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Vol 36 No 3, July - September 1998 Page 12 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT


Teaching Vocabulary in Colour

by Anna Gnoinska

Many students consider learning vocabulary a tedious job. They try studying lists of words, with their spelling, pronunciation, meaning, synonyms, etc. only to realize a few hours later that their results are hardly satisfactory. They start blaming their poor memories. They say they are discouraged by the number of words in English and their complex usage. They come to rely on incidental learning, finding intentional studying boring and inefficient. Some authors writing about human motivation seem to support such students opinions (Spaulding 1992). They say that learning words is a task which cannot possibly be intrinsically motivating. Teachers, however, keep looking for ways to substitute rote repetition with more effective techniques and to make learning vocabulary easier and more pleasant. They develop various mnemonic strategies employing action, music, drawing and fantasy. With this idea in mind, I also set out to conduct classroom research looking not so much for scientifically significant data but for practical ways to make classes more lively and help students acquire English vocabulary.



Hues maketh man

Colours have a tremendous influence on human health and psyche. Lack or overabundance of certain colours can cause physical or emotional disorders. Exposure to colour vibrations is used in the treatment of a number of diseases and mental problems. The colour of the classroom walls, curtains or even the teacher’s clothes can either soothe or irritate students. Colour is also an important tool in visual thinking. It separates ideas so they can be seen more clearly; it stimulates creativity and aids the memory. Colour captures and directs attention. Even conventionally outlined notes can benefit from colour coding; maps, cluster maps, mandalas, and most expressive drawings are considerably more effective in colour (Williams 1983: 107). It is not unimportant, however, which colours we use to stimulate students. To benefit from using them, we should know what possible power they have over our students. Then, we will not expose learners to calming vibrations if we expect them to be active, or to intellectual vibrations if we expect them to use their imagination. According to Muths (1994) and Mertz (1995), the most commonly used colours have the following properties:

Green symbolizes balance and agreement with nature and other people. It soothes the nervous system. It gives hope and peace of mind. It is said to be favoured by quiet, patient, open-minded traditionalists. Too much green, however, evokes sadness and hidden fears.

Blue is a calming and cooling colour. It is relaxing for the eyes and cheering for the mind. It promotes intellectual processes, that is why people who favour it are clever and industrious, but not always creative. They are exceptionally just, dutiful and loyal.

Yellow, when bright and sunny, reinforces the nervous system and helps in analytical studies. It symbolizes wisdom, shrewdness, ambition and intellectualism of the left brain. People who like yellow are happy optimists, but also critical thinkers, who will eagerly defend their views. They often lack creativity and imagination. Pale shades of yellow, on the other hand, mean unfavourable emotions like envy or a tendency to plotting and intrigue.

Black is the colour of mystery and the unknown. It protects people s individualism and makes them seem more unusual and interesting. People who like black are profound explorers and original thinkers.

Orange symbolizes vitality, good humour and creative fantasy. It inspires and invigorates people who otherwise are apathetic, uninterested or depressed. It is favoured by sociable extroverts and those who need cheering up.

Red is the most exhilarating colour, which stimulates vivid emotions of the right brain. It promotes health, energy and interest. In some people, however, it may evoke aggression.

White stands for youth, cleanliness and nativity. People who like white strive for perfection. They are submissive idealists, whose dreams are difficult to fulfill.

Pink, if not overused, has a calming effect. It is a symbol of daydreaming and optimism. It is favoured by delicate people longing for a feeling of security.

Figure 1. Students favourite colours.

It is significant that as many as 24% of all optimists opted for blue, which is a cheering colour, and 25% of pessimists preferred green, which could make them even more sad. Students were also asked how important colours were for them and what colours they favoured in their learning environment. Most of them claimed that they disliked brown, they found dirty-yellow or greenish rooms depressing, and that they considered white chalk and black board formal and uninspiring.

