Most teachers hardly need to be persuaded to teach colour words like “black” and “yellow” in their classes, but most could benefit from doing so more systematically, dealt with in my article How to Teach Colour Vocabulary in ESL Classes, and with more fun and variety, dealt with here. In particular, this article gives many useful and entertaining alternatives to colouring in plus ways of making colouring in quicker and more useful, including personalised speaking activities and ways of teaching colour word recognition. There will also be an article on using colouring in to teach other language points called How to Use Colouring in in EFL Classes from May 2017.
In most activities below you can get the students to take the teacher’s role and/ or use written prompts in place of spoken prompts, so this is not explained in every section.
Physical activities for teaching colours
Touch the colours
In the simplest variation of this very simple and fun activity, the teacher shouts out a colour and students race to touch objects with that colour. It’s best if this is mainly real objects in the classroom, as students like exploring their normal environment in a different way and if they get stuck you can give hints like “The door is brown”. However, if there is, say, no pink in your classroom you could also put some colour flashcards around the room. If everyone running around at the same time will be too wild, you can have one person from each team doing so each time. To make everyone listen carefully you should say the colour word first and only then say who will run and touch it, for example saying “Touch something pink” then “Student 3 and Student 10.”
To make the language more memorable, as you are doing the activity you could sing or chant something like “Touch, touch, touch something blue”, perhaps getting students to do a gesture for “touch” every time you sing or chant that word to keep them involved until you announce what colour they should touch next.
To add speaking to these physical activities, you could get students to take the teacher role, something that can be done with most of the activities in this article. In this activity, you can also get them to say “Red”, “Red book” or “The wall is red” as they touch things.
To add more language to listening, longer phrases can be used in the instructions about what to run and touch (“Touch the red door”, “What colour are the curtains?”, etc). You can also move onto getting them to touch and count with questions like “How many blue chairs (are there)?” or give more complex instructions like “What colour is the book on the teacher’s desk?”
Another way of making this game more challenging and useful is using written prompts instead of spoken ones. For example, you could flash up the sentence “How many purple whiteboard erasers are there?” that you had written on a piece of paper or you could slowly write up the word “black”. Most of the games below can be done with a mix of written and spoken prompts in the same way.
For any of these variations, if running would cause too much disruption, the same can be done with students touching colours on their clothes, in their pencil cases, in their books, on a colour photocopy, etc. A nice lively sit down version is to put lots of plastic fruit, plastic animals, coloured blocks etc in a bag, box or basket and ask students to grab things of particular colours.
Feeling colours games
Another nice game with plastic fruit, toy animals etc is to get students to reach into a bag or box without looking and make a sentence with a colour word about something that they grab, e.g. “red”, “It is red” or “It is a red apple” if they think that they have found an apple in there. They then take it out and check if what they said was correct.
I also recently used a pelmanism-style variation on this game for practice of “It is…” and “They are…” by asking students to then try to find another thing of the same colour, e.g. a tomato after previously identifying the colour of an apple. When they have both on the table, they then have to say “They are red” to keep those two things and get two points.
Note that to play either version of this game, most or all the things should be easily identifiable by touch and with a predictable colour.
Colours in position games
A natural next step from finding colours is putting colours in such places. For example, students could take turns following instructions like “Put the red card under the table” and “Can you put the pink card in the CD player?” Then in the next stage of the activity get them to race to describe the positions of the cards as you ask “Where is the red card?”, “What colour is on the blackboard?”, etc. Students can also run and touch at this stage, but I usually prefer to do this part with everyone sitting down.
The placing part can also be done sitting down if you have enough things for students to stack such as sets of coloured blocks, plastic kitchen sets, or plastic animals. The teacher or (preferably) the students give instructions like “Put the red block between the purple block and the yellow block” and “Put the yellow spoon under the red saucepan”, which is particularly fun if it involves some difficult balancing.
Another nice sit-down physical game is getting students to race to slap their hands down on colour flashcards which are on the floor, table or board in front of them. It can be made more fun and challenging by combining it with the memory game idea below, asking students to turn over cards and maybe mix them up before they play the slapping game. A variation on this is to use double-sided cards with written colour words on the other side. Even students with little or no ability to read will usually be able to use something about the words as a hint to help them remember which card is where, making this game a nice way into colour word recognition.
Colours memory games
The turned over flashcards game above is also fun and perhaps more useful without the slapping element, with students simply being tested on their memory of where the red flashcard etc is, perhaps taking turns guessing to give everyone a fair chance.
Other fun memory games include getting them to turn over a colour picture (perhaps one that they have just finished colouring), close their eyes or close their book and answer questions on what colour things are, what things are each colour, where certain coloured things are, how many of each colour of each thing there are, etc.
Colours storytelling activities
Colour storytelling card games
Students place cards down on the table one by one and try to make a story out of them such as “Once upon a time there was a black mountain. On the black mountain was a big green tree, and in the tree there was a multi-coloured bird.”
This can be done with colour word cards, cards with the names of objects which they can add their own idea for colours to, and/ or blank cards that they can write their own ideas for colours and/ or objects on. When they have made a whole story, preferably with a nice beginning, middle and end, they can tell the story to another group or possibly another group can try to guess their story by looking at what cards they used and in what order.
Colours stories gapfilling activities
Students read and/ or listen to a story with gaps and fill in any word which they like. The gaps can be for colours (“The witch lived in a _____ house”), for objects to go with colours (“He found a black _____” etc), or both (“He had to cross a __________ _________” etc). The filling in can also be oral and/ or written.
Colouring activities for colour vocabulary
Everybody loves colouring, but it’s a major challenge to make sure students actually learn anything from it. These activities give some ideas.
Listen and colour/ Read and colour
Students simply follow instructions like “Colour the roof red”, “Can you colour the carpet pink, please?” or more complex instructions like “Find a monster behind the dragon. Colour the monster black with white stripes”. To add speaking, you can get students to repeat what was said before and/ or after they colour each thing in, or they could work together to describe the whole finished picture at the end.
Students can obviously also read colour words or instruction sentences like “Find a small ball. Colour it grey” and “Colour 12 balls purple” off the worksheet or the board.
Listen, respond and colour
This is another way of adding speaking to colouring activities. If you choose things which naturally have one particular colour like strawberries (red) and the sky (blue), colouring in can be turned into something like Simon Says. If the teacher says a wrong colour (“The sky is brown” etc), the students respond with “No!”, “(That’s) wrong!”, “The sky isn’t brown. (It’s blue)”, etc. When the teacher finally says the correct colour, then they can colour it in that way.
Choose and colour
As well as getting students to say or write what the whole class should colour in, you can get each student to choose what they want to colour in individually with phrases like “Brown, please” and “The cabbage is dark blue”. This obviously leads to different finished pages for each student, meaning that it is possible for the class can vote on the best, weirdest or funniest picture after they all finish.
Other ways of students choosing what they will colour (for the whole class or just for themselves) include picking cards from the pack or from the table, matching cards together (e.g. the “red” card and the “skirt” card to colour that thing in that colour), or matching up sentence halves (on a worksheet or the board).
A nice fun variation on listening or reading and colouring is having a code on the colouring worksheet such as “1 = blue” or “b = blue”. Students find the number or letter inside the things on the page and colour them following the code. To make sure that students actually need to follow the code, it’s best if most things can’t be coloured in just from knowing their colour in real life, e.g. by having a crazy picture where the grass is red and the sky is pink. If you want to use this activity to help with colour word recognition, as well as first letters of colour words you can put match other key letters (“gr__n”) or outlines of word shapes to the different colour words as a kind of code, writing those key words or outlined shapes in the objects in the picture.
Colours drawing activities
Pictionary is the well-known drawing game where students draw something until their partners guess what it is, which in this case means correctly guessing the colour word plus maybe other accompanying words. To play this game students obviously can’t use coloured pens, or no guessing would be involved and the game element would be lost. Instead, someone uses a black pen to draw something that is usually a certain colour for their partners to guess the usual colour of, e.g. saying “Red”, “A rose is red”, “Roses are red”, “(A) red rose” or “It’s a red rose” from a black and white drawing of a rose. This can also be used as a kind of brainstorming game, with students drawing as many things as they can in one category for their partner to identify.
Pictionary is also a nice way of presenting or practising colour idioms like “Caught red-handed” and “Green with envy”, in which case drawing in colour is okay because that still leaves the rest of the idiom to be guessed (from drawings of the literal and/ or idiomatic meanings).
Other colours drawing activities
As long as your students have good enough drawing skills and won’t take forever to draw (which is unfortunately not necessarily the case), most of the colouring activities above can also be done with students drawing with different colours instead of colouring in. This leads to more intensive practice for the students (because they don’t have any hint on the blank piece of paper so they must read or listen more carefully), more freedom over what is created, and cheaper and easier preparation for the teacher. Examples of games above which can be used for drawing include:
Listen and draw (a kind of picture dictation with colours)
Listen, respond and draw
Read and draw
Choose and draw
Colours brainstorming activities
Students are given a category like “green vegetables” or “orange things in this room” and have to say and/ or write as many examples of that thing as they can, preferably as sentences like “Cabbages are green” or “The CD player is orange”. Probably the most fun version is for one student to choose a category and then everyone to continue giving examples around the group until one person repeats something that someone already said, pauses too long or says something that doesn’t match the category. They then choose the next category, perhaps from a list prepared by the teacher if they don’t have their own ideas. This is most done with people having to come up with the next idea on the third clap each time (the Clap Clap Clap game).
Colours matching activities
Prepare black and white flashcards which have written names or pictures of objects which usually have a particular colour or colours, with at least six matching cards in the pack for each colour, e.g. monochrome pictures of cabbages, cucumbers, grass, bushes, lettuces and mantises to represent “green”. In groups of two to five, students spread the pack face down across the table then take turns turning two cards over. If they can say “They are (both)…” or “A … is … and a … is …” and their partners accept that the sentence is probably true, they can keep both cards. If not, they must turn the cards face down in the same positions and play passes to the next person. This game is often also known as Pairs or The Memory Game. See Feeling Colours Games above for a more physical variation on this.
