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Using the Silent Way as an alternative approach to pre-reading/listening tasks

David Allen, University of Tokyo


Quick guide

  • Key words:Silent Way method, pre-reading exercises, speaking, vocabulary
  • Learner English level:Elementary and above
  • Learner maturity:Junior high school and above
  • Preparation time:None, but a little pre-class rehearsal can’t do any harm
  • Activity time:10-15 minutes
  • Materials:Blackboard, visuals or realia


I used this technique to introduce the topic of a written text that was to be the focus of class activities, and to generate a question for a subsequent gist-reading task. The same technique can be used for audio texts. Before studentsread a text, it is often necessary to set up a gist-reading task and elicit some pre-reading vocabulary. Instead of doing the usual pair or group discussion-type exercise before reading, I decided to use a technique based very loosely on the Silent Way method developed by Caleb Gattegno (for a review, see Richards & Rodgers, 2001). The technique involves gesture and board drawings on the part of the teacher, who cannot talk for the duration of the elicitation; therefore all the speaking and negotiation needs to be done by the students. The success of this activity depends much on the enthusiasm of the teacher and the class, but the positive effect it has on students’ spoken participation and class atmosphere can be well worth the effort.


Prepare a general topic statement, a vocabulary list, and some questions connected with the lesson text from your class. Prepare and practice how best to elicit these items before class.


Step 1: Begin the class in the usual manner. When ready to start the pre-reading tasks, tell students that they are going to read a text, but first they need to think about the general topic. Tell them you are going to use a special teaching technique called the Silent Way; this means you cannot speak for the next 10 minutes, and therefore the students must do all the speaking. Tell them not to worry about making mistakes and to just shout out any answer they think of, as this is the best way to succeed. The time limit helps to get students to throw out more guesses.

Step 2: Whenyou have the students’ full attention, gesture that you can no longer speak and begin your elicitation. Using board drawings and gestures, elicit your target topic statement, vocabulary, and questions. For example, if you plan to look at an article that discusses the effects of domestic waste on plant life, you may elicit domestic waste, and plant life. In this case,draw a house and elicit the word “house”. Then, draw a stickperson throwing out the trash or point to the waste paper basket and gesture the connection. Building upon these elicited words you can elicit sentences and questions. Your question may be What effect does house waste have on plant life? but something similar from students may be acceptable (e.g., Is domestic waste good or bad for plant life?). If you can’t elicit the words or sentences needed, don’t persist endlessly and waste too much time. Skip these and elicit other parts of the topic.

Step 3: Once you have elicited most of the topic and come up with a question, you can begin talking again. Go over the topic again, clarifying vocabulary such as domestic waste and praise the students’ efforts at guessing. It is important to give credit for guesses while pointing out that more specific phrases can be used instead. This will hopefully serve as a good associative learning task for learners to grasp new vocabulary items. It also means many of the key vocabulary items in the text have been pre-taught to some degree. Drill the vocabulary items and statements or questions.

Step 4: Now that the students have a question, they can consider the answer in pairs before reading to check whether they were correct or not. The remainder of the lesson progresses as usual.


The teacher may notice from this activity how difficult it is not to talk, which may highlight the need for more student talk, as opposed to teacher talk, in class activities.


Richards, J. C. & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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