Using Cuisenaire Rods in ELT:  Colorful blocks of awesomeness



For this blog post I am going to move away from my usual theme – the use of tech in ELT – and look at one of my favourite teaching tools: Cuisenaire rods.

In 2008 I did my experimental DELTA lesson on using Cuisenaire rods and I have been hooked ever since. Like all good resources they are adaptable, engaging, surprising and above all fun for students. In this blog I will outline my favourite Cuisenaire rod tasks.

Task 1: describing your family

Language used: comparatives and superlatives

In this activity students use different rods to represent their family members. To begin, I bring all of the students around my table and demonstrate. I introduce each family member one at a time. For example, I pick up the green rod and say it is me. Then I pick up the blue rod and say it is my brother.  I make a comparison, for example, ‘My brother is taller than me,’ or ‘I am sportier than my brother.’ Then I introduce the next member of family and make comparisons.  When all of my family is represented, I move onto superlatives, for example, ‘My mother is the kindest person in my family.’

After the demonstration, I pick up individual rods and ask students if they remember who the rod is and if they can remember anything about them. Then, I give students some Cuisenaire rods and in pairs they take it in turns to talk about their families.

Task 2: describing your home town

Language used: town vocabulary, there is/are/was/were, present simple (mixed tenses for higher levels)

In this activity students build a model of their home town using the Cuisenaire rods. As they build, they describe. As in the first example, I bring students up to my table and demonstrate by building my home town, Gloucester. I do this collaboratively, eliciting language from the students.

In my description of Gloucester, I first place a row of blue rods down the centre of the table, and elicit that this is a river. Then I talk about the River Severn, telling them about the wave that once a year comes up the river. Next, I place a circle of green rods around the town and elicit that these are hills.  Then give them a little information about the annual cheese rolling event held on one of the hills. Like this I build the city and at the same time give them a little history about it.

Once I have built the city, I point to different rods and ask students what the rods represent and what they remember about them. Then, I give students some Cuisenaire rods and in pairs they take it in turns to talk about their home towns.

Task 3: describing a structure

Language: prepositions of place, There is/are, Present simple

In this activity students take it in turns to build and describe a structure made of Cuisenaire rods. Student A builds the structure – hiding it from student B using a book – and then describes it. Student listens and builds an identical structure. At the end, student A shows B the structure to see if they are correct. Again, I demonstrate the activity first.

Here is what the activity might sound like: ‘There is a blue rod on the table. It is horizontal. There is a green rod next to the blue rod. It is on the right. It is vertical. There is a white rod on the blue rod,’ . . . and so on.

Cuisenaire rods and the silent way

Gattegno was one of the first to use Cuisenaire rods in what he called the Silent Way, a form of teaching where the teacher remains silent and hands over responsibility for learning to the learners. The teacher can use Cuisenaire rods create clear and visible situations that encourage students to produce the target language (Bowen and Marks 1994).

Task 4: telling a story using the silent way

Language: narrative tenses

I usually use this activity to teach the past perfect. The text I use comes from Grammar Activities: Intermediate by Forsyth and Lavender. It is a witness account of a crime. In the story a bank manager arrives home to find his wife held prisoner by criminals. One of the criminals marches the manager back to the bank where they force him to open the save. After the criminal steals the money, they lock him in the safe. Students, however, do not see the text until later in the activity.

I start by bringing the students around my table. From this point onwards I do not speak. First I use the rods to build the outline of a house. I point to the rods and elicit house. Then I use rods to represent stairs and elicit stairs. I add two red rods and elicit people. Then I add a third rod, this one has an elastic band wrapped around it. I now elicit tied up person – this is the hardest part but students do manage it. Next, I put another red rod outside the house and move him inside. I elicit husband. Like this I tell the story.

After I have told the students, I start speaking again. I tell students to go back to their tables and tell each other the story. I do not give them any language or grammar information at this point. Once they have taken it in turns to tell the story, I hand them the text, a witness account from the perspective of the bank manager. This is a good ‘noticing the gap’ activity where students can perceive the gap between their own attempts (no past perfect, misuse of present simple) and a correct version. This is important as this negative evidence makes them aware that they are using the target language incorrectly: a key step in second language acquisition.

Teachers can use all sorts of narratives for this activity. However, I recommend choosing simple stories that can be explained effectively using the Cuisenaire rods.

That brings me to the end of the post. Maybe you have other tasks for using the Cuisenaire rods.  If you do, I would love to hear them.

Until next time,

The Text Chat Teacher

BOWEN, Tim and MARKS, Jonathan. (1994) Inside teaching Macmillan Heinemann

FORSYTH, Willian and LAVENDER, Sue (1994). Grammar Activities: Intermediate Macmillan Heinemann