How to teach colour vocabulary in ESL classes
Summary: The nine stages of teaching colour vocab, from understanding what "red" means and being able to write "green" to discussing the psychological effects of different colours.
It’s difficult to avoid the topic of colours in ESL classes, and given the importance of colours in our lives (easy to see by looking in our pencil cases and opening our bedroom wardrobes), there is no reason why you would want to avoid teaching “orange”, “light blue”, “fluorescent green”, “reddish” and/ or “green with envy”. It is also a nice easy topic right from the very beginning of learning English, when student problems are usually limited to a mental block or two (often because of similar sounding words in L1) and issues reading and writing some of the more difficult to spell words. Other potential difficulties with learning colour vocabulary include:
- Adding unnecessary articles to sentences about colours (“It is a green” X etc), probably due to getting so used to saying “It is a banana” and “This is a chair”.
- Problems pronouncing consonant clusters in “brown”, “black”, “blue”, “green”, etc
- Other problems with pronouncing the right number of syllables (e.g. adding an extra syllable at the end of “orange”, making it sound like “orangey”)
- Adding a plural ending to colours in plural sentences (“The trees are greens” X, “There are two greens trees” X, etc), often, but not exclusively, because of L1 interference
- The transition points between different colours being different points in their own language, making translation of colour words difficult, impossible and/ or unhelpful (for example, the Japanese word for the go signal is “aoi”, usually translated as “blue”)
- Colour words borrowed from English having different meanings in L1 from the original English meaning (e.g. the different meanings of the English word “blue” and “buruu” in Japanese)
That’s a bigger list of potential difficulties than I expected to come up with, but I’ve never found these to be a huge barrier to teaching colour words, even with the few students who suffer from all of those issues. The much bigger problem for me has been the approach to teaching colour words that is suggested by the teacher’s book, school syllabus, etc. Problems with how colours are usually brought into the ESL classroom include endlessly repeating the same few colours that students already know, wasting class time with colouring things in without thinking about what the students are getting out of it, introducing written colour words in an unsystematic way, and neglecting the topic later on as if colours is something that only very young and very low-level learners are interested in. To avoid all these, this article gives a set of stages that you can work through, namely:
- Teaching students to recognise basic (spoken) colour words
- Teaching students to say basic colour words
- Combining colours with other language
- Teaching students to recognise basic written colour words
- Teaching more difficult colour words
- Teaching students to write basic colour words
- Speaking about colours
- Cross-curricular colour activities
- Other vocabulary related to colours
The order of those stages can obviously change depending on the students. For example, some very young students will already know all the basic colour words but might never have learnt how to read English words, in which case I would introduce some trickier colour words such as “dark blue”, “silver” and/ or “no colour” from day one. Other students will already be able to read all the basic colour words, meaning you can skip that stage. Many of the stages will also run concurrently, for example introducing some writing of number words before their reading is perfect (because writing practice will also help with reading). Only you can know when your students are ready for each stage, but this article gives lots of help both with helping get to the next stage as quickly and efficiently as they can, and with keeping all those stages interesting and useful until they are ready for the next one. To help with this, the article includes tips for using:
- Classroom objects such as books, desks and the carpet
- Plastic objects such as fruit and vegetables and toy animals
- Flashcards, including ones with colour words on one side and colours on the other and/ or ones with only key letters from the colour words
- Coloured pens and pencils
- Coloured crafts material such as pipe cleaners, coloured paper and coloured card
- Photocopies, including colour photocopies of things of each colour for students to search for, and black and white photocopies to colour in or draw on in colour
Teaching students to recognise basic (spoken) colour words
Obviously the first thing students need to know is what is being talked about when the teacher says basic colour words like “Red”, “Yellow” and “Blue”. Other colours that I would define as basic include pink, orange, black, white, purple, and brown. I might also include light blue, dark blue, light green, dark green and grey, especially if those are included in the colouring pencils that students will be using, if there are many things in the classroom with those colours, or if some students are likely to know the most basic colour words even before the first class.
