Thursday, 29 May 2014

A student decides to share his experience

We're all aware that speaking in front of a camera is not always an easy task, and even less in a foreign language! But my student Sulaiman wanted to challenge himself, and so today we decided to try and record a video of him speaking French.

Since Sulaiman was happy about the course and willing to recommend it, I suggested I could post the video on the blog and make the whole exercise even more challenging. The least I can say is that I'm really proud of him when I see the result. He's studied some French ten years ago, but when he first came to me his speech was hesitant and marked by a strong accent. After four months of dedicated work anybody can tell that he made the best out of it, and so I'm very happy to be able to share his experience on a video here. This could even inspire some other students to try and do the same, so stay put and watch for more videos!

One last remark: video editing is not my job, and I'm sure it's gonna be very obvious if you watch the video! I've recorded and edited the whole thing with my phone, so don't expect professional quality here. But I've had subtitles nonetheless, in case you can't follow what he's saying in French.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Bringing students to autonomy in learning: the private teacher paradox

Here's a topic I've been wanting to tackle for a while. What could be seen as a paradox can be put simply as: if you rely on your students' money, why would you want them to become autonomous learners? In fact I think it's a very important question to ask to any kind of tutor, because their answer might reveal a lot of things about their conception of teaching.

I have my own answer, and I wouldn't say that it should be the same for everyone. This is tightly bound with the Silent Way approach though. As seen before, one of the central features of the Silent Way is the subordination of teaching to learning, or to put it differently: the idea that how/what we teach is always strictly determined by what the student needs at that precise moment. Teaching shouldn't be about 'feeding' knowledge to open-mouth students, but rather creating the right conditions for the learner to discover new things. Teaching is not 'transferring' data from T to S, but doing every possible thing to help S take control of his learning. So teaching is essentially about empowerment and turning students into learners.

In my experience the huge majority of people looking for personal language tuition don't do it to pass academic tests or at least that's never their final end. They want to be able to actually use the language to express themselves and to interact socially with it (whether it's in a professional or personal environment). As when you take driving lessons, you're not really interested in the licence itself, but rather in the freedom of movement you might get with this new driving skill. The same way learning a language should offer you a new freedom of expression to explore, new cultures to discover, new people to meet.

This is why autonomy is so important and why no teacher should want his students to rely on him when learning. The teacher won't always be around to confirm if something is right or not; the student needs to build his own criteria and he needs to do that as soon as he starts learning. This is how Silent Way students develop their strong self-confidence in speaking and so often take control of the lesson started by the teacher. No one knows everything that could be known about a specific language, not even the teacher himself, but one has to be able to tread confidently in the area that he has learnt (and also kindle some taste for setting down the foot a bit further than this border!).

So my answer is one of the simplest: if I feel that I'm not leading my students towards autonomy, I'm sure I'm not doing my job. I'm a teacher, by choice, not a plumber or a hairdresser: a teacher; so what I want to do is teaching, proper teaching. And when a student feels that he doesn't need more tuition because he has all the tools for efficient and autonomous learning, I know that I have done my job properly. And business-wise I know that I can offer the freed time slot to a new student, so there is no paradox for me. This is simple deontology, based on what I believe is actual teaching.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The 5 most mind-blowing tools you will ever see in a classroom

For the title, I was also tempted by 'you won't believe what these 5 amazing tools can do' and '5 incredibly powerful tools that will change your life forever'... but today's article won't be about viral Buzzfeed titles. :)

I'd like to undertake a first inventory of some of the main tools you can see in a Silent Way classroom. They will all have their own article ultimately I promise, but for now it's good to start with a general overview!

1 - The Rectangle chart.

This is for French, but many other languages are available.
This assortment of coloured rectangles offers a synthetic and exhaustive view of all the sounds used the French language. Each rectangle represents its unique phonetic equivalent, the same way International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) has a unique symbol for each sound. The rectangles' organisation on the chart follows articulatory lines, so that the student feels a certain logic when going from one to the other.
Using the Rectangle chart doesn't require any effort of memorisation by the student, experience shows that they simply get used to it with practice and it quickly becomes a very efficient way to distinguish between two similar sounds. For the teacher it's a great tool to see precisely which sounds pose problems to a student and to work on them acutely without the distraction of spelling or meaning. For the student it's an excellent way to become aware of the 18 (!) different vowel sounds in French and to refine at best his pronunciation as well as his aural understanding.