Colourful handouts

Experimenting with ways to make my classes more interesting and lively, I tried using coloured paper for handouts (students in our college do not have regular handbooks for studying English and learn from materials prepared by their teachers). For the whole year students received handouts in six different colours and could choose the colour they preferred. From the very beginning the reaction was enthusiastic. Some students knew at once which colour they wanted and they were ready to fight tooth and nail with their colleagues to get their favorite color as soon as possible. Other students held a handful of pages for some time, trying to decide what mood they were in and what colour would suit them best that very day. Usually, lively students chose lively handouts, and quiet ones preferred pale, mild shades. If they happened to receive the colour they did not desire, they worked slower and concentrated less than when working with their favourite shades.

Soon, almost all students bought coloured copybooks for their personal notes and commented that it was easier for them to remember words written on colourful pages than on white paper. When asked about their favourite colours for handouts, they gave the answers shown in Figure 2The results show that students preferred the colours which had a positive influence on their psyche and were pleasant for the eyes. The colours may also have improved their intellectual abilities, although not so much their imagination and creativity. This again illustrates that learning vocabulary is perceived as a task requiring concentration and good memory more than fantasy.

Do colours aid the memory for words?

In order to see if colours could enhance students’ memory power, I conducted a short experiment. I asked 58 students to learn 20 English words and their meaning within five minutes. The words were written individually on cards in five colours: blue, green, orange, red, and yellow. All words were connected with business and were most probably new to the students. Subsequently, students were tested on all the words.

The results are shown in Figure 3. The results might mean that some colours drew more attention and helped students’ concentration better than others. The words printed on blue or red cards were remembered the best while those written on green had the worst results. It is interesting that green, most students’ favourite colour, was the worst memory aid. Its relaxing qualities could have had a distracting influence on students.

Using colour to teach vocabulary

It is a well known fact that students recall words better when they read the definitions and draw their own pictures to represent them than when they read and write the words and the definitions. Tracing a picture of the definition produces better recall than writing the definition, and creating one’s own visual image is more effective than tracing (Wittrock 1977:171–172).

Using colour in a number of ways produces similar results: students concentrate better, spend more time processing a word, and find learning more interesting and pleasant. Colour is useful in both learning and revising, as well as making students and teachers aware of the way they approach certain tasks. Neuropsychologists, for instance, give students four pens and have them work with each pen in a specific order for a specified period of time (red pen for three minutes, then blue for three minutes, and so on). The results reveal a good deal about how the students did the task, what was done first, second, or third (Williams 1986:107). In teaching vocabulary to more advanced students of English, this technique might show what information they seek first when working with a dictionary: whether they look for definitions, equivalents in their own native tongue, example sentences, synonyms, or other information.

The most popular uses of coloured chalk or pencils are:

1. to practice spelling and pronunciation:
underline or colour difficult letter or sound clusters (e.g., double consonants in accommodation or the sounds in thought); mark stressed syllables in longer words (luxurious); underline words in a passage that look nice or ugly to you; draw a picture rep- resenting a word you cannot remember; decorate the initial or final sounds/letters that cause difficulty;

2. to remember the word’s grammar:
underline concrete nouns in one colour and abstract ones in another; mark countable and uncountable nouns in a text with different colours; underline transitive and intransitive verbs; mark words which are masculine, feminine, or neuter in meaning; mark different parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions) with colours;

3. to teach semantic categories and word differences:
underline all words in a text connected with a given topic (e.g., health, food, travelling, etc.) with a coloured pencil; underline all words in a text associated with different ways of speaking (looking, walking, or smiling) in order to notice the differences in their usage; mark adjectives with positive and negative meanings with different colours; underline synonyms or antonyms of certain words; make colourful charts, mandalas, semantic maps, or idea sketches to practise vocabulary;

4. to practise morphology:
colour all prefixes and suffixes in a passage and try to find out what they usually mean; underline the stem of given words to see that they are related (e.g., satisfaction, insatiable, unsatisfactory); use different colours to mark prefixes, stems, and suffixes of words on a list of derivatives (e.g., long, prolong, prolonged, prolongation, longitude, longish, longing, etc.); and

5. to draw students attention to words and to stimulate discussion:
let them express their opinions and preferences in a creative way; underline with different colours words which have happy/sad or nice/ unpleasant associations for you; mark words which are easy or difficult for you to remember or words you would like to remember after the class; colour all attractive/boring or useful/uncommon words in a passage.

