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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

English PhiloLego or The Silent Way Revisited

Anna Turula, Poland

Anna Turula, PhD. ELT has been a teacher and teacher trainer for 19 years. At present she is a trainer with the Department of English, University of Bielsko-Biala, Poland. E-mail:


The LEGO LOGOS Project
The follow-up
PHILOLEGO ACTIVITIES by second year students


The Silent Way, devised by Caleb Gattegno, is one of the humanistic language teaching methods. It is based on the following assumptions: learning is facilitated when the learner discovers and creates rather than remembers and repeats what is to be learned; learning is facilitated by problem solving; learning is facilitated by accompanying physical objects (Richards and Rogers 1991: 99).

What makes it particularly learner-centred is that the Silent Way sees education as creative discovery rather than a process limited one-way transfer of knowledge, with the teacher working in the expository mode and the learner – merely a listener. The very name of the method is motivated by the fact that that teacher – traditionally the most prominent classroom figure and the sole source of knowledge – is supposed to remain silent so that the learners can indulge in language-oriented problem solving and discovery activities. Learning in such a form is carried out with the help of colourful manipulatives called Cuisenaire rods.

While the Silent Way itself may not be among the most popular ELT methods of today, the Cuisenaire rods are a well-known and widely-appreciated teaching tool. As the present article has its own agenda, I will limit myself to pointing out that rod activities (to be found in abundance once you as much as simple google for them) are numerous, varied and can be used for any ELT activity from pronunciation through speaking to sophisticated grammar. Their popularity is by no means surprising. Every – even the most boring – exercise is easily spiced up if presented in a form that enables hands-on experience; matching activities from course books get a second life if cut up and given for pairwork. It is most probably because manipulatives cater to all learning styles: visual learners like to see (in both senses of the word) how language works; auditory learners are satisfied, because the activity is usually accompanied by peer-to-peer language reflection during which they can listen to what other people say; kinesthetic learners, in turn, rejoice at the (rare, alas!) opportunity to be – physically and linguistically – on the move. That is why Cuisenaire rods do the trick, and their colour and their truly humanistic aesthetics (they are simply pleasant to touch ) only add to the pleasure of learning-oriented object manipulation. However, the important point is that you can take the idea of colourful manipulatives beyond rods. And the present article intends to do so.

The LEGO LOGOS Project

One of the world’s best known sets of colourful manipulatives are the Lego® System sets. Lego is a Danish word for “have good fun”, which comes as no surprise to those who have had a chance to play with the colourful blocks. And what is important here is that the word “good” describing the fun you have should be understood as “conducive to learning”. Such a play-and-learn combination was the underlying assumption for the LEGO LOGOS project implemented in Poland.

LEGO LOGOS, authored by Jarosław Marek Spychała, is an educational undertaking started as part of the philosophy course at Mikołaj Kopernik University in Toruń, subsequently extended and adapted for younger (than university) learners. As a point of departure, the participants of the project read classical philosophical texts (e.g.: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius) and later build Lego constructions illustrating their understanding of the studied work. The ultimate goal of the project is to inspire a creative attitude to text, promote discovery learning and teach reading with understanding. What is also special about the activities is that they are open-ended, very much unlike most tasks in traditional schooling, where there is only one answer – the one sanctioned by the teacher. An additional element – and another asset of the undertaking – is the fact, that LEGO LOGOS activities for children are carried out in international groups, which promotes intercultural understanding and develops foreign language skills.

As for some detailed solutions, a typical LEGO LOGOS session will consist of two parts:

Stage 1 – reading and building: each student is seated at a separate table with the copy of the text to be read, and a Lego set containing the tray and any number of blocks the students needs; the text is read, both in private and aloud, and any questions the students have are answered in the teacher-whole group interaction mode; when reading is finished, students represent the text in a Lego construction.

Stage 2 – interpreting and discussion: students form a group which moves from table to table looking at and commenting on individual constructions; each author, present at the interpretation, is supposed to remain silent throughout it and is allowed to join in the discussion that follows; as the group progresses from table to table, the discussions get more and more lively when certain differences between constructions – and, consequently, text interpretations – can be spotted.

The follow-up

The LEGO LOGOS project was where the inspiration for revisiting the Silent Way came from. The urge to embark on the educational journey was motivated by the colourful manipulatives used in both methods as well as all the philosophy they share: their learner-centredness, flexibility, minimal role of the teacher, ample room for student creativity and discovery learning. I introduced the Silent Way to my students – second years; teacher training programme – showed them Cuisenaire rods per se as well as their potential and then I pour several thousand colourful Lego blocks – my three teenage kids’ long-forgotten delight – onto one big table the students circled. I asked my students to think of ways in which the blocks can be used in language teaching. And I remained silent for the following 60 minutes.

