How to use Colouring-in in ESL Classes

Summary: How to usefully, efficiently and productively use colouring in to teach all kinds of language and skills

Most teachers do not need to be persuaded to get students using their colouring pencils or pens to colour in pictures, what with textbooks and the internet being full of pictures specifically designed for that purpose. Colouring in is also a quiet, easy to explain and fun activity that students love. However, I would say that every teacher could use colouring in better, and the techniques explained in this article could also convince the last few teachers who resist colouring in. But, first something on what not to do.

How not to use colouring in in EFL classes

  • Silence/ Just receptive skills/ Only the teacher speaking
  • Colouring in when another activity is more suitable
  • Spending more time colouring than is necessary
  • Spending more time colouring than is justified by the amount of student learning
  • Students who colour in quickly waiting around (silently) for students who colour in slowly
  • Something (much) too easy (for example using pictures of things that they could guess the colour of without even listening)
  • Something (much) too difficult (for example pictures of objects that they don’t know the name of, expecting them to read words they can’t, or a picture that they can’t colour in properly because of size, shape and/ or proximity to other parts of the picture)
  • Students just checking the guide to colour words (at the back of the book, on a poster, etc) each time, without necessarily gaining any more ability to read the colour words without help
  • Colouring activities with no final result/ A final product that students have no pride or interest in and so just want to throw away
  • Marking and/ or praising everything else students do in class except for the colouring in
  • Always using the same limited language to give instructions
  • Covering a very limited number of language points
  • Use colouring in just as a quietening down activity, without thinking too much about student learning
  • The same kind of colouring in activity over and over again

The colouring in activities below deal with these all problems, more or less in the same order.


Combining speaking and colouring in

There are two very simple ways of adding speaking to colouring in activities. One way is to get students to take the teacher’s role and give colouring in instructions (“Juan, it’s your turn. What colour should we do next?” “Colour the cat red”, etc). The other is for the teacher to chant something during colouring in which students can join in with (e.g. “Colour the bus red. Colour the bus red. Colour, colour, colour, colour, colour the bus red”). These activities depend on students colouring in the same thing at the same time, which is generally recommended. However, if you want them to do something at their own pace, for example reading and following the written colouring-in instructions, you can instead just keep up a stream of questions like “Have you finished?”, “What’s this?”, “Is it a blue banana?”, “Do you like pink ice cream?” and “What should we colour next?” You could also ask them to list all the colours and objects that haven’t used be used yet.

While giving instructions, you could say the instructions much too quickly, quietly, etc to encourage students to say “Can you say that again (more loudly/ more slowly)?”, “One more time, please”, etc. You could also give wrong instructions for students to respond to (with “No!”, “That’s wrong!”, “There is nothing there”, “We’ve already done that”, etc). Possibilities include silly colours (“Colour the banana pink”), mentioning things which have already been coloured in, describing positions where there is nothing on the worksheet, or saying numbers which are bigger than the number of objects which are there (“Colour twelve boys blue”). 

An easy way of adding speaking after the colouring in is asking students to turn over their pictures and try to remember what colour things are, which things are each colour, where things of each colour are, how many of each colour there are, etc. Alternatively, Chinese Whispers works quite well as a whole class colouring in game.

With a bit more planning you could also create a pairwork task where half the spaces are already filled in on the Student A version and the other half have been coloured in on the Student B version. Ask students to describe their worksheet for the other person to complete in the same way (Student A telling Student B that “The car is green”, etc), without showing their worksheets to each other. When they think they have finished, they reveal their worksheets to check that the finished versions are the same.


Combining colouring in and writing

As well as speaking, the other productive skill of writing can easily be combined with colouring in. If students are following written instructions, they could then turn over the written instructions, try to write the same thing by looking at their coloured in picture, and then look at the original text to check. They could also write instructions for other students to follow.


Alternatives to colouring in

There are two very similar activities to colouring in which take less time and are often more fun. The first is drawing something with a pen or pencil of the right colour, leaving the middle white (e.g. drawing an apple with a red pen, but not bothering filling it in).

The second alternative to colouring in is for students to pretend to colour something in using their pens with the pen caps still on or a pencil held the wrong way round. As well as saving time, paper and photocopying, it gives you the option to ask students to (pretend to) colour in real objects in the classroom and/ or pictures that are already in colour.

The other possibility is getting students to cut out coloured shapes rather than using pens and pencils. This can actually take longer than colouring in, but does allow for more variety of language in your classroom instructions (“Make a yellow triangle. Pick up your scissors. Cut cut cut cut cut cut. Put your scissors down”, etc).


Cutting down on time spent colouring in

Ways of spending less time colouring in include the pretending to colour in and drawing in colour instead of colouring in ideas above, plus:

  • Smaller spaces to colour in (if students’ pen skills are up to it)
  • Simpler spaces to colour in (if it won’t seem babyish for the students)
  • Most of the worksheet remaining white when it is finished (e.g. not colouring in the sky, or having just a few blades of grass to colour in with the rest of the ground blank)
  • Running through the whole activity first (perhaps pretending to colour in with pen caps on) so that the actual colouring goes more smoothly
  • Counting down at the end of the time available for colouring each thing in (“Okay. Ten seconds left. Ten, nine, eight,…”), and being very strict about stopping even if that bit is not completely coloured in
  • Numbering students as they finish (“Keith, number one. Number two, Amelia” etc), to make them compete to be first, or at least not to be last

As long as you can come up with a way of deciding what an acceptable amount of colouring in to win would mean, you can also do it as an actual race.


