There are so many things to be said about rods in the language classroom that I feel overwhelmed to start writing this post. So, I decided to split the topic into two parts. First, I'll talk about how it all started and then, I'll describe some useful techniques I discovered along the way.
It's pretty common for my TESL mentees, when they first see the Cuisenaire rods I am using in class with the ESL literacy students, to exclaim: "Oh, WOW, the rods, I've never understood what you are supposed to do with them."
Some time ago I did not know either until I bought a set for my class and started experimenting with it. The first time I saw the rods I knew that they were made to be used in my class I just did not know how and when to apply them properly. I turned to Pinterest to see what other literacy teachers were doing with them and checked Youtube to review the videos about using the rods as a part of the Silent Way approach. Some of the ideas were really good and I could partially apply them but I realized that they were not suitable for my students' needs.
Another question that I get pretty often is whether I use the colors for coding the words. No, I don't. Not at the moment. I am considering to integrate this element later as I have been teaching phonics using colors, but not at the moment. Now, I am trying to keep it simple so students can easily get the sense of learning with the rods and start enjoying them ASAP.
There is one student in my class his name is Ah (not his real name, though). What is special about Ah is that he could not learn to read the way other students did. I had been struggling to find a method and a way to get him going but no luck for a very long time. Every day after class, Ah would come to my office to say good-bye and would say "I am sorry, I could not understand anything today!" And I would reply, "Ah, I am looking, I will find a way to teach you reading."
We have tried many things with Ah, phonics, whole words, sight words, flash cards, etc but it seemed that he just didn't see the words the way we see them. His road to reading started with the rods...
First, I introduced the rods. We explored, moved and measured them and realized that there are rods of different shapes (just like words, some words are small and others are big). Second, I introduced a short sentence orally: I go to school every day (it's very important that the sentences are familiar and students understand them). I lined the rods in front of the student on the desk (I chose the rods according to the size of the words, rod sized as 1 for “I”, 2 for “go”, 2 for “to”, 6 for “school”, 5 for “every” and 3 for “day”). Third, I repeated the sentence a couple of times pointing at the rods as I was saying it. Then, I asked the student to repeat the sentence and he could easily do it pointing at the rods. Fourth, I shuffled the rods and asked Ah to reconstruct the sentence as he remembered it. He was able to place all the rods correctly from the first try. We started doing that every day until I was sure that he could clearly see that a sentence is made of different words and words have different length and there are spaces between words in the sentence. It also proved to be a good memory exercise (some students in the literacy class come with poor memory skills and this is a very good way to begin with). Needless to say that Ah's writing improved as he sensed that physical dimension of the words on paper.
Next step was introducing written text in combination with the rods. I wrote the sentence on the index cards: each word on a separate card. Lined the words in front of the student and then matched with a corresponding word on the card. I repeated the same procedure as earlier but using the words on the cards this time. I left the sentence made of the rods untouched to give some additional support to the student and shuffled the cards. And then similarly asked the student to order them in a sentence.
Very soon Ah had no problem remembering, identifying and then reading common sight words such as "I", "go", "to", "and", "in", "at", "school", "student", "teacher", etc.
Then, I introduced the short stories about Sam and Pat, using the same method. First, making sure that the student understands the story, then lining the rods, matching the rods with the words on the index cards and then practice reading, shuffling and reordering again using the story as a prompt. Soon, after four stories read this way, Ah didn't need the rods anymore, we continued reading about Sam and Pat from the book.
The first time Ah was able to read a short story by himself using the rods he came to my office, his face lit up and he said: "I am so happy! I could read everything today!" I have never been happier. Oh, wait, I was happier: one day I was busy with some students and then I turned my head to see what Ah was doing I saw him tutoring a small group of students who had just joined our class. Not only he was able to read the story by himself but also teach other students to read it.
Of course, this wasn't it, we are still learning to read without rods now, and have many ups and downs with every new story. But certainly using the rods made a difference for Ah: it was a turning point in Ah's reading experience. It changed his life. It changed my life, too.
I just wanted to mentioned that this method worked very well with the students who have difficulties with reading and writing. Students who respond well to written text on the paper do not need it. With these students I used the rods differently mainly for their speaking needs.
Learn more about Cuisenaire Rods in the language classroom: