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The Colour Coded Phonemic Chart as a Pedagogical Tool

By Margaret Horrigan

For years I struggled with Underhill’s chart (1994 1: viii) not because it was so difficult to use but simply because it didn’t really help me to illustrate how I personally produced the sounds and an ongoing battle arose. I have spent about six years working on the Colour Coded Phonemic chart. My confidence in its pedagogical value goes well beyond its apparent phonological classroom utility.

Here, I hope to illustrate why the chart is useful and how it might be applied to classroom activities with young learners. A rationale behind the chart is provided and its pedagogical spin-off activities will hopefully generate further ideas.

Colours and Children

One only needs to enter a toyshop to appreciate how important colours are for children. Although the predictable order of acquisition of colours in the first language is debatable, what emerges from the debate is that by age seven the distinguishing and naming of eleven basic colours (White, Black, Red, Green, Yellow, Blue, Brown, Purple, Pink, Orange and Grey) is clearly in place. This is clearly exploited in pedagogical EL books for children.

Colours in Pedagogical books

The most frequent roles that colour plays in course books and resource books for EL teaching to YLs are as adjectives and meta-language. Colours are predominantly used as simple lexical sets, to describe animals or monsters and are linked to clothing and parts of the body. Course books explicitly refer to colours as classroom meta-language less frequently than anticipated. Arguably meta-language for colouring is an intrinsic feature of any YL classroom and may be a more frequent role of Teachers’ books.

Given the predominance of the lexical set role which colours play in these books I believe that a more proportionate use of colours with other lexical sets would be beneficial. This would exploit the potential of colours as a pronunciation tool and thus cognitively challenge YLs more.

Colours and Pronunciation

Using colours as a guide to pronunciation is not a new phenomenon. The Silent Way, a language teaching method developed by Gattegno in the sixties, is perhaps the most well-known method which exploited colours for pronunciation-spelling relationships. In this method Fidel Charts are used to illustrate all possible sound-spelling combinations via colours. A pink letter on a Fidel Chart, however, does not indicate the presence of the vowel sound /ɪ/ but relates to the letters ‘i’ and ‘t’.

Celce-Murcia encourages the linking of colours to vowels (1996: 112, 126) and was anticipated by Finger (1985) who limits her system to Canadian English vowels. Chen (2005) proposes that her system, “Pronunciation in Colour”, is applicable across other languages because it is based on the International Phonetic Alphabet. However, the application of any phonemic chart across languages is possible as example words can be selected by individual language instructors to consistently match their distinctive vowel allophone production. The appeal of a colour coded chart is that the teacher can apply the most appropriate colour to the vowel phonemes. In short, by hand picking colours which contain the target phoneme as the individual teacher produces them, more consistency of phoneme production is achieved.

Embedding colours as a pronunciation guide in example sentences is a less frequent phenomenon in course books. Lawday (1994) initially links colours to animals in this way. Her “ zebra with red legs” (1994: 39) and “pink fish with a big jigsaw” (1994: 43) are physically colour coded with vowels carrying the /e/ and /ɪ / phonemes as red and pink respectively. She drops the colours, however, in later examples (1994: 51, 55, 59, 63). This lack of continuity of colour coding is unfortunate. Thus the rationale behind the Colour Coded chart and its pedagogical application is where we now turn our attention.

The Colour Coded Phonemic Chart

Without diacritics it is impossible to represent the exact sound produced by an individual. As no two individuals pronounce the same phoneme identically but produce allophones of that phoneme, inconsistencies with the chart (below) can be solved by operating different colours to those originally proposed (Horrigan 2006: 46). The physical quality of colours also avoids the visual interference which pictures can create.

Roach (2000: 6) clarifies the issue of promoting a specific model as unfounded. He argues that any model is simply a tool used to achieve the goal of enabling learners to communicate effectively with others. Thus the ability to understand and be understood by non-fellow country-men in real time is the pedagogic goal.