Perhaps the most common way of teaching and testing comprehension of basic colours is by getting students colouring in. However, students obviously also need to know the names of the things to be coloured in, and colouring is unnecessarily time consuming if your only aim is to check if students understand it when you say “Red” or “Orange”. I therefore try to leave colouring in until one of the later stages below.
My first and main classroom activity to get students to learn and show their understanding is getting students to touch things that are each colour. Most of all I like to play Run and Touch, which consists of simply getting students to run around the classroom touching as many things of each colour as they can as they hear the words “(Touch something) blue”, etc. Especially if there isn’t enough room to move around or there aren’t enough (reachable) colours in the classroom, I also sometimes throw a whole load of plastic food on the floor for them to collect as I call out the colours. With small classes, you can also do the opposite, asking them to race to grab things of each colour such as plastic bananas and apples from a (big) basket as you say “(Find something) orange” etc.
If those games are likely to lead to discipline problems, students can do the same at their desks by touching or grabbing colours on their clothes, books and/ or stationery. If there aren’t too many students, the same thing can be done with students touching things in the pictures as you read a picture book as a class. Alternatively, you could do the same thing with students touching the yellow lion, green tree, etc on colour photocopies with lots of different objects in different colours, something like a page from the Where’s Wally/ Where’s Waldo books and the I Spy books. Although it involves more preparation, you can do the same thing with a worksheet cut up into a set of colour flashcards for each group of two to six students. With flashcards you can also turn touching into a memory game by getting students to turn the cards over and maybe mix them up before they race to “Take the pink card” etc. This leads nicely onto similar games in the stages below.
To make the language more memorable, it’s great if you can combine touching colours with a song or two. Unfortunately, songs like I Can Sing a Rainbow tend to be rather dull and unsuited to TPR. Most songs also lack any other obvious way to make the meaning clear and check that students understand what they are singing. Instead, I recommend you make up your own TPR chant or song, such as a version of the song that I stole from one of my old schools, which simply goes “Touch, touch, touch, something red. Touch, touch, touch something blue.” etc.
It takes careful planning if students know very little other vocabulary, but at this stage I often also use guessing games including colour words in the hints such as “It’s a fruit. It’s purple. (It’s little. It’s a circle.) What is it?” for “It’s a grape” or “It’s an animal. It’s long. It is green. (It eats you)” for “crocodile”. This could also be done with students asking questions, as in “What colour is it?” “It’s purple” “Is it a grape?” “Yes, it is”.
Teaching students to say basic colour words
Very soon after showing that they understand the colour words that the teacher is saying, students will be ready to start saying the words themselves. Songs and/ or TPR make it very easy to get students repeating the colours that they are hearing and/ or touching, for example getting students to sing along to “Touch, touch, touch, something green” or getting them to shout out “(This is/ It’s) green” every time that they find something of that colour in the classroom or in a picture. Students can also take on the teacher’s role of shouting out the colours that their classmates should touch, grab, collect, etc in the TPR games above.
My other main idea for this stage is not really an activity at all, but simply to usually let students choose what colour thing they get or use. For example, if you give out stickers for rewards, you can let them ask for which one they want each time and if a drawing or writing activity can be done in any colour, get them to ask you for the colour pen or pencil that they want to use. They can also ask for particular storybooks with colour words, especially if you put colour stickers on each cover.
The only actual games that you can play at this stage involve using black and white pictures of things which are usually a certain colour, e.g. a black and white picture of a pear or cheetah. The simplest activity with these is to slowly reveal the picture, asking students to shout out “(It is) white” etc whenever they think they know what the picture shows and what colour it would be in real life.
Black and white pictures of coloured objects can also be made into the card game pelmanism (also called “pairs” or “the memory game”). In this version, students need to find two pictures of things which have the same colour in real life and say a sentence like “(They are) yellow”. You could also possibly play a version of the much faster and more exciting matching game Snap, in which students take turns turning over one card from their pack and shout out “(They are) orange” etc whenever the last two (black and white) pictures show things that are usually the same colour. These games all lead naturally onto sentences with objects in like “A fridge is white (and a washing machine is white)”, making these activities a good link between this stage and the next step below.
