Teaching English to young children – I can sing a rainbow

Colours often seem to be the first new words taught in a new language. Why is this? How can we teach them? And why is it so useful to teach them early on in the school year? This post will explore these ideas and give you some tips on teaching with young children.

New language should be meaningful… 

When it comes to teaching language to young children, the topics should be concrete and meaningful to them and avoid any abstract themes. New words should be things that they see, know and interact with in their daily lives, such as their family, their toys, their clothes and the weather. 

Children begin to recognise colours around the age of 18 months and colours are often some of the first words learnt in their L1, so it makes sense to introduce these early on in the language classroom too. 

Many words for colours are also similar in many European languages, blue, for example, is blu, bleu or blau in Italy, France or Germany.  Although this can also have a negative effect – on many occasions whilst teaching ‘blue’ to Italian children I’ve been met with the response ‘no it isn’t, it’s azzurro!’ But that just goes to show how easily they are able to define colours and respond to them. 

….and easy to check understanding

Colours can be easily checked for comprehension using coloured flashcards and then asking learners to touch or find objects of the same colour or asking the colour of their clothes or toys. You could try games such as 

  • Run and touch – stick coloured flashcards on the walls at child height around the room. Call out a colour and learners run and touch the card. For large groups or small spaces running may not be a good idea so try other actions such as walk, hop or tiptoe.
  • Treasure hunt – before class starts hide coloured flashcards around the classroom. When the children enter ask ‘Where is the…(blue)? The child who finds the card ‘wins’ it. 

The first time you play these games, you’ll need to model them. By that I mean, do it yourself and join in, the children will soon understand what they have to do. Use simple instructions and gestures, repeating them in exactly the same way each time you do the activity, children will remember and also start to pick up the language for the instructions indirectly.

Great for recycling

Young children learn quickly but they also forget very quickly too. This means that revision and recycling of language in different ways is vital in every class.

Colours can easily be practiced each week by linking them to the new lexical set being studied e.g. It’s a car, a blue car. This is also very helpful for indirectly teaching word order. Consistent repetition of adjective + verb means that, from an early age, children know that, in English, the colour comes first.

Teaching English to kids: consolidation and practice activities

After presenting new language in English, next comes practice. With older children this often involves the skills of reading and writing, such as reading words and matching them to the correct pictures. So how can we practice and consolidate language without these literacy skills? This is where colours can come in handy again. Here are a few ideas:

  • Colour dictation – create black and white worksheets with images from the lexical set you have taught e.g., car, bus, plane, train. Ask the students to point to the car. Then ask them to take the red crayon and colour the car red. Do a countdown to ensure all students finish at the same time. Then repeat with the next word. You can then follow this up with spoken production, pointing and asking ‘What’s this?’ Students can be encouraged to produce ‘car’, ‘red car’ or even ‘It’s a red car’ depending on their current ability. 
  • Drawing dictation – Create a simple grid worksheet with up to 6 empty boxes. The boxes should each have a different colour border. Ask the students to point to the green box. Then ask them to draw a car in the green box. Again, try the countdown to keep all learners in lockstep before moving on to the next word. This could then be followed up with a guessing game. Ask all students to colour their pictures however they choose. Nominate one child to come to the front with his paper but to keep it secret. Other learners can ask ‘Have you got a green car?’ to which the student can respond Yes (I have) or No (I haven’t).  For older children, you can then try to set this up as a pair or small group work activity. 
  • Information gap – Alternatively, for older children, you could use the same worksheet for an information gap activity. Half the class have to draw a picture in the red, yellow and blue boxes, the other half in the pink, purple and green boxes. Children can then be paired with a child from the other group to ask questions e.g. ‘What’s in the green box?’ in order to complete their own grid. At the end, they can compare their grids to check if they are the same.
  • I can sing a rainbow – By the time children get to the upper end of primary school we can use colours for more complex tasks. For example, children who are familiar with colour order from the song ‘I can sing a rainbow’ can use this as a colour code for analysing patterns in language structures. I have used this successfully with comparative sentences comparing animals. The first word is written in red, the second in yellow and so on. Children match the cut-up words to make sentences and then look at patterns between words of the same colours. They can then write their own sentences using the rainbow colour code. 

I hope that this post has given you some practical ideas about introducing, practising and using colours with your learners.  Soon they will be singing a rainbow too!

Kate Knight is a freelance Teacher Trainer based in the UK. She started her ELT career in 2007 first as a teacher, then Senior Teacher, Young Learner Coordinator, and Director of Studies. In her various academic management roles she has served as a mentor for hundreds of teachers. She is most passionate about teaching children and teenagers and is the main course tutor on both the IH VYL and IH CYLT. She is both CELTA and DELTA-qualified.

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