Color Vowels across the Curriculum

Why would you use colors to talk about the sound of English vowels? New language teachers usually make one of two mistakes when they practice or give feedback on vowel sounds in class.

They either…

  • refer to vowels as long or short, a classification that most native English-speaking students learn in elementary school, but which ESL students do not know and cannot learn in the middle of a more pressing question, such as How do you say this word.

or

  • scribble phonetic notations that no one except dictionaries and linguists use these days, creating yet another language that students have to learn to succeed in English.

Even worse, they might pull out a tongue placement chart – when the class was supposed to be talking about weekend plans.

Fairly quickly, the teacher learns to associate vowel sounds with example words (the ubiquitous a is for apple). The best words for this are short, clear, and familiar to students – but different teachers might assemble different lists, and students may not be able to distinguish or pronounce the example word, either.

ESL classes need a better way to identify vowel sounds!

Color Vowels across the curriculum for ESL classes

The team at English Language Training Systems have taken the guesswork out of teaching these sounds with the Color Vowel Chart. They assigned each of the American English vowel phonemes a color and an object, such as green tea or silver pin. The chart organizes the sounds as your mouth opens wide and closes again, with closed reduced sounds like mustard and its r-colored purple in the middle. To hear each sound, try the interactive version.

Not only does every sound get a color, but every word does, too. A multi-syllable word such as computer can be classified by the color of its stressed second syllable, blue moon. Since unstressed syllables are frequently reduced and less important to comprehension in American English, associating the word with a color vowel helps students focus on the most important part of the word.

Color Vowel chart - white tie, black cat, red dress, et cetera
Speaking

This makes pronunciation feedback simple. While the teacher listens to impromptu speaking assignments or class presentations, they can jot down the error that the student is making – live white – in order to give the best feedback afterwards. If you give written feedback on homework or assessments, students who are familiar with the color vowel system will easily understand your pronunciation comments – although live has a silent -e at the end, it is silver, not white. And if you record spoken feedback (which is an excellent idea for speaking assignments), it’s still better to give students an association for that word rather than just correcting it.

In class, do Color Flow activities, as described in the Teacher’s Guide. Pick one color at the beginning of class and ask the students to read all the words that have been collected on it. They can repeat after the teacher, establish a rhythm, or read them as fast as they can. This reinforces the phonetic relationship between these words, even if the spelling varies. Yes, drilling can have a place in the language classroom.

Listening

Once the class gets going with the color vowels, however, you’ll start using them for everything. Assign each color a piece of paper, or use the Wall Sheets that come with the starter pack, and keep track of Listening vocabulary on the posters. Whenever a student has a question about a particular word, that word also goes on the Wall Sheets. It’s essential for students to be exposed multiple times to key vocabulary for an audio selection, including other parts of speech for the word, so return to these Wall Sheets at the beginning or end of class for review.

Teachers will be relieved to know that they can take IPA out of their minimal pairs worksheets, by using Color Vowels instead. Label columns by their color vowel, working with 2-4 colors at a time, and students can check the correct column for each word you read.  Alternatively, they can write the color if they are already comfortable with the system.

Reading

The same Wall Sheets that work for Listening vocabulary are also great for vocabulary in Reading class. One challenge for ESL students entering a university classroom is that the words they’ve seen in the textbook are difficult to relate to the sounds that their instructor or classmates keep using. If they take the time to look up a new word’s meaning, students should develop the habit of listening to that word, on the computer or with a smartphone, and writing the color. This will also prepare them to participate in class discussions about the reading.

Students who have high oral fluency, on the other hand, will often need practice deciphering words – relating the written form of the word to the spoken form that they may already know. One problematic area is double vowel digraphs (great, sea, weather). Provide students with a list of words with the same spelling pattern and ask them to sort the cards by color. This activity is also ideal for practicing sight words (do, go, on).

Writing

Although Color Vowels are associated with the sound, not the written form of the words, they can still be helpful for your writing class, by flipping the activities from your Reading class. Focusing on spelling skills can improve writing fluency. For example, if a student knows a word’s spoken form but not its written form, can the student apply one of the spelling patterns seen on the Wall Sheet to attempt the spelling on their own? Take time in a writing class to examine a single color with several words and deduce the most common spelling patterns for that color.

In essence, if there’s a word, you can color it.

Color vowel ALL the things!
Getting started

Like other systems of pronunciation notation, the Color Vowel Chart takes some introduction and practice. Unlike older systems, however, it is visual, intuitive, and doesn’t require memorizing a whole new system.

Rather than “teaching” the Color Vowels, the starter pack includes materials for “discovering” them. Use their set of vocabulary flashcards, or make your own with familiar one-syllable words, and ask the class to group them by similar vowel sounds. The students will likely struggle with this, but allow them to make mistakes. Collect the categories by taping the cards together on the board or wall. Then, read the words out loud to identify words that might be incorrectly grouped. Once all of the phoneme groups are assembled, you have the start of your Wall Sheets.

Explain that we can use the color to talk about the all of the words with that vowel sound (make sure that the colors and association words, like red dress, were part of the card set). Some students will catch on faster than others, but you can reassure them that the Color Vowels are a useful tool. Remember the chart is not the goal, but they can use the chart to improve their English.

There are more materials on the site, such as stress-syllable discovery, printable worksheets, and card games. If your department can’t afford to invest in these, teachers can still implement Color Vowels in the classroom by projecting the Chart from a computer and making materials from scratch. But if you can get other teachers to use the system with you, the resources are a wise investment. The U.S. Department of State also has activity ideas.

We have not received any incentive from ELTS to write this post. We want to make more teachers aware of this fantastic resource; you may have seen me pull my wallet-sized Color Vowel card out at MidTESOL to proselytize the good news. For teachers who are already using the Color Vowels in Listening or Speaking class, we hope this gives you some new ideas for milking it for more.

What vowel activities can you ‘color’?

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