2 - The Phonological code.

The pointer shows one of the spelling for the [e] sound,
all written in the light blue column.
Or 'Fidel'. This chart uses the same colour coding as the Rectangle chart and allows study of the relationship between spelling and sound. Unlike German or Spanish, French has a very complex spelling system where the same spelling can lead to different pronunciations ("Le président et son premier ministre président la conférence"), and where the same sound can be spelt in numerous ways ("Le sot fait un saut et renverse son seau"). The Phonological code displays all the possible French spellings of a specific sound in a synthetic way. When the student looks for the right spelling he gets two important elements: first, there's a finite number of possibilities, which is by far more reassuring than the feeling 'it could be anything'. And second, he has all the options for him to compare and can start elaborating criteria to discriminate the most likely options from the unlikely ones. This is a very important skill to get in order to improve one's spelling.

3 - The Word charts.
These 12 charts uses again the same colour coding so that what has been learned with the other tools can be instantly transferred to allow correct reading of unknown words (even if written with unknown characters, as in Russian or Japanese). These charts display the structural vocabulary of the language: about 500 words following a pedagogical progression. In combination with the minute work on pronunciation and spelling done with the previous charts, the Word charts allow the construction of sentences and thus work on syntax, grammar, and the core of the language.

4 - The Cuisenaire rods.
The set of coloured rods can be used in many creative ways and the most spectacular one is also the simplest one. The teacher will use it to work on essential parts of the language without the heaviness of complex or abstract vocabulary. He can build very concrete situations ranging from the elementary 'give a blue rod to Claire' to the more advanced 'she was taking the blue rod that was behind the red ones, when I gave her another blue rod'. These clear and visible situations can be played before anything has been said, and the teacher's role is to make them non-ambiguous so that everyone already knows what the student is going to talk about and can focus on the way it is said (rather than first trying to understand what he means). In a few seconds the teacher can create a situation where his students will experience what the dreaded French subjunctive means and what they need to feel when they have to use it.

5 - The Pointer.
This last tool is used in combination with all the previous charts. The student and the teacher point at the coloured rectangle, spelling or word they want to use, and the chain of movements followed by the pointer recreates the dynamic nature of the language. The pointer draws attention because the students quickly realise that if they don't follow each of its movement, the meaning is lost. When a sentence is written on the board or in the manual, the students know that they can let themselves become distracted for a few minutes: the sentences will still be there for them to read later on. But anything pointed is as ephemeral as speech and has to be captured at the moment of its production. The pointer can also express a rhythm (eg. tapping the stresses distinctly) and it gives some important kinaesthetic dimension to the learning process.

All right, this is already a very long (yet very condensed!) overview of 5 of the main tools commonly used in Silent Way classes. Of course there is more to say about each of them, and we could elaborate the same way on other important tools (correction on the fingers, writing with dashes, back pushes, beat representations, to name but a few). But you don't want to order all the dishes from the menu on the same day, do you? ;-)

Friday, 3 January 2014

Preaching in Berlin!

Nothing religious here: I've been invited to a seminar in Germany, to present how the Silent Way can help in teaching a foreign language. The association Kids & Co from Berlin organised an expert meeting in December, with a series of presentations and workshops on the topic of youth empowerment. Since they are engaged both in international mobility projects and remedial tuitions for drop-out kids, they were deeply interested in hearing about Gattegno's renowned approach.

The experience was rich and pleasant, with many unforgettable encounters. They booked the same flight and hotel for me and for the Embrace Cooperation ltd. team so that I would be with fellow Londoners. Embrace people are also active in European projects toward youngsters, so they proved very savvy in the difficulties we face when teaching languages to teenagers; we've had passionate discussions about pedagogy and I taught some bits of French to their leader on the fly.

