Caleb Gattegno and The Science of Education

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The Faster Way

by Steven Quinn

(Page 304 of The Gattegno Effect)

I have been an English as a second language teacher for two years. I found the Silent Way about a year ago, by accident, while searching online for information about teaching pronunciation. In this past year, my world has changed forever. What I once called “teaching,” I now call “fumbling around in the dark.”

I became interested in language early in high school, eventually studying German at university. I never really thought much about my teachers, although I knew that some were betterthan others. In 10 years of study, I accumulated a large number of memorized German structures and vocabulary. But even today, speaking German triggers feelings of fear and panic, my palms become sweaty as I stammer away. At university I could not help but feel somehow dissatisfied. I spent thousands of hours studying, without ever achieving a sense of confidence and fluency.

As a trainee teacher, I thought I could change things, even if I didn’t know how. I knew there must be a better way. But no one at university showed me anything different. I left Sydney University thinking that good language teaching was an eclectic soup, seasoned with this or that method according to the teacher’s disposition.

When I eventually landed a job as an ESL teacher, I was thrown into a class of complete beginners, consisting mostly of illiterate refugees. Suddenly, all the elegant theories were completely useless. I couldn’t translate the theory into practice. Five years of training had not prepared me at all. Almost everything I tried led to failure. All of a sudden, the eclectic soup began to look quite thin.

At university we all recited the mantra: “I take a constructivist approach; knowledge is not a list of facts.” But this was always a purely verbal statement. Having no real understanding of how to do better, I did what most teachers do; I began to teach as I was taught, through drills, repetition, and grammatical explanations. I employed eclecticism with a heavy dose of the communicative approach. I was the ideal product of any respectable education faculty, but I felt like a fraud. I calmed myself with the thought that “such is language learning.”

You see, conventional pedagogy designates five to 10 years of dedicated study before a person can competently speak, listen, read and write in a new tongue. The idea that “these things take time” comforted me, although only a little. My students appeared to be “unresponsive,” unable to make progress from one day to the next. Looking back, I wish someone had handed me a box of rods and said, “Take these to class and shut up!” The problem was not that my students could not learn, but that I never tried to learn from them. All my talking, repetition and dancing about had no effect, and so I drank another coffee and taught harder, talking louder, repeating more, explaining again and again. I hammered away in a way that must have frustrated and paralyzed them.

Each new term brought new students and some bright idea discovered during the break. Each term I jumped from one to another; from song-like drilling, to phonics, to copy books, to grammar exercises. But looking back, I can see that my frustration with the students should have been directed at my materials and techniques. It was just a little too difficult to admit total ignorance. But there must have been a problem, else I wouldn’t keep changing my approach. I was never satisfied with my teaching, and I felt the weight of my students’ situation pressing down on me.

From my first day, I knew that my students were some of the most needy in Australia and that I could only help them for six months. They needed so much, in so little time. How could they learn all those words? How could they remember all the names of all the things around them? I needed to find the fastest way to teach them English.

While they cannot speak, read, or write, my students can not move freely in the community. Can I really ask my students to wait five whole years before they enter society?

I think my teaching was based primarily on fear; the fear of failure, the fear of forgetting, and the fear of publicly being shown to be inadequate. And all this classroom fear stood atop my students’ greatest fear of all – “What am I to do with my life?” Their old one is gone, and here they are, at the age of 18, learning to speak like a baby, surviving on welfare payments, with almost no prospects for work.

I’m so glad to have found the Silent Way. Things are very different now. Teaching in this way, I can give the students a rapid entry into speaking, listening, reading, and writing, and therefore, an entry into social life. I can bring the students’ self to the helm, and open up a new future for them, perhaps enabling them to build a new relationship with their past, and overcome their trauma.

I never thought that perhaps I didn’t need to teach them loads of vocabulary, and that the more important job was to sensitize their mouths, ears, and minds to the spirit of the English language. This way, when my time with them is over, they can analyze new language and absorb it.

All my crippling anxiety was unnecessary. Now that I’ve begun to understand the students as they are, rather than as I would prefer them to be, my anxiety has disappeared. The students speak and I guide them. I now know that language is not a thing to be memorized, but a functioning to be acquired. And so I trigger that functioning with the rods and then guide it with feedback.

I’m still only a novice. I’ve never done any training, nor even seen a Silent Way class in person. I still find myself interfering when I don’t really understand a problem, or seeing an error, but not really knowing how to correct it. I still have a long way to go, and my regular failures testify to this. But among the failure, some fantastic successes stand out and spur me onwards. How far I have come in these past 12 months. I feel that I’ve made huge strides forward, leaving “drill and kill” well behind me.

I am very lucky to have found Dr. Roslyn Young, again by accident, while trying to purchase the then-non-existant British English Charts. I learned so much while helping to edit her introductory guide to the Silent Way. If I hadn’t got my hands on the book, and had the benefit of Roslyn’s experience, then I would still be “fumbling around in the dark.”

It’s so exciting to come into contact with other Silent Way teachers. I can’t help but feel that a renaissance in languages education is at hand. Teachers now have an independent entry to the theory and practice of Gattegno’s approach to teaching languages. Of course, the road ahead is not smooth; teachers are understandably wary of new ideas, they are assailed by “innovations” and “world’s best practice” dropping down on them from the education bureaucracies. Individuals must be convinced. Every teacher to whom I’ve demonstrated the approach can see its power, but whether they have the desire to submit themselves to years of difficult change is another question. For me, the results certainly justify the occasional hardship.

Even as a beginner, I have in 10 weeks brought students to the point where they can speak, listen, read and write in English, albeit in the small universe of a few Word Charts and some additional survival vocabulary. With these words they have listened and understood, spoken and been understood. Indeed, they have spoken independently, written independently, spelled independently, used grammar independently, and most importantly, corrected themselves in all these fields, thus proving that they have functioning criteria for the English language. By subordinating my teaching to their learning, I can give my students a good start in their new life. I thank Caleb Gattegno for showing me that in these “unresponsive” students lurks an enormous intellectual power waiting to be unleashed.