TECHNIQUE: Words on Fingers

Attaching words to your fingers leads to a number of opportunities for students to work on various aspects of spoken language.

  1. The teacher’s fingers instantly give words an physical form, without requiring any writing on the board. It is spontaneous and immediately accessible even to illiterate students.
  2. Students can use their fingers to practice a sentence. In pairs they can point through the sentence and check with their partner that they are correct. This creates a quick and precise tool for peer assessment and feedback on oral language.
  3. Teachers can correct a student by:
    1. pointing to (or wiggling) the finger that represents an error or mispronunciation
    2. folding down the finger that represents a word that should be deleted
    3. inserting a finger between two others to represent an erroneously omitted word
  4. The teacher can put fingers together to show words spoken together, opening up many opportunities to work on phrasing.
  5. The teacher can tap a particular finger to show that this word is stressed.

There are two important points which must be emphasised in concluding. Firstly, the visual and kinaesthetic forms given to sentences with one’s fingers supports the oral and aural forms of perceptions by providing a “shape and feel” to the sentence. Working in this way encourages the co-ordination of all the senses. Secondly, the use of fingers for correction make students aware of an error without providing a solution (in the form of a verbal correction to be repeated). While the teacher may indicate that a word should be deleted, it is the student himself who must perform the task.

Once you start to use fingers in the class, you’ll wonder how you missed something so obvious. The simplest, most available tool has been there all along. Your students will appreciate that you have put the language in the palm of their hand.

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TECHNIQUE: Isolating a Consonant

The creators of written languages with alphabets separated consonants from vowels. They did so for the sake of simplicity and efficiency. The 7 graphemes a, e, i, o, u, p and t generate more than 40 different syllables. Other languages are not so efficient, having completely different signs of each syllable. In such a language, “at” and “it” would, in their written forms, bear no resemblance to each other. The proliferation of different signs for each syllable creates an additional burden on the learner’s memory. Alphabetic languages have greatly lightened this load.

However a contradiction between the written and spoken forms has developed. You see, it is a property of written signs, that they can be isolated, i.e. written outside a word on a page. However this is not a property of all speech sounds. Consonants can not be spoken in isolation, existing only as part of a syllable. So how then to we isolate something which can exist only in a context? It seems a bit like trying to separate oxygen from hydrogen without eliminating water.

The trick is to maintain the same consonant, while changing the vowel. Assuming that you are using chart that looks something like the one below there is a clear procedure to follow.

a       u       o       i        e


Firstly, ensure that the learner has consolidated the vowels sufficiently, such that when pointed by the teacher they are spoken spontaneously, without doubt or pause for though. Next tap /e/ then /t/ and say /et/. Next tap /at/ and wait for the student to say /at/. If this is correct, tap /it/ and wait for /it/. Continue with the other vowels.

Thus the students have shown through practice that they are able to isolate the consonant component of a spoken syllable and transfer this into a different syllable. This is a skill acquired in the crib, as a baby learns to speak its mother tongue. We are simply applying this skill to the written form, or rather, showing how this skill can be represented symbolically by signs made on paper.

In the written form consonants develop a relative independence which contradicts their true nature in the spoken form, but which conforms to the logic of an efficient writing system. This has misled many educators, but need not have.

Consonants are isolated by varying the vowel component of a syllable, not by removing them from the syllable. This is the linguistically correct approach to introducing, eliciting and practicing a consonant.

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The Subordination of Teaching to Learning

Initially the phrase “Subordination of Teaching to Learning” seems a little opaque. Perhaps the word “subordination” isn’t so commonly used, and therefore seems a little odd. Anyway, all teachers would tell you that their teaching leads to learning. So what’s the big deal? Isn’t all teaching aimed at learning and therefore, in a way “subordinate” to it?

Perhaps the shell of this tough nut can be cracked if we look firstly at the last word in the phrase, “learning”. Gattegno spent his life studying learning in himself and others. He created a unified theory of learning that takes into account development from the embryo to the octogenarian. He found that learning is a natural process which occurs spontaneously when human beings meet the unknown and develop new skills and functionings in order to grapple with it.

