Creating mental images of English prepositions

Two Palettes - Jim Dine. The Collection Online. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Why native-speakers can “guess” the meaning

Words such as up, on and over each evoke a specific mental image, or series of related images, which are shared by all native speakers. This does not mean of course that native speakers can necessarily make explicit in words their exact meaning but that when they come across the word in an unfamiliar context they can spontaneously make a guess at the meaning of the total expression with a high degree of success. This is precisely what many learners of English are often unable to do. Each phrasal verb, each colloquial expression containing a preposition is treated as a new item of vocabulary to be memorised – a slow and laborious process that can never be completed because the number of such expressions is potentially infinite. Native speakers create new ones every day. The number of words such as up, on and over on the other hand, is limited and their meanings can be mastered.. For simplicity’s sake, I will call such words “prepositions” here, though most can also function as adverbs, subordinators, etc., because what I want to emphasise is their base meaning, not their grammatical function.

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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.