Combining colours with other language
To start this stage with just the teacher combining colours with other language, you can ask questions like “What colour is an apple?”, preferably with a flashcard or piece of realia ready to help if they don’t understand the question and/ or to show them that they guessed correctly. If you want to, you are now also ready to get students to colour following instructions like “The apple is red” and “Colour the table brown”. However, I still find colouring in a bit too time consuming at this stage. Good time-saving alternatives include getting them to pretend to colour with the caps of their felt-tip pens still on and drawing things with colour pencils (leaving the middle white to save time). If I do actual colouring at this stage, I can only justify this by adding more listening and/ or speaking. For example, you can allow students to choose what colour things will be coloured in if they can produce a sentence like “The trousers are black” or if they can answer questions like “What colour are the trousers?” With things that have one natural colour, it can be nice to get them to answer Yes/ No questions like “Is a cucumber yellow?”, “Is a cucumber orange?” and “Is a cucumber green?” until they can say “Yes, it is”. They can then colour it in that way.
Questions about colours also work well as memory games. Ask students to close their eyes, turn over a worksheet or close their books, then get them to answer questions like “What colour is the fish’s castle?” and “Is the carpet green?” If you have been using a set of example objects for each colour, for example on a set of flashcards, they can also answer questions like “What is grey?”
Before any of that, the next stage after the activities in Stage 2 above for me is usually more TPR. This can be most easily done by moving from “Touch something red” to “Touch the red curtains” etc, or if you still say “Touch something red” you can get students to say “The curtains are red” or “(They are) red curtains” as they touch them. With a little more language you can also get them to go beyond just touching, asking them to put things in place with sentences like “Put the red block on/ under/ next to/ behind/ in front of the blue block”. You can also get them to run, touch and count with sentences like “Count the brown tables” and “How many brown tables (are there)?”
As long as you can trust students not to make a mess, TPR can be combined with the fake colouring idea by asking students to use their capped pens to “Colour the window green” etc. You can make this into a kind of Simon Says-style game by getting students to (pretend to) colour things in if they are already the colour you say, or in a more challenging version you can ask students to only colour things in if they aren’t already the colour that you said.
These more complex TPR activities are obviously good for presenting or practising classroom vocabulary like “floor” and “speaker”, and you can do the same with other vocabulary such as household furniture by getting students to do the same by touching, (fake) colouring in and/ or drawing on photocopies. Other topics which can easily be combined with colour words include:
- Shapes (“The big triangle is pink”, etc)
- Prepositions (“Put the yellow block on the red block”, etc)
- Numbers, perhaps with “There is/ There are” (“There are three orange blocks”, etc)
- Fruit, vegetables and other food (“It’s yellow. A monkey eats it. What is it?” “It’s a banana”, , “Do you want a black pizza?” “No thank you. Yucky!”, etc)
- Clothes (“What colour is his jacket?” “Black!” “Okay everyone, colour his jacket black”, etc)
- Animals (“It’s black and white. It lives in Africa. It can run and jump. Lions eat it. What is it?” “It’s a zebra”, etc)
Topics such as shapes can easily be done with crafts activities such as cutting from coloured paper, but given how slow some students can be with such things I prefer to do this with students following written instructions in the stage below.
Teaching students to recognise basic written colour words
Many textbooks and teachers make colours the first set of written words that students are exposed to. As long as you do this in parallel to introducing basic phonics another way (such as memorising key words for each letter like “A, a, apple”, etc), there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this, given how often colour words can be used in class from then on. Colour words are also a nice representative mix of simple phonetically spelled words (“red”, “yellow”, etc), more difficult phonetically spelled ones (“brown”, “green”, etc) and some unphonetic ones (“white”, “blue”, “orange”, etc).
