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“Silence is Golden“:
Going to Extremes to Reduce TTT
by
Gabi Bonner
- 1

It occurred to me suddenly as I was leaving the lesson, and I was horrified. I’d just spent more time talking than my students – giving instructions, correcting errors, modelling pronunciation, monitoring, conducting feedback, and telling the disruptive ones to shut up and listen! I mean, it seems to be common knowledge amongst EFL teachers, and it was drilled into us during CELTA, that too much TTT (Teacher Talking Time) is something to be avoided, as it takes the focus away from the students thus making the lesson too teacher-centred. Although I’m aware that a certain amount of ‘quality TTT’, for example modelling language, is necessary and can be a positive thing, I was still convinced that I had a fairly grave case of verbal diarrhoea. I decided then and there that serious measures had to be taken to reduce the dreaded TTT. I’d heard about a somewhat unconventional yet quite intriguing approach to language teaching called the Silent Way – in which the teacher is mainly (but not completely!) silent, therefore giving the students more opportunities to speak. I decided that this could well be the solution to my problem, or at least make for a fascinating experiment, and so I made it my mission to find out more…

So what’s the Silent Way all about?

Devised by Caleb Gattegno, the Silent Way is a pedagogical approach to language teaching based on the premise that the teacher should be as silent as possible in the classroom (about 90% of the time), and that learners should be encouraged to produce as much language as possible. The learning hypothesis behind the Silent Way is that learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or creates rather than remembers and repeats what is to be learned. Also, students learn more effectively through problem solving involving the target language. It views language learning as a creative, problem-solving and discovering activity in which the learner is a principal actor rather than a bench-bound listener (Bruner: 1966). Basically, the Silent Way can be described as a problem-solving approach to language learning, and is summed up nicely in Benjamin Franklin’s words:

“Tell me and I forget,

Teach me and I remember,

Involve me and I learn .”

In a Silent Way lesson teaching is subordinated to learning (Gattegno: 1972). The teacher takes on a role that resembles that of a leader of a team of investigators on a voyage of discovery. He or she creates an environment that encourages student risk-taking and facilitates learning. The teacher’s role in a Silent Way lesson has also been described as that of a dramatist who writes the script, chooses the props, sets the mood, models the action, designates the players and is a critic for the performance.  

The Silent Way and my students

When I began reading about the Silent Way I have to say I was rather excited. You see, having had quite a few ‘motivational issues’ with my upper-intermediate intensive class, it seemed that trying out the Silent Way and giving them responsibility for their own learning might well help to motivate them. I decided to take things one step further than Gattegno proposed however, and attempt to teach the entire ninety-minute lesson completely silently! I decided that if the students knew I was not prepared to utter one word, then there would be no expectancy on their part that I would speak if they didn’t understand something. I was also hoping the ‘novelty value’ of a completely silent lesson might also capture and sustain their attention and interest. One of the principles behind the Silent Way is that through problem-solving, learners become more autonomous and responsible for their own learning. It has been proven by researchers that learner autonomy plays a significant role in increasing integrative motivation (see Dornyei: 2001). Could this possibly give me the opportunity to kill two (or more!) birds with one stone? : To get my students to speak more in class, make them responsible for their learning, AND increase their motivation. It almost sounded too good to be true!

I got mixed reactions from my colleagues when I announced what I was planning to do. Some gave me a fairly indifferent ‘uh huh’, being used to my ‘little experiments’, some were interested and wanted to know the details of my plan, and some told me I’d never be able to teach an entire ninety-minute lesson without at least giggling and/or saying something by mistake. There was no going back though… I was determined and inspired!

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