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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Colour Experience

Colours by szeretlek_ma on flickr

What colour is the world? Is it rose-tinted, sky blue or a grim grey? This may sound like an unusual question, but allow me to pose an even stranger one:

What colour is the letter M? Or the letter R? Or the letter H?

What on earth is she going on about, you may well be asking yourself. Letters don't have colours! They can be any colour you want them to be! For most people this is probably true, but not for everybody. Not for me.
You see, in my mind, this is how I see these letters:

M      R     H

Every letter has a colour - not an individual colour - there may be four or five letters which share the same tone. Numbers do too. 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

You may be thinking that I am some kind of psycho and that you don't want to read my blog anymore; you may feel slightly uneasy. Or some of you might recognise what I am talking about. Maybe you have read about it somewhere, seen a TV programme, or maybe you have experienced a reaction to my colours because yours aren't the same! There is a name for this wierdness and that is Synesthesia. Now, I don't actually know if I have synesthesia really, but I do know that for me each letter and number has a colour and that if I am trying to remember a word or name, I will often remember the colour of the first letter. You can often hear me say: "Oh what was his name? I think it started with a B... or was it a D... it was definitely with a B or a D" and then I would discover it was Terry.

Now discovering that there is actually a name for this is quite comforting. For a long time I assumed everyone saw letters in colour. I have a very vague memory of arguing about the colour of a letter once with somebody. When I was a child, nobody told me that they didn't see letters and numbers in this way, and perhaps I never mentioned it to anybody, being quite a shy and quiet person. But if I had actually realised that my brain did make these connections, I could have been taught to take advantage of it, especially for memorising  information. Imagine if I had known, when learning French at school, that I could use colours in my work to help me remember. Maybe I didn't need to, as I was always very good at French in those days, maybe I did actually use colours to remember vocabulary internally. 

Obviously most people don't see things the same way as I do. However, that doesn't mean that using colour is not effective for learning. Colours are very easy to recognise and remember, except for those who are colour-blind. The other day, one of my young learners' course books introduced some vowel sounds by using colours. Each vowel sound was printed in a colour whose name contained that sound. For example


All the words with this sound were written in red. As long as the children knew the names of the colours, they would remember the sound. We listened to some words on the CD and said what colour they were. We also imagined those things in that colour, for example, a black cat, and orange lorry, a red pen.  Then, in groups, the children made small posters for one of the sounds with plenty of examples, all written in the appropriate colour. I do think that using colour can be very helpful for remembering things as connections are made in the brain. 

I have seen colour used for remembering different Past Tense patterns, different -ed ending pronunciations, different types of word (verb, noun, adj etc). Other possibilities are different colours for different prefixes or suffixes.  But I have never seen it used for general vocabulary. I'm not saying that we should group words by their first letter - this is not effective for most people, but how about recording words related to the environment in green and word about heat in red and other logical coloured topics. Would this make them easier to remember?

Have you used colour with your students to help them learn? Has it worked? Is it too time-consuming? What have you used it for? I would be very interested in hearing about your experiences, with both young learners and adults. Do adults think colour-coding too childish?

The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of colour.
By Hans Hofmann
So why not use it to enhance our learning experience?


  1. Interesting! Of course, the Silent Way technique was developed using a colour/sound chart. I've always thought that was a cool idea. I think it could relate to visual memory I suppose. I always remember the phonemic script by recalling the pictorial chart used to great effect in the English File books.

  2. Hello Michelle,

    just some quick black-on-white ways in which I use colour in class:

    - to teach the alphabet: each letter gets the colour with that sound in it, so a=gray; b=green; c=green etc. i and y are just white; r=pink (aaaahh, qué bonito)

    - I always write in blue or black on the board but use red for pronunciation (even if it´s only half a word or one particular sound) and green for grammar. Don´t ask me why but my synesthetic students say they love it (pff....NOT! Do I have any?)

    - I use rods or coloured crayons to show why a gerund is required after "like, love, hate" etc. Students can choose between using yellow or blue for nouns or verbs (generally nouns = yellow; verbs = blue) and then I show them that e.g. "I like chocolate (yellow)" turns into "I like eating (green) chocolate" after we mix the chocolate (yellow) with the eat (blue). Make sense?

    - I give green card to the Betis fans; red card to the Seville fans (or the other way round, hahaha)

    Ok, I´m already stretching it there. Over to the family...


  3. Hi Richard,
    Nice to see you around the blogosphere :)
    I've only read a little about the Silent Way and didn't know that colours played a big part. Maybe I should read up a bit on it! I think using colour for phonetic symbols is quite common too, and certainly useful. Luckily I have a box of coloured chalk, I just have to remember what colours I choose as they won't always be the ones in my head! That does sound slightly crazy...

  4. Hey Guido!
    Thanks for stopping by. I love your idea about merging colours - I haven't got a set of cuisenaire rods but I do use Lego bricks sometimes. Unfortunately we still live in the dark ages and have chalkboards but I suppose I could get out the coloured stuff more often - it's just messier to clean afterwards!

  5. Very interesting post, Michelle. Synesthesia isn't an absolute state: there are many degrees and variances in the way people perceive words through colours. It's believed that LSD trips and the like are actually unlocking synesthetic parts of the brain for those who don't normally experience the condition. Apparently, almost 1 in 20 people have this condition to a certain extent.

    I myself have very strong seasonal and weather connections with particular words. some words are wintry, others are summery, while others are icy.


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