To deal with the various challenges that the spellings of colour words throw up, it is best to split this stage into sub-stages, for example teaching students to:
- Identify colour words from first letters
- Identify colour words from other key letters
- Identify colour words from word shape (length, letters which point up and down, etc)
- Read and be able to identify a colour word from any letters in its name
Students will probably naturally start out by identifying words like “orange” and “yellow” just from their first letter, and this ties in well with other phonics practice in class such as identifying each letter of the alphabet with a key word (“Z, z, zebra” etc). Because of this, to start with it is best not to deal with colour words which start with the same letter in each activity. For example, you should avoid one or both of “green” and “grey” in the early stages of word recognition practice, and you should only practise one “b” word (probably “blue”) to start with.
Activities which allow and encourage the tactic of identifying words from the first letter include:
- Writing words up on the board slowly letter by letter for students to respond to whenever they know what the word is
- Revealing colour words letter by letter from the beginning of the word, for example by covering a flashcard and slowly pulling the cover away from left to right
- Using flashcards which have just the first letter on one side, and a patch of colour on the other
- Using flashcards on which the first letter of each colour word is made to stand out by being underlined, in bold, in another colour, etc.
You can also prepare students to use this tactic before starting with actual word recognition, by saying “It’s O, o, orange” and “The table is R, r, red” as prompts in games such as Run and Touch in the earlier stages above.
Sooner or later you will want to discourage using just the first letters, so you need to introduce words which have the same first letters like “black” and “brown” at the same time. When students have got used to them, they will then be ready for words with the same first two letters like “black” and “blue” and “green” and “grey”. At this stage they might find that the tactic of reading from the front of the word is not always the most efficient way of quickly reading words, and it might be better to switch straight to spotting the “ck” at the end of “black” or the “ee” in the middle of “green”. This can be encouraged with similar tactics to those just mentioned for first letters, for example:
- Flashcards with the key letters underlined, in bold, in another colour, etc
- Flashcards with only the key letters and the other letters as gaps (e.g. “b _ _ c k”)
- Writing colour words up one letter at a time with the most important letters first (rather than in order from left to right as we would usually do, e.g. “b” then a final “k” then “c” before that etc for “black”)
I tend to change which key letters I get students focusing on once every couple of lessons, e.g. a card with “bla__” on it one week and then “b__ck” the next.
I haven’t found concentrating on word shape to be very effective with my students, and it seems to be going out of fashion, but drawing outlines around the words can make for a nice variation on letter-based hints at least for a lesson or two.
Activities explained above that work with prompts like key letters and word shapes include (running and) touching things, flashcard memory games, and choosing colours that they want from options on cards or a list. You can also give them colouring worksheets that have the prompts inside the spaces to indicate the colours that they should put there, e.g. “o” in the middle space to mean it should be made orange or “br_w_” in the bottom space to show that the ground should be brown.
The activity that I tend to use first to teach colour word recognition is Slap, meaning getting students to slap their hands down on flashcards on the table, like a sit-down version of the running and touching activities above. First of all we play some games of Slap with the colour side up, including spoken hints like “R, r” before saying “Red” to prepare them for the later stages. I then slowly turn the cards over one by one so that the side with the written prompt is facing up, drilling the names of the colours each time. We then play the same flashcard slapping game, but with students only able to see the written word (or part of it such as key letters). This means that students can use whatever they can read and/ or their memory of where the cards are to slap the right card, giving students with lower reading levels a chance to still get some points.
When this becomes too easy, I mix the cards up a little after turning them over to the colour words side. We then mix the cards up more and more each time we play the game until the cards are so mixed that the activity becomes impossible without trying to read the words. If this is too challenging, I reduce the number of cards, underline parts of the words on the cards to make the key letters stand out, or add shapes outlined in black around the words to help them use word shape. If one student is always winning the game, you can take away the race element by getting them to take turns guessing where the next colour is or putting them in pairs and get them to take turns challenging each other to find the right word. If slapping the colours from written hints becomes too easy, you could try covering or taking away one colour word card, making students read all the rest of the cards so that they can work out which one is missing.