This is a faster matching game that can be played with the same cards as Colours Pelmanism above. Students deal out the cards between themselves, not looking at the cards in their pack. They take turns placing one card face up on the table. If the two cards which were last placed on the table are of things which could have the same colour, students should race to shout out the name of that colour as quickly as possible. If they are right, the first person to say “Red”, “They are red” or “They are both red” wins all the cards on the table. If they shout out the wrong colour or if the last two cards don’t match by colour, the person who shouted out must give two cards from their pack to each of the other players as a punishment. The winner is the first person to get all the cards, or the person with most cards when the teacher stops the game.
Colours mix and match activities
Students try to make sensible or silly combinations of colours and objects to make phrases like “beige” + “clouds”, “In this room, there are” “purple” “books” and “Do you have” “brown” “eyes”? This is most easily organised with cards to match up, making it like a pencils down version of Choose and Colour/ Choose and Draw above. However, mixing and matching is most fun if it is made into a book where each page is split to make top, maybe middle and bottom parts which can be turned separately, like it like a picture book version of the drawing game consequences. The teacher or students can easily make their own versions of this by stapling together about 10 A4 pieces of blank paper, cutting most of the way across all the pages once or twice to make the different sections, and then writing “Do you like” “orange” “milkshake?” etc on the different flaps.
Colours personalised questions games
It is very easy to add some personalised speaking to the tasks above, for example asking students to respond truthfully to questions like “Do you have red eyes?” while you do the choosing and matching activities above. This section gives some activities which are designed with that kind of personalisation specifically in mind.
Colours make me say yes
Students ask each other Yes/ No questions including colour words like “Do you like pink shoes?” and “Have you ever eaten green cookies?” and get one point for each Yes answer they get from their partners. You can also play it the opposite way round with one point for getting No answers and no points for getting Yes answers, which is more amusing but a bit too easy to get points from.
Colours things in common games
Students ask questions and/ or make personal statements with colour words to try to find things in common with their partner, in exchanges like “Do you have a red bicycle?” “Yes, I do” “Me too” and “I have black hair” “So do I”. If you want to make the activity more competitive, you can give one point for each thing that the people in one group share that none of the other groups have in common.
Cross-curricular activities for colour vocabulary
The topic of colours can fit together nicely with any topic that can be coloured in and/ or drawn in colour (dinosaurs, transport, national flags, food – basically anything!) In addition, there are specific topics from art, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, fashion, design, anthropology, history and marketing that link nicely with the topic of colours, for example:
- Mixing different coloured paints
- Mixing different coloured lights
- Light perception, e.g. how light perception can change due to light conditions, looking at other colours before, having other colours next to them, how far away you are from different colours next to each other, etc.
- Splitting light (through a prism, in a rainbow, to make a blue sky and red sky at night, etc)
- How colour affects mood
- Religious and superstitious meanings of different colours
- Differences in the meaning, use and popularity of colours from place to place
- How colours spread and become popular, e.g. where ingredients of paints came from
- Gender differences in colours
- How plants and animals use colours to attract, repel, hide, etc
You can do anything with these topics that you can do with any reading or listening text, but my preferred activity with most of these is to get students to guess something about the topic and then read or listen to check. It’s quite easy to find written texts, videos and radio extracts on these topics, but those might be too difficult with students who are studying colours as a topic and so I often rewrite them as a list of sentences such as a multiple-choice trivia quiz instead of a whole text with paragraphs etc.
Quite a lot of the cross-curricular ideas above work quite well with this idea, which is for groups of students to make up questions to survey the whole class with. If you want to make it competitive, you can get students to guess something about the class and then survey everyone to check. A nice version of this is to get them to write statements about every number of people that it is possible to talk about in the class (“No one has a pink desk”, “One person has dyed their hair ginger”, etc) and then survey the class to check.
Guessing games with colours
Colours can be used in guessing games from even very low levels with hints like “It’s an animal. It’s green. It’s long. It has no legs. I don’t like it” for “(It’s a) snake” and “It’s a vegetable. It’s big. It’s green” for “cabbage”. I tend to play this game while secretly holding the flashcard or realia (e.g. plastic fruit) and then slowly reveal it to give more help and then so they can check their answers. The same thing could also possibly be done with questions like “What colour is it?”, “Is it big?”, “Is it here in Japan?”, etc.
Colours miming games
The name of this activity probably sounds like the most insane ever – how can someone mime “purple”? Indeed they cannot. Perhaps the closest thing to that is for one person to spend one minute pointing at things in the classroom that they think their team can make whole sentences with colour words to describe like “The desk is brown” and “They are grey curtains”. More often, though, I use pointing at colours plus miming to introduce or practise colour idioms like “Feeling blue” and “Seeing red”. To make it easier, students can mime both the literal meanings of the words and the overall meaning of the idiom (e.g. looking very hard for “seeing” and pointing at something red for “red” and then miming being angry.