During the seminar I actually did two presentations: a shorter one to a wide audience of various experts coming from different fields (related to youth empowerment), and a long one to a group of teachers. For the first one I had about 40 minutes and of course there was no way I would give them a boring power-point, so I showed them how one could teach some Modern Greek grammar in half an hour to complete beginners using the Silent Way. I was glad to see that most of them left me their email addresses for more information about the pedagogy.

"No fear of strange lands and languages", 12/2013 seminar - Berlin

The second group was constituted of a dozen of languages and maths teachers. Fortunately I had more than two hours at my disposal this time, and that proved useful considering the amount of questions and examples that we went through together. This time I used French, showing how correct pronunciation can be taught, with an emphasis on helping everyone to participate and actually speak (even the complete beginners). I've had a couple of mail exchanges with some of them since then, making me hope that a Silent Way teaching group might be born in Berlin as well!

Monday, 30 December 2013

Mini-books: a powerful tool to encourage writing

Ever heard of mini-books? It all starts with Bruce Demaugé-Bost, a French teacher, when he decided to use these small 8-page 'petits livres' to encourage his pupils to write. The mini-book is folded from a single A4 sheet of paper and use only one side of the sheet, which makes it very easy to photocopy or scan. It's a very 'low tech' tool that turns an intimidating empty white page into an inviting writing game. 

Technically each page of the mini-book is A7 sized, which is the size of your smartphone or wallet. Folding the page into a book takes 30 seconds and a pair of scissors, and then everyone can start writing something on the cover or on the first page. Usually there is enough space for 5 or 6 short lines per page, so one or two sentences. Even relatively beginners can try to write these short sentences, and they'll make extra efforts to find the correct spelling since they want to give a particular attention to their mini-book. The book can then be easily unfolded to allow some photocopies, so that each student can read copies of the other's mini-books. And since it presents some 'craft' aspect (with the folding, layout, decoration), it will help even the shiest to take the plunge!

Look how you can create your first mini-book in less than a minute:

And have a look here at Betty's mini-book "L'espoir". You'll also find hundred of other French examples on the site and some useful recommendations too. Please let me know if you try the mini-book as well!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Practical information

Important notice

As I have left the United Kingdom, my courses are momentarily suspended. This page will be updated as soon as DejaVu teaching resumes its activity.

You can still contact me at for any question related to teaching, learning or anything mentioned in this blog.

What do I mean by "Silent Way"?

I feel that there's a necessity for an early article concerning the Silent Way, at least to clarify some of my other publications. If you're looking for in-depth explanations and descriptions, please check the links at the bottom. For today I will simply try to give my vision of the pedagogy I'm using.

The Silent Way is an approach to teaching languages that has been conceived by the pedagogue Caleb Gattegno after the Second World War, and that has been in constant evolution since then. Throughout the world there are still many teachers reflecting on their teaching and trying to improve collectively the Silent Way's approach.

I say 'approach' rather than 'method' because the Silent Way is not a step-by-step recipe that a teacher would follow with group of a given level (like most methods are). It's rather a way to consider your role as a teacher and what you will do in order to give your students autonomy in their learning. The teacher's objective is not to pass a certain amount of knowledge to his students, but to help them figuring out how they can use the language to express themselves. This flips completely the usual roles, since the teacher has to check constantly where his students are, how they are reacting to the material he uses, what 'clicks' for them and what doesn't, and in the end which situation he can create to help them learn considering all these elements. Gattegno said about this approach that it subordinates teaching to learning, in the sense that the teaching becomes entirely dependent on the learning.

I find this shift in roles most difficult to describe, and quite easy to demonstrate. What is often seen at first in the Silent Way is its main tools: coloured charts, wooden rods, pointers, sound/colour codes, or silence. However I don't want to reduce the approach to its tools, because they are just one of the many means for the teacher to be 'present' at his students learning process, and indeed to subordinate his teaching to their learning. I'm sure that later I'll write separate articles concerning the different tools I've just listed (yes, 'silence' as a tool in language teaching!); for now you can still check the different links below.

  • Silent Way: Presentation (by Une Education Pour Demain, amongst many other resources provided by this site on Gattegno's legacy)
  • The Sound-Colour chart (by Australian teacher Steven Quinn, where you can have a quick tour through the main Silent Way tools)