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).
3. She can take away one of the rods and immediately replace it with another of the same colour, while saying “or”. This elicits a number of alternative words, and makes the students think in terms of grammatical categories. At no time does the teacher use any grammatical terminology. She never says the words noun, verb, adjective, or preposition, yet the students understand intuitively what is required of them.
4. She can rearrange the rods to create a question. By swapping around the rods that represent “I am”, she can elicit “Am I”, thus introducing the inversion of subject and object as a method of question formation.
5. She can replicate the sequence of five rods on the table and add a rod to represent “and”, thus eliciting sentences like “I am speaking to him and he is speaking to me”.
Rods as Sounds
1. Breaking a word into its sound
I can decide to break the word “and” down into its sounds. To do so, I take three rods and place them in a line on the table. Then I run my hand across the short line and say “and”. I repeat the movement, prompting the students to repeat “and”. Then I move the rods further apart and point across the group of three a little slower, most of the students say the word again, but more slowly. I repeat this process, slowing down until the individual sounds become obvious.
Now I point to the first rod, and most students say “a”. I ask those who do not understand to speak individually, but if they still do not understand, then I get another student to help them. Eventually everyone says “a” when I point to the first rod. I allow them to lengthen the sound to help them percieve it.
Next I move to the second rod, prompting the students to say “n”. Some students understand, but many say “nd”, completely finishing the word. I get some students to speak individually. It sometimes helps to let the student take the point and do the exercise themselves. They can also listen to the students who do understand. Soon, all the students say “a” on the first rod and “n” on the second.
Finally, I point to the final rod and the students say “d”. This sound comes as a relief to the students. They have been lengthening the “a” and “n” sounds for a while, and this short plosive sound punctuates the word and the physical strain of the exaggerating the “a” and “n”.
The activity can stop here, or I can decide to introduce other words in this way.
I can repeat this process with any number of words, and use this procedure to develop the students’ capacity to ‘sound-out’ words.
In this article, I have very described only a few ways to use Cuisenaire rods in the language classroom. Of course, there are many others.