PHILOLEGO ACTIVITIES by second year students

1. Grammar

  • Past constructions (Justyna Kudzia, Katarzyna Przywara, Marta Kołek)

Students prepare LEGO scenes which are supposed to illustrate sentences following the past continuous/past simple schema (“sth. was happening when sth. else happened"). Then students go around the classroom producing sentences that go with the scenes. The host group correct/provide feedback.

  • Modal verbs (Justyna Kudzia, Katarzyna Przywara, Marta Kołek)

The teacher (or students in groups) build structures-within-structures (it is decided how many levels there are to each model) hiding objects inside. Afterwards students (students from other groups) are supposed to guess what is inside using phrases like There may/must/can’t be … inside ….

  • LEGO sentences (Katarzyna Martyna, Agnieszka Wojtyła, Małgorzata Wizner)

Blocks of different colour stand for different grammatical categories. The teacher can:

  1. Link the blocks and ask if the combination can be a well-formed English sentence
  2. Teach negation or questions by adding/moving “auxiliary” blocks

  • Figure conditionals (Ania Ogórek and Sylwia Biela)

Students, in small groups, prepare groups of elements (figures) illustrating a conditional sentence (for example a king, a horse and a coin illustrate a sentence: If the king had a horse he could find the hidden treasure). When a number of such three-element sets are ready, students swap them and try to reconstruct the conditional sentences of another group on the basis of their sets.

2. Pronunciation

  • Word stress (Jola Piórka, Ania Walasek and Ola Goliasz)

The teacher gives students polysyllabic words and reads them out. Students select long blocks with an appropriate number of studs and put another block – the stress block – in the correct place.

3. Vocabulary and Speaking/Writing

  • Hide and name (Ania Ogórek and Sylwia Biela)

The teacher says a word and students – in groups – are supposed to find the thing (figure, shape, colour) and hide it. Later students retrieve hidden elements and name them.

  • LEGO story 1 (Klaudia Waluś, Justyna Konior and Artur Sternal)

Students in groups build situations using a number of different figures. They are supposed to check words they don’t know. When the situation is ready, the students are supposed to tell the story.

  • LEGO story 2 (Anna Chrobak, Agnieszka Nowak, Marcin Dratnal)

Students are asked to "construct" their dream place or a place they would like to visit. Then, they name all of the elements of their construction- vocabulary exercise. Then they have to write a description of their dream place. Treasure Island (by Partycja Bijok, Ewelina Stolarczyk and Ewa Prochot) is a similar proposal.

  • LEGO story 3 (Katarzyna Martyna, Agnieszka Wojtyła, Małgorzata Wizner)

Students work in groups on 3-4. They build their scenes. When they are ready, the teacher arranges for a scene exchange. The groups are supposed to describe the scene they get from their peers. As a follow-up, groups compare stories.

  • LEGO story 4 (Iwona Gandor and Marta Adamczyk)

Students create chain stories by adding one word each. Each word is represented by a block. Every time a new word/block is added, the performing student has to retell the whole story touching appropriate blocks as (s)he says each word.

  • LEGO hangman (Martyna Biegun, Anna Janik and Judyta Nieć)

Instructions are similar to those of the traditional hangman game. In the LEGO game the teacher builds a structure instead of drawing the scaffold.

  • How to write a story (Ola Goliasz)

The teacher instructs students how to write an essay, diagramming all necessary parts (introduction, body, conclusion) by means of trays and blocks. All important elements, like the thesis, topical sentences, arguments for and against are marked by blocks of different colours and attached to appropriate trays.

4. Listening

  • Build my story 1 (Martyna Biegun, Anna Janik and Judyta Nieć as well as Iwona Gandor and Marta Adamczyk) The teacher tells a story or plays a short extract from a tape. Students are supposed to build the story using LEGO blocks.

  • Build my story 2 (Katarzyna Martyna, Agnieszka Wojtyła, Małgorzata Wizner)

Students work in pairs. They build their scenes separately with the partner not looking. Later they describe the scenes to each other. The listener has to build the speaker’s scene.

  • Build my story 3 (Katarzyna Martyna, Agnieszka Wojtyła, Małgorzata Wizner)

Variation on 2. Students work in pairs. One students builds a scene and describes what (s)he is doing. The other student has to listen and build along.

  • Build my story 4 (Ania Ogórek and Sylwia Biela)

The teacher tells the story slowly, sentence by sentence. Students build the sentences.

5. All-in-one: Integrated skills

  • Mix (Eliasz Wójcik and Damian Wydra)


  1. Spill LEGO and built whatever you want. You have e.g. 10 min.
  2. Describe what you've done as precisely as you can.

Grammar: tenses

  1. What has happened before the scene + what will or may happen afterwards
  2. The teacher helps by asking additional questions


  1. The teacher introduces forgotten/missing/unknown words

Writing: Homework

  1. Write your story down + A list of the words you have used
  2. Invent dialogues between the characters in your story.


Richards, J.C. and T.S. Rogers. 1991. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. A description and analysis. 7th printing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


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Please check the Teaching English Through Multiple Intelligences course at Pilgrims website.

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