A Silent Way lesson on syllable stress

The teacher’s responsibility and the student’s responsibility

syllable stress
In The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages, Caleb Gattegno suggested that the aim of good teaching is to make students “independent, autonomous and responsible”. Elsewhere he claimed that the role of a teacher is to force awarenesses. These two statements are in no way contradictory. A sensitive teacher who does what is necessary for a student to have new insights does not remove or replace that student’s own responsibility for his/her learning.

Sometimes it can be useful to make it clear to a student that they need to mobilise their faculties themselves.

I was very much struck with this a few years ago when I was observing a colleague, Andi Biero, teach a “false beginner” class. The teacher was trying to focus a student’s attention in such a way that an element of the language that the student was unaware of would become apparent to her. I don’t now remember the exact order in which the teacher tried different ways of doing that, but otherwise what follows is pretty faithful to what I saw.

One of the students, Danielle, had said something in which she had put the stress in “today” on the first syllable.

1) The teacher indicated that there was a pronunciation problem.

First, the teacher just said, “Pronunciation” to indicate that there was something wrong with the pronunciation of this word. This produced no response.

2) The teacher made a gesture to indicate the stress.

The teacher made a gesture in the air with her hand to indicate the stress. Danielle looked blank.

3) The teacher tapped the word on the:

Caleb Gattegno - Silent Way US English Word charts

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

Then the teacher pointed to the written word “today” (she was using the Silent Way word charts – it’s on bottom of Chart 10) and tapped lightly on “to” then forcefully on “day”. Danielle said the word again with the stress on the first syllable and also pronouncing it as “too”.

4) The teacher used the colour code on the chart to indicate the schwa pronunciation of the first syllable.

The teacher showed her (by covering up with a finger the khaki coloured “o” of ‘today” and by gesture virtually changing it to yellow, the colour for the schwa /ə/ or neutral e) that the vowel in “to” should be pronounced the same as the vowel in “the”. Danielle now said “TUHday” instead of “TOOday”.

5) The teacher tapped the rhythm on the student’s hand.

The teacher took Danielle’s hand and tapped the rhythm of the word in the palm of her hand. No result.

6) The teacher and then the student tapped the rhythm on the desk.

The teacher tapped out the rhythms “DAH di” and “di DAH” with her hand on the desk and asked Danielle to repeat each tapping. After a few attempts, Danielle was able to do this but still said “TOday”.

7) Some students tapped one of the two rhythms and others said which it was.

The teacher asked other students to tap out the above rhythms and had Danielle (and other students) say which was which. The class had fun doing this and Danielle became able to recognize the different rhythms but she couldn’t transfer this to “today”.

8) The teacher asked the student to put the stress on “to”.

The teacher asked Danielle to deliberately put the stress on “to” and then to put it on “day”. What Danielle produced was always the same.

9) The teacher wrote the word with the stressed syllable in capital letters.

The teacher wrote “TOday” and “toDAY” on the board and asked other students to say one of the two but without indicating in advance which one they were saying. Danielle (and other students) had to say which one she heard. This was obviously an enjoyable activity for the whole class and after some mistakes at first, Danielle managed to do this accurately. But she still said ” TOday”.

10) The teacher got the student to “walk” the stress.

The teacher asked Danielle to “walk” the word with her, stamping hard on the “day”. This had no result.

11) The teacher gave the student a shove between the shoulder blades on the stressed syllable

The teacher stood behind Danielle and when she (Danielle) said the word gave her a firm shove between the shoulder blades on the “day” syllable. She did this two or three times but with no result.

All this time, Danielle had co-operated with the teacher’s suggestions and remained relaxed.

12) The teacher made the “palms up” gesture.

Finally, the teacher calmly made the palms up gesture, looked at Danielle, and said gently in French (Danielle’s native language), “I’ve tried everything I know. Now, you are the only one who can do something.”

Danielle looked away from the teacher, paused, and said “toDAY”.

My conclusions

Language teachers observing a Silent Way class for the first time often feel that an inordinate amount of time can be spent on one small problem, “So what does it matter if she does have the stress wrong in today? She’ll be understood anyway?” The point of the above lesson was not principally to get Danielle to pronounce today correctly but, on one level, to help her to build up criteria for recognising and producing differences in stress – essential in English though of little significance in Danielle’s native language, French and, on another level, to gain awareness of her own actions and, therefore, control over them.

For various reasons, Danielle dropped out of this class but enrolled a few months later in a complete beginners class I happened to be teaching. She never once blocked in this way over pronunciation or anything else. Maybe during the experience described above, she had learnt more than just how to pronounce “today”.

© Glenys Hanson 2001-2015. Originally published on the Une Education Pour Demain website.

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“Working on syllable stress in a Silent Way class” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.