

“The red rod’s the shortest.”
“The blue rod’s the longest.”

The teacher adds more rods, one by one, until it becomes clear that the form doesn’t change however many more rods there are.

The teacher removes all these rods and lays out the orange and blue rods side by side like this:

“The orange rod’s a little longer than the blue one.”
“The blue rod’s a little shorter than the orange one.”

Then the teacher replaces the blue rod with the red one.

“The red rod’s much shorter than the orange one.”
“The orange rod’s much longer than the red one.”

Comparing people

Having removed all the other rods, the teacher places a brown rod and a black rod upright on the table and says, “Mr Brown. Mr Black.” The students will usually spontaneously propose,

“Mr Brown’s longer than Mr Black.”

The teacher points to “tall” on the word charts (or on the sound-color charts if the pronunciation is likely to be a problem).

“Mr Brown’s taller than Mr Black.”
“Mr Black’s shorter than Mr Brown”

Unless for some reason it would be socially embarrassing, the teacher can ask two students to stand up.

“Student A is taller than Student B.”
“Student B is shorter than Student A.”

a lot/a few and small/large

Then the teacher places three red rods upright around Mr Brown and about twelve red rods around Mr Black. The teacher gestures to the red rods and says, “children”. If the meaning of “children” is not immediately clear to the students (if they have understood, they will laugh at the size of Mr Black’s family) the teacher can pick up a red rod and make a baby rocking movement with his/her arms.

The teacher hides Mr Brown and his family with the lid of the box to indicate to the students that they should only talk about Mr Black and his family.

“Mr Black has a lot of children.”
“He has a large family.”

Then, the teacher hides Mr Black and his family and displays Mr Brown and his family.

“Mr Brown has just a few children.”
“He has a small family.”


Then, the teacher shows both the families together.

“Mr Black has more children than Mr Brown.”
“Mr Brown has fewer children than Mr Black.”

Next the teacher places a lot of green rods next to Mr Brown and a few next to Mr Black and says “Apples.” If necessary, s/he draws an apple on the board.

“Mr Brown has a lot of apples.”
“Mr Black has just a few.”
“Mr Black has fewer apples than Mr Brown.”
“Mr Brown has more apples than Mr Black.

How many…?

The teacher indicates that the students should ask questions.

“Does Mr Brown have a lot of children?”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“How many children does he have?”

Countables and uncountables

Then the teacher puts a large lump of Blu-tack (5) near Mr Black and a small lump near Mr Brown. It is important to use something that is visibly and tangibly uncountable so that students form a clear mental image of the concept which may not exist in their native language. Blu-tack is what I’ve found easiest to carry around for this purpose.

“Mr Black has a lot of Blu-tack.”
“Mr Brown has just a little Blu-tack.”
“Mr Black has more Blu-tack than Mr Brown.”
“Mr Brown has less Blu-tack than Mr Black.”
“How much Blu-tack does Mr Brown have?”
“Just a little.”

The teacher continues to give Mr Brown and Mr Black countable and uncountable objects. At first, the rods represent only countable objects, and uncountables are things that are themselves uncountable: paper, Kleenex, money… Then, when the distinction is clear to most students, rods can also represent uncountables but are placed in neat piles whereas, when they represent countables, they are scattered about.

When there are 4-6 representations each of countable and uncountable objects on the table, one of the weakest students can be asked to sort them into two groups. To do this the teacher draws two chalk circles on the table (or virtual circles if no chalk is available) and puts some “children” in one circle and some Blu-tack in the other. Then, the teacher gives some of one of the other objects to the student and indicates he has to place it/them either with the “children” or with the Blu-tack. Only when the student has finished sorting all the objects are the other students allowed to point out any mistakes. It is important to make them wait until the end because the weak students will often correct initial errors of their own accord as they see a pattern developing. This way, they are not robbed of a chance to make the discovery on their own by those who have made it themselves just a few minutes earlier.


A Mr Green is added and given varying numbers and amounts of children, paper, etc.

“Mr Green has the most paper.”
“Mr Green has the least money.”

There are many more situations that can be created. Students themselves are very inventive at proposing different ideas that can be represented in similar ways.


1) The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages, Caleb Gattegno, p 35.

2) Idem, p 43

3) In “finger correction” each finger on the hand of the teacher or of the student, represents one word of the sentence the student has said. The student “reads” the sentence as the fingers are pointed to in turn. Problems are indicated, for example, by pressing two contiguous figures together to show the need for a contraction; one or more fingers are bent down to eliminate unnecessary words; two fingers are crossed to show that the position of the two words represented should be inverted. “The problem is here” is said and a particular finger or fingers are pointed to so that the student can locate the position of the problem. All these conventions are quickly developed between the teacher and the class without any need for overt explanations.
Towards the end of this article there’s an illustrated description of finger correction: Discovering the Silent Way – John and Susana Pint.

4) Or “I’ve got a rod.” However, even if this is at least equally probable in some teachers’ dialects, there may be pedagogical reasons for preferring to start with the more regular “I have a rod” form.

5) Blu-tack is what Silent Way teachers often use for fixing their charts to the wall. Blu-tack looks like a lump of Plasticine or chewing-gum and is sold under different names and colours.

© Glenys Hanson, 2015. An earlier version was published on the Une Education Pour Demain website in 2001.

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“Some Silent Way exercises for beginners using Cuisenaire rods” 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.