Illustration from What We Owe Children: The Subordination of Teaching to Learning

Illustration from What We Owe Children: The Subordination of Teaching to Learning, Caleb Gattegno 1987

In the physical environment, humans master the use of their muscles to navigate the environment. They learn to crawl, to walk, to climb and to run. But learning also occurs in a cultural context, when humans begin to adopt the more advanced cultural features of their society. Children first use their hands to eat, but soon learn to use spoons, forks, chop-sticks, etc. These tools are a part of the cultural environment. Learning also allows children to use the most complex social tool available to man: language. So if learning is viewed as a natural process, then our first job is understand how it works. So let’s look at children learning.

When we watch a small children as they start to learn, the first thing that strikes us, is that they do so without any assistance whatsoever. They even become frustrated when adults offer too much assistance, showing their drive to learn unimpeded. Also, they learn all their skills completely without verbal instructions or explanations, in fact, without any words whatsoever. And finally, they have no memory of what they have learned, in the sense that one might recall one’s phone number. Instead their “memory” is proven in action, by performing the skill. None of us remembers how to walk, we stand up and do it.

A number of principles of learning can be deduced from this:

  1. All learning is self-learning – no one can learn anything for us, we have to mobilise ourselves to learn, thus the teacher is compelled to present situations that mobilise learners. Teacher should not “push” or “praise” as the task itself should be challenging and, therefore, inherently motivating to the child as a spontaneous learner.
  2. Learning is autonomous – once students are on task, teachers should observe silently and try to understand from the evidence available how the student is conceiving of the task. They should plan their interventions on the basis of this concrete information. Deficiencies in student performance should be viewed as guides to the teachers’ presentation, task design and set up of the learning environment.
  3. Humans learn skills but forget facts – Students engaged in learning how to do something are able to improve and refine their performance. Once they have fully mastered the skill, it is available to them as if it were there all along and requires almost no attention. Conversely, students engaged in memorising and regurgitating information can only be correct or incorrect. They are ultimately left feeling dissatisfied as so much of their natural learning functions have been left unused in the task.

Once we understand this, then we can intervene to shape the learning progression. But if we do not understand the learning process, then we stumble into the classroom like an apprentice mechanic: very eager, but without any idea of the inner workings at play. To subordinate one’s teaching to learning is, firstly, to study human learning scientifically and, secondly, to show respect for the innate powers present in all learners by disciplining oneself to make only those interventions which are necessary, and no more.

“Let’s say I never tell you anything, except what you can’t invent. Then anything you say, has to be given to you. I have to grant you that you said it, because I didn’t say it. So one way of giving back to children what they do is to make the teacher shut up. Silence. A silent way of teaching…”

Caleb Gattegno on Speaking Freely with Edwin Newman

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The First Rod Lesson and the Music of Language

Image of Cuisenaire Rods Create with EYCSAM Math Manipulatives

Cuisenaire Rods

In terms of vocabulary, the first class introduces colours, some numbers and the basic English noun phrase.

But there is so much more to it. Led by the teacher, the students work on pronunciation, stress and intonation by building long sentences. The simple phrase “a blue rod” becomes “a red rod, a green one, a yellow one and a black one.” This long phrase, built of simple blocks enables students to work on phrasing, stress and intonation in a “controlled linguistic environment”, that is, with very few words.

Pick up any clarinet or flute method book, and you will find that notes are introduced in a staged manner, with a lot of practice at each step. The point is not only to “hit the note” but to do so in a way that the whole tune flows together, that certain notes are joined into phrases, that the song has the correct melody, that the song is a song and not just a sequence of notes. Just listen to a song played by a beginner and then a master. The latter is smooth and enchanting while the former is jilted and almost unrecognisable. But actually they are playing exactly the same notes! The difference comes not from what they play, but how they play. Melody is key.

Music and language are both based on melody.

Music and language are both based on melody.

Now let’s bring this back to speaking a language. An English learner cannot be satisfied with merely “hitting the notes”, that is saying the right words in the right order. They need to group the words together correctly and focus on fundamental things that teachers wouldn’t normally consider, for example, breathing. They need to intone their voice correctly for each phrase, and, like any master of an instrument, they need to convey an emotion.