The next stage is to provide a bit more context for those colour words. This can be achieved in the slap game by switching to asking questions like “What colour is the sky?” to make them slap the blue card. This can also be done with written hints, e.g. holding up other words they know how to read like “grass” for them to slap the colour of. More often, I use the activity explained in the previous stages of letting students choose what colour they want. At this stage, students pick a card just with written prompts such as key letters or the whole colour word in order to decide what colour board pen they will use, what colour sticker they will get, etc. If students can already read some other words they can choose from cards with those words on as well as the colour words, for example picking the (written) “blue” card and “dog” card in order to be able to draw a blue dog or to make everyone colour the dog blue. A similar thing can be done using a roll of the dice to choose between a list of six (written) colours and maybe another roll of the dice also deciding from a list of objects to draw or colour in.
Another way of providing context is with picture books, but you might need to cover distracting words on the written page and/ or pictures to make sure that they read the colour words.
For all these activities, students are unlikely to be sounding out the whole colour word, which is a good reading tactic but won’t help when it comes to writing colour words in the next stage. I tend to start working towards this by using split colour words such as “br” + “own”. This can be made more fun by making it into a set of dominoes or a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Students will then be ready for “almost writing” activities such as word search puzzles, which can be given context and made more fun by getting them to colour in the letters of the colour words when they find them (instead of just circling the words like in a normal word search puzzle).
Teaching more difficult colour words
Although it may take students a long time to learn how to read basic colour words, especially similar-looking ones like “blue” and “black”, they can soon get bored if you keep on and on with just those few basic colours. I would limit the number of words that you are teaching them to read, e.g. just using the colour words that they could read in the last lesson plus one or two that they can’t read well yet. However, there is no reason why oral activities can’t start to include “grey”, “light…” and “dark..” even if students aren’t ready to read those things yet. You can also easily and usefully introduce “and” in phrases like “black and white” and “blue, black and green” fairly early on. In addition, I would slowly introduce “gold”, “silver”, “beige”, “blue-green” or “aquamarine”, maybe “peach”/ “skin colour” if that is in their colour pencil sets, and any other colours which are in the classroom such as “no colour/ colourless” (to describe the window, fish tank, etc) and “multi-coloured/ many colours”. Especially if you are using body parts as examples, words like “blond”, “ginger” and “fair” might also be useful.
With students who already know everything and/ or have huge sets of colouring pencils, you’d be amazed how interested students are to learn more obscure ones like “burgundy”, “metallic blue” and “fluorescent yellow”.
Teaching students to write basic colour words
Writing colour words can be split into similar sub-stages to reading. For example, you could start with getting students to write the first letters (putting “g” in “_reen”, etc), then other key letters, and finally whole colour words. The activities that they do at each stage can be ranked in difficulty, perhaps in this order:
- Copying what they are told to copy (e.g. copying the letters “g,r,e,e,n” from a worksheet or poster that has them next to a patch of green when they are told to)
- Matching (e.g. matching first letters to colour words with the first letters missing, then writing the missing letters in the gaps)
- Finding and copying the correct things from a mixed list
- Writing their own choice of colour word from memory
- Writing the right colour word from memory
- Writing sentences including colour words
- Writing longer texts such as stories including colour words
With any of these, it is worth having a list of colour words next to each colour ready to help the weaker students and keep the stronger students busy checking their answers with, e.g. a colour words poster that is hidden for most of activity and then shown when they need it.
To smoothly move into writing from the reading stage, you can get students to take on the teacher role, for example one student copying a colour word letter by letter for their partners to read, run and touch. You can also move from students picking cards to students writing sentences so that they can draw “A pink octopus in an orange bus” or make everyone colour “A green nose”.
To help them move onto writing whole texts, you can give them a story with gaps for them to write colour words in such as “He met a princess with long ________ hair”. Like this example, this works best when students can fill the gaps with either sensible or silly words. The activity can be made more amusing by turning it into a version of the game Consequences by getting students to fold the paper after filling one gap and then pass it to the next person for them to continue without reading what had been written before.
Speaking about colours
Although it is may seem difficult, by using simple activities such as asking about likes and dislikes it is possible to get students responding more personally with colour vocabulary from a very early stage. This section takes that idea further, including some activities that can just as usefully be done with adult and (much) higher level classes.