Making sure that students all finish colouring in at the same time

Tips above which are useful for making sure everyone’s colouring in stays on schedule include all students colouring in each thing at the same time, running through what they need to do before starting, limiting the amount of time needed to colour each part in and counting down at the end of each thing that they colour in. You can also prepare a worksheet which has several examples of each thing to colour in (e.g. four apples that need to be red), meaning all students will be able colour in at least one suitable thing before you move onto the next one. Similarly, if they are working on a worksheet with written instructions, you could provide 20 sentences to follow but only mark the first ten (maybe labelling the other ones as “extras” and/ or putting them on the back of the worksheet). 

If they do have to wait for other students, they could colour in the same thing on an example page on the board and/ or write descriptions of what they have coloured in (on their pages or on the board).


Grading colouring in activities

As mentioned above, the size and simplicity of shapes to colour in are key when it comes to setting the right amount of challenge in their pen work, drawing a balance between making sure that they don’t make too much of a mess but not producing something that they feel is babyish (a concern from a surprisingly young age!) Just as importantly, the language should also be graded. Ways of using higher level language include saying “Can you colour in the grapes purple, please?” rather than just “Colour the grapes purple”, giving instructions on colouring in limousines and sports cars rather than just cars, or describing objects rather than just naming them (“Find something under the bus. Colour it yellow”, etc). Other language points which can be practised with colouring in are given in the section on that topic below.

Instructions which they could guess without listening to or reading the whole thing because the colours are obvious such as “The bananas are yellow” should be limited to the first activity or two, and not used with stronger classes. 

Written instructions is where you need to grade the task most carefully. The very easiest task is having the names of the colours written in the spaces on the worksheet, e.g. “green” written inside the T-shirt. Early on there should be a guide to the meaning of each colour word that students can refer to. This can be a poster with the colour words written in colour (“pink” written in pink, etc), a patch of colour next to each colour word at the bottom of the page, or something similar at the back of the book. You should always have this ready to refer to if students need it, but you should be made more and more difficult to refer to as the weeks go by, for example turning the colour words poster around until students ask to look at it from week 3.

If students are likely to be overwhelmed by whole colour words, you can give just some key letters of the colour words or underline key letters in the words. In the early stages, these key letters should be the first letters (“orange”, etc), making sure that you avoid colour words with the same first letter like “green” and “grey”. Later on you can get them to concentrate on other key letters like “l”, “c” and “k” for “black”. You could also outline the words to emphasise differences in word shape. Note that although all these can really help make colouring in manageable and useful, to really get students to learn how to recognise colour words, you will also need to spend some time on other activities such as memory games and TPR activities if you want to students to really be able to read the colour words easily (covered in other articles on this site).

While or after students develop their fluency in reading colour words, you will also want to get them reading whole sentences like “Two cats are red” and “The big plane is orange”. See below for more language points that can be used in this way.


Giving students control of the colouring in

As well as the idea above of letting students give spoken instructions like “Colour the sad man blue”, you can get them to write down instructions for other students to follow, including perhaps creating a whole worksheet for another group to use. If writing whole sentences will be too challenging, you can give them gapped sentences to fill in or split sentences to put together in their own ways (“Colour the _______ pink”, “Colour two + elephants + red”, etc). The latter also works nicely as cards, with students picking cards to make instructions for everyone to follow like “Colour” “the big” “plants” “gold”.  


Follow up to colouring in

As with other bookwork, after colouring in I tend to go around the class asking students to describe one or more things on the page, ticking the right parts. I then give them a score, letting them try again if they got anything wrong so that everyone eventually gets 100%. This stage adds speaking and shows them that what they did is something that the teacher thinks is important enough to be worth marking. I tend not to give any special praise or reward for the actual standard of colouring in (staying within the lines, etc), as this isn’t an art class and I don’t want to encourage slower colouring in in my classes.

Even more satisfying than a few ticks and “100%” is actually producing something by colouring in. For example, there is a great activity in one of the Puzzle Time books where colouring in some of the monsters according to the instructions produces the word “Hello” from the shapes of their bodies. I don’t have the drawing skills to produce my own version of a worksheet like this, but with the help of ClipArt I have produced ones where colouring in all the apples red produces the letter “a”, and the same should be possible with many different things beginning with one letter (apples, alligators, etc). Other satisfying final products could include pictures that end up with different coloured stripes, with different coloured shapes, a national flag, a coloured number on a different coloured background, etc. 


Language points that you can practise with colouring in

Language points which can be usefully practised by colouring in include:

  • Prepositions of position (“Find an apple under the table. Colour it red and green”, etc)
  • Requests (“Can I have a red pen, please?”, etc)
  • Numbers (“Colour four snakes yellow”, etc)
  • There is/ There are (“There are two red chairs and one blue chair”, etc)
  • Adjectives such as shapes, sizes, appearance adjectives and feelings (“Colour the sad monster light blue”, etc)
  • Directions (“Go straight ahead. Go across two streets. You will see a tall building on the right. Colour it brown”)
  • Present Continuous (“A boy is playing soccer. He’s wearing beige shorts” etc)
  • Possessive adjectives (“His head is purple. Their trousers are grey” etc)


Making sure that they actual learn something from each colouring task

This point is mainly about making sure that the task is at the right level of difficulty, as explained above. However, it is also about laying out a plan for where you wish to get to with the students and how you plan to get there. For example, if your main focus is on teaching colour words and how to read and write them, there is a list of 10 possible steps in the article How to Teach Colour Vocabulary in EFL Classes.


Other variations on colouring in

Other ways of making colouring in more motivating and/ or useful include:

  • Getting them to colour one space in more than one colour, e.g. blue and black stripes or yellow with green spots
  • Using a code such as numbers, symbols or word shapes in each space, with a guide to what colour each thing means (“square = black” etc)
  • Students passing their worksheet each time they colour something, making a kind of colouring version of the drawing game Consequences (perhaps choosing their own colour and then writing down what they have done each time)

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Written by Alex Case for

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