Delete the “e” from emotion and you get “motion”, that is, what moves us, the up-welling inside us that, be it anger or the excitement of engaging with a challenging task. These forces trigger speech. This original force expresses itself in the final product.
The first Silent Way class arouses the excitement of being engaged, which provides the trigger even within a controlled linguistic environment for students to speak in a natural way, with a focus on the music of the language supporting meaning.


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Cuisenaire Rods in the Literacy Classroom

NB: This article is written for teachers of English, however the techniques can be used in any language classroom.

Illiterate students present teachers with unique challenges. They must not only learn to speak English, but also to read and write. Native speakers need only convert their speech into writing, whereas illiterate non-English speakers are faced with a dual challenge, learning a new spoken language and learning a new written language. In this post I will talk about some ways that Cuisenaire rods can meet these challenges.

Rods as Words

To fully-literate native speakers, words exist as sounds, meanings and strings of letters. In their minds these strings are strongly associated with sounds, concepts and images. The written word triggers the sound and the image. There is a tight bunch of automatic associations. But illiterate students have no such associations. Many English sounds are completely unknown, the sequences of sounds that make up English words are strange, and the written representation of the word is foreign. For these reasons, the introduction of spoken language through the medium of written language is a complete impossibility.

But as teachers, we know that students are much better able to deal with new language when they can see it. The eyes provide the mind with a wealth of information, perceiving sequences, patterns and proximity. But the ear, on the other hand, is strongly biased towards the mother tongue, and it is often unable to notice these features in speech. Some other object is needed to serve as a temporary representative for words, before the written form is introduced.

Cuisenaire rods allow the power of sight to be united with the power of speech, without a single word ever being written.

To introduce the idea that words can be represented by rods, the teacher need only say a sentence while pointing at them. For example, “I am speaking to him” can be quickly attached to five rods of different or identical colours.

I can then do several things:
1. I can point to them, prompting the students to repeat, ensuring at all times that the teacher and the students are “reading” from left to right, which from the teachers point of view, means pointing from right to left. At this time, the teacher need not say anything and is free to listen very closely to the students, asking them to repeat by pointing to this or that rod. If there is a mis-pronunciation, then the teacher can simply point at the rod and say “problem”, then ask the student to correct the mistake. Since the teacher does not speak, the students begin to understand that they should listen to their own speech, and work to improve it, rather than attempting to replicate the teacher’s voice.
2. She can move the rods together, placing them against each other and suggesting that the students need to make some sort of modification to bring the words together. This begins a guessing game which motivates the students to study English juncture (liaison).
Continue reading

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VIDEO: Learn Lakota the Silent Way

Lakota is a Siouan language which has approximately 6,000 speakers. This series of videos teaches the viewer to speak Lakota using Silent Way materials. It shows the very first steps of a Silent Way class, using Cuisenaire rods and the Sound/Colour chart to prompt the viewer.







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VIDEO: Gattegno on “Speaking Freely with Edward Newman”

This interview with Dr. Gattegno was shot after the release of his book Towards a Visual Culture (1969), and before the release of his Pop Up TV series (1970). The conversation covers the problem with traditional education, the capabilities children bring to the table before starting school, how a Gattegno classroom operates, and how the medium of television can solve educational problems, among other topics.

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VIDEO: Caleb Gattegno Seminar (Isreal)

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VIDEO: Gattegno Teaches Mathematics in Montreal (1961)

In these videos, Gattegno teaches maths using Cuisenaire rods. Gattegno first used Cuisenaire rods to teach mathematics, before he used them in the language classroom. Cuisenaire rods allow students to see and touch mathematical concepts before they were translated into formal mathematical language and symbols. For this reason, the rods and associated materials were named Visible and Tangible Maths. In mathematics the rods are used to create crystal-clear mathematical situations, it was only a small leap to use the rods in the language classroom to create crystal-clear linguistic situations. You can find out more about Gattegno’s approach to teaching mathematics at Educational Solution.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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Activity and Knowledge – Why do we have the problem of “applying knowledge”?

“In pedagogy, there is a troubling and (when you think about it) strange problem that is usually described as the problem of “the practical application of knowledge to life.” And it is in fact true that the graduate from school (whether high school or college) finds himself in the quandary of not knowing how to “apply” knowledge to any problem that arises outside the walls of school.”

Read on here: Activity and Knowledge (E. V. Ilyenkov, 1974)

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