Apart from underlining or colouring words or letters, students can also improve their retention by colour coding (associating certain lexical or grammatical categories with particular colours); making coloured drawings or symbols for words or grammatical categories to be used in the classroom on flash cards, cue cards, posters, and overhead transparencies; or using coloured discs to mark some features of words presented in pictures or magazine cut-outs (e.g., gender or countable nouns). Teachers can help students acquire more difficult items of vocabulary by using coloured chalk or by placing pictures or writing words on coloured construction paper. Students, on the other hand, can use colour in their notebooks and for dittos (Allen and Valette 1972:118–119).

Teachers will have their own ideas and will use colour to suit their own students’ needs. Whether they introduce colourful flashcards, posters, or notes on the board, they may find them all helpful and enjoyable. The main advantages of using colour in the classroom include the following:

• Colouring words helps to concentrate on the task and extends the time and attention students give to each word to be learnt.

• Underlining words or decorating them with coloured pencils is an activity no student can get wrong, and the feeling of success is extremely encouraging for all students.

• Texts and exercises coloured with pencils look more familiar or personal to students and are much easier to work with than clean texts when revising the material.

Allowing students to make decisions about what is easy/difficult, interesting/ boring, useful/useless for them and what they want/don’t want to remember while underlining certain words with coloured pencils makes students feel responsible for their results. In most cases, such a feeling of control makes students aware of the good side of studying and they start working harder.

Finally, using colour in any way makes students and teachers more creative. Developing new ideas, drawing pictures, and playing with words make studying a pleasure rather than a cumbersome duty.


Allen, E. and Valette R. 1972. Modern language classroom techniques. A handbook. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Mertz, B. 1995. Farben Charakter–Schicksal.

Niedernhausen/Ts.: Falken-Verlag GmbH.

Muths, C 1994. Farbtherapie. Munich: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag GmbH & Co.

Spaulding, C. 1992. Motivation in the classroom. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Williams, L. 1983. Teaching for the two-sided mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wittrock, M., ed. 1977. The human brain. New York: Prentice-Hall.


Figure 1
Students' Favorite Colors


Optimists       25

Pessimists      16

Total               41


5           20%

4           25%

9           22%


6           24%

2         12.5%

8       19.5%


5           20%

3           19%

8       19.5%


4           16%

3           19%

7           17%


2             8%

1             6%

7           17%


2       12.5%

3             7%


1             4%

1             6%

2             5%


1             4%


2             5%


1             4%


1          2.5%

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Figure 2
Students' Favorite Colours:  Handouts and Notebooks


Lively Students
45             (64%)

Quiet Students
25             (36%)

70           (100%)

Yellow 14          (31.1%) 6                (24%) 20          (28.5%)
Green 10          (22.2%) 5                (20%) 15          (21.5%)
Blue 6             (13.3%) 6                (24%) 12          (17.1%)
Pink 7             (15.5%) 4                (16%) 11              (16%)
White 5             (11.1%) 3                (12%) 8                (11%)
Orange 3               (3.3%) 1                  (4%) 4                  (6%)

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Figure 3
Learning Words from Coloured Flashcards

Blue salutation, procurer, copywriter, vendor

192                       (83%)

Red turnover, remuneration, shareholder, bill of lading 168                       (72%)
Orange consignment, wholesaler, stocktaking, assets 152                       (66%)
Yellow takeover bid, stencil, widget, gross income 140                       (60%)
Green freight, invoice, specification, overheads 136                       (59%)
*58 students gave a total of 232 answers for each colour (58 X 4 words)

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Anna Gnoinska is an English teacher working at the Teacher Training College of English in Sosnowiec, Poland.
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Vol 36 No 3, July - September 1998 Page 12 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT