How to teach colour word recognition

Summary: A complete guide to teaching students how to understand written colour words, including fun word recognition games.

I had to have a sudden change of plan in a recent cover lesson when I realised that students who had been studying from books full of instructions like “Colour the T-shirt red” for almost two years couldn’t read a single colour word. After my initial shock that they hadn’t at least picked something up and satisfaction that I must be doing something right in my regular classes, some additional reflection made me realise that despite all my efforts my own (very) young students hadn’t exactly gained full mastery of telling “blue” from “black”. This article is therefore a mix of tried and trusted techniques to get students reading and responding to colour words, with some ideas I’ve come up with more recently to teach reading colour words more quickly and effectively. For students who don’t know (spoken) English colour words yet, there is another article on this site on How to Teach Colour Vocabulary in ESL Classes. 

My top tips for teaching colour word recognition are:

-       Be systematic/ Plan ahead

-       Start early and start easy/ Give lots of help, and then take it away

-       Focus their attention

-       Grade carefully

-       Combine colour words with other phonics practice

-       Replace spoken prompts with written prompts

-       Let students choose

-       Merge writing and reading

-       Use picture books/ Use stories

-       Use songs

To help you do all those things, you will need:

-       Colour flashcards

-       Double sided colour flashcards with colour words on one side and colours on the other

-       Sets of colouring pencils or felt-tip pens

-       Coloured board pens or coloured chalk

-       A guide matching colour words and colours (on a poster, on a worksheet and/ or at the back of students’ books)

-       Objects of different colours around the classroom

The tips are explained in more detail below, with instructions on how to use all those things.


Systematic teaching of colour word recognition/ Planning teaching of colour word recognition

Before you start teaching colour words recognition, it is worth deciding:

-       What words you will teach them to read

-       What order you will teach the words in

-       What help you will give them

-       How you will (slowly) take that help away

More info on how to decide all of those things is explained below.


Starting colour word recognition early and easily/ Giving lots of help, and then taking it away

The first time my students see colour words, they might not even realise that they are doing such a thing. After some practice with identifying the colours on flashcards, I turn the flashcards over to show (just) the colour words on the other side of the cards. I then test students’ memory of where each colour is, for example by getting them to slap the card that I say. This means that students can use their memory of where each card is and/ or whatever they can make out from the colour words to help them remember the location of each colour. I then play the same memory game with the cards mixed up after turning them over, mixing the cards more and more each time to make sure that students need to pay more attention to what is on the written side of each card to know which card is which. When they are starting to recognise the colours from the colour words, you can move onto dealing out the cards with the colour word side up and asking them to find each colour without having been able to see the other side of the card.

A similar system of slowly taking away help can be used with colouring in activities. A good start is with an activity where the spaces have colour words written in, e.g. “red” written in the apple. The first time you do this kind of activity, give students a guide to what each colour word means (a patch of green next to “green”, etc) at the bottom of the colouring in page for them to make it easy for them to check the meaning of each word before they colour it in. The second time that you do colouring with the colour words written in each space, students should be able to do it by checking with a poster with a guide to colour words on the wall, making them use their short-time memory more than they needed to when the guide to the words was on the same page. The time after that, it’s best if they do it with the guide to colour words on another page of their book (e.g. in the back cover) or on the back of the worksheet, so that they only check if they really need to and so that the shape and letters of the colour word spend more time in their memory each time.


Focusing students’ attention

Other help that you can give students and then take away is based on the idea of focusing their attention. For example, if you want students to use the first letters or other particular key letters to make reading quicker and easier, you could underline those letters on the flashcards or worksheets (“orange”, “pink”, etc). In a similar way, if you want to use word shapes, you could outline the colour words with black shapes. You can also put these letters or shapes in the spaces that they should colour, e.g. “p” for purple in the aubergine.

Focusing their attention can also be used to make sure that they don’t rely too much on things like first letters. For example, when it is time to deal with both “black” and “brown” together, it’s better to underline letters other than the first one, e.g. the “ck” in black and “wn” in brown. The same thing can also be done by writing up colour words on the board starting with the most useful letters rather than in order left to right as we usually write (e.g. “___c_” then ___k” then “b__ck” then “bl_ck” and finally “black” for “black”).  


Grading colour words carefully

As well as deciding what help you will give students and then slowly taking that help away, you also need to decide what colour words you will introduce and in what order. This should be based on both how easy the word is to understand and produce orally and also on how easy or difficult it is to read. Note that difficulty of reading is often not the same as the difficulty of writing something. For example, you’ll probably want to introduce “orange” first, given how easy it is to recognise the letter “o”, despite the fact that it is tricky to write because the “-ange” bit isn’t really phonetical. 

The most difficult ones to read are ones which share the same first letters, particularly “black”/ “blue” and “green”/ “grey”, so it’s best to leave out “blue” and “grey” until they have totally mastered “black” and “green” (or vice versa).


Combining colour words with other phonics practice

There are two ways of combining learning colour words with more traditional phonemics practice such as learning “A, a, alligator”, “B, b, bag”, etc. The first is simply to make sure that you spend some time on that more general phonemic practice. This means that when students get stuck you can point at the “o” in orange and remind them that it’s the same sound as in “O, o, octopus”. The second way you can combine colour words with other phonics is to actually include colour words in a pack of alphabet phonics cards, e.g. having “B, b, blue” as the second card after “A, a, alligator”.

A nice game for combining both colour words and other phonics is for students to pick two cards, one colour word card and one word card for a letter of the alphabet. Those cards then decide on the colour for that thing, e.g. letting them colour the apple purple if they pick “A, a, apple” and “purple” or making the whole class draw a “pink girl” if they pick those cards.


Replacing spoken prompts with written colour word prompts

Almost any game which can be played with people saying colour words can also be played by showing colour word flashcards instead. For example, I often quickly move on from saying “Touch something red” to saying “Touch something…” and holding up a colour word to finish the sentence.


Letting students choose colour words

Another way of replacing spoken colour words with written ones is to get students to pick colour word flashcards each time that they can choose the colour of something. For example, if they usually ask for particular colour stickers for rewards, you can ask them to pick from a pack of colour word cards spread across the table rather than asking orally, e.g. giving them a red sticker if they pick the “red” card. They can also pick from a pack of colour word cards to get a particular coloured pencil for the next colouring in task, a particular pen to write on the board, particular colour paper or card, etc.

A nice thing about this choosing idea is that it can be used even before students can read the colour words as it is doesn’t matter too much if they get a different colour to what they wanted. They also become very motivated to be able to identify the colour words well enough that their pick is no longer random.


Merging writing and reading

One of the best ways of teaching students to read colour words is to get them writing them as soon as possible. To do this you can use the same philosophies above of giving them help and then taking the help away, etc.  For example, the first time that they write colour words they could do so within empty letters which are already on the page inside objects which are usually each colour, e.g. writing inside hollow “yellow” letters inside a banana. After copying within word shapes, the other stages could then be:

-       Copying first letters

-       Copying other key letters

-       Copying whole colour words

-       Writing their own choice of colour words

-       Writing the right colour word in pictures, only referring to a spelling guide if they need to

-       Writing colour words in sentences


Using picture books/ stories to teach colour word recognition

Many picture books are suitable for this topic due to having a focus on the colours of the animals, foods, etc in them. However, picture books with colour words often have one of two problems: pictures which give too much info and so mean that students don’t have to read, or too much text for students to be able to pick out the colour words. To solve both of these problems, I usually put Post-It notes on top of the pages, e.g. covering the picture (to be revealed once they have tried to read the colour word) or covering the whole text and writing just a colour word on top. As long as you don’t leave it on too long, with a board book you can also underline important words with a whiteboard pen and then delete the lines.


Using songs to teach colour word recognition

This is another example of replacing spoken prompts with written ones. While singing a song, I stop singing when it comes to the colour word and hold up a colour word card for students to sing, point at, touch, etc.

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Written by Alex Case for

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