The simplest personalised speaking activity is for students to ask each other personal Yes/ No questions with colour words such as “Are your eyes brown?”, “Do you like pink clothes?” and “Have you ever seen a red beetle?”, perhaps from colour and/ or object prompts on a worksheet or cards. This can be turned into a game by giving one point for each “Yes” answer that they obtain from their partners, or you can play with one point for each “No” answer for an easier and more amusing variation. They can also use these kinds of questions to find things in the common (“Do you have a dark blue jumper?” “Yes, I do” “I do too”, etc). Finding things in common can be done with statements and reactions (“I have many black clothes” “Me too”, “I don’t like green vegetables” “I don’t either”, etc).
Suitable structures for such questions and statements include:
- like (“I like black coffee”, “Do you like pink milkshakes?”, “Does your sister have pink shoes?”, etc)
- have (“I have a brown desk in my bedroom”, “Do you have pink lips?”, “Does your grandmother have white hair?”, etc)
- Present Perfect (“I have seen…”, “Have you ever eaten…?”, etc)
- want/ would like (“Do you want green hair?”, “I would like a ride bicycle”, etc)
- There is/ There are (“In this room/ In your house/ In your bedroom/ In this building, is there a beige noticeboard?”, etc)
Suitable topics for personalised speaking practice include:
- clothes and accessories
- furniture and other household goods such as bedding
- personal possessions such as toys
- body parts such as eyes and hair
The idea of personalised questions can be made into a book where readers turn the different flaps to make good and bad matches like “Do you have” + “blue” + “hair?” and “Have you (ever) seen a” + “green” + “bird”, similar to the drawing game Consequences. A blank book of this kind with can easily be made by stapling together around 10 to 20 pages and then cutting horizontally all the way through them. This can be done with just one cut to make two flaps, especially if you want to just stick to one question (e.g. “Do you like…?” questions on every page), or you can two times horizontally to make three flaps, with a different question starter each time.
As with the classic Nick Sharratt picture book Do You Like Ketchup on your Cornflakes, it is best if you put the words on the left-hand side and pictures on the right-hand side of each two-page spread. This means that the book can be read with the pictures folded behind the book first of all in order to test students’ listening comprehension or reading skills. You can then show the visuals if you want to.
Higher level classes can go beyond giving personal information to giving opinions on how colours make people feel and the best colours for things such as cars and school paint. If you can find or make a reading text, video, short (segment of a) radio programme etc on the same topic, this links in well with the cross-curricular ideas below.
Cross-curricular colour activities
As much as students love being able to speak about their own feelings, preferences and opinions, there is a limit to how much you can do so when it comes to the topic of colours. Luckily, there are also plenty of facts about colours that can be brought into class. Topics which you should be able to find or create fact-based texts on include:
- Mixing different coloured paint together
- Mixing different coloured light together
- Splitting things into different colours, the colours of a rainbow, light through a prism or ink spread by water
- Why we see particular colours, e.g. why the sky seems blue and sunsets are red
- The psychological effect of different colours
- The popularity of different colours, e.g. in clothes
- The meanings of different colours, e.g. in different cultures or different religions
- Other cultural differences in colours, e.g. which colour cars are popular
- Other variations in popularity of colours, e.g. over time or between sexes
- The history of (artificial) colours
- Colours in nature, e.g. camouflage
These facts can be brought into class as texts from history textbooks, bar charts with the results from questionnaires, general knowledge quizzes, YouTube videos, etc.
Other vocabulary related to colours
With very high level classes, idioms like “a scarlet woman” and “you can shout until you are blue in the face, but…” can be a good way of revising colour words. It is also a good way of introducing the idea of idioms that all have something in common, leading onto body idioms, etc. Colour idioms like “caught red handed” can be introduced or practised with miming games (pointing at different coloured things in the class to show that part of the idiom) or drawing games, including both the word by word specific meaning and/ or the idiomatic meaning each time.
An issue specific to colour idioms is that some people consider many idioms with “black” and “white” to have racist implications, something that you can discuss in class, or you can simply avoid by cutting out any potentially problematic idioms.