The chart has been altered (Horrigan 2006: 47) in order to address the issue regarding phonemes /ʌ/ and / ʊ/ and has been solved by using the adjective multicoloured which is clearly distinguishable on the chart (below). A further modification is the exclusion of schwa ending diphthongs. This exclusion is based on vowel phoneme quality. The aural perception required to produce the schwa ending diphthongs /ɪə/, /ʊə/ and /eə/, I believe, challenges some native speakers. Thus, as these sounds are already accessible on the chart as monophthongs the risk of overwhelming young learers with quantity of symbols is reduced.

Replacing the consonant symbols which do not resemble letters of the alphabet to the top allows more immediate access for young learners to these symbols as opposed to earlier charts (Underhill 1994: viii, Soars 2003: 142, Oxenden and Seligson 1996: 142).

For those of you who want to create your personalized colour coded phonemic chart I suggest the downloadable program available at: http://janmulder.co.uk/Phonmap (Mulder 2002). I personally recommend operating a light grey back ground on any paper chart representing phonemes via colours as it interferes less with the colours operated. Rationale aside, what are the classroom tasks that can be weaved from colour coding the phonemic chart?

Pedagogical Application

The most frequent feature of grouping lexical sets via phonemes in adult course books is the alphabet. This is less frequent in YL course books. However, this task can easily be colour coded by colour the letters of the alphabet thus:
Grey: A, H, J, K.
Green: B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V, Z.
Red: F, L, M, N, S, X.
Blue: Q, U, W.
White: I, Y.
Scarlet : R. or Orange: R
Gold: O.

Indeed, most lexical sets can be colour coded as colours are adjectives. Consequently, colour coded lexical sets can become flashcards for happy families (Phillips 1993: 91) which can be re-used. Even though the colour coding at times verges on the ridiculous, such as ‘green cheese’, such incongruity can appeal to young learners. Contriving a story around these cards would provide further tasks and cyclical practice and build on what learners already know.

Songs, rhymes and chants provide enjoyable language learning for young learners. Graham (1979) and Wilson (1993) have shown how contrived texts can be used effectively in EL classrooms. The rhyming vowel sounds in sentences (Horrigan 2006: 47) facilitate the use of this type of text as either a chant or song. Indeed the very nature of colours as adjectives provides a sound basis for ‘chunking’ language and ensures that consistent phoneme production is achieved.

These sentences could also be exploited as shifting stress drills (Nolasco and Arthur 1987: 67, 68) where covert models of adjective word order are provided. Although overt focus on grammar is not suggested with younger children it is with older children.

Picture dictations (Phillips 1993: 35) could easily be adapted for colour coding and in a student centered manner. These could later become the basis for texts delivered as simple grammar dictations (Wajnryb 1990). Cognitive challenge level could be decreased by providing the words, or chunks of words, out of order on slips of paper, a task which Vale and Fuentuen suggest promotes “dexterous” and “intellectual skills” (1995: 34).

Students’ reading aloud can have adverse effects on pronunciation, yet any teacher of younger learners knows how much children like to read aloud. A suggested compromise is colour coding difficult vowels. This can be done by computer prior to lessons or manually by students during lessons. This type of task illustrates that English letters do not have set phonemic values but does not accommodate the phenomena of coalescence, juncture, elision or assimilation. A way around this is to encourage different emotions where correction of mispronounced words could be effectuated light-heartedly by peers.


The frequency of colours, in the course books consulted, and their role as descriptive adjectives point to its full potential as a learning tool in EL classrooms of YLs. Incorporating colours as a guide to vowel pronunciation is immediate and consistent. This integration encourages tasks which involve pronunciation recognition and production and provides cyclical learning while focusing gradually on more cognitively challenging language systems and skills.

Referring to colours as a guide to pronunciation facilitates both teachers and younger learners and provides them with a life long mental reference system. Thus, redundancy of the paper chart becomes the language teacher’s long-term goal.

After presenting the chart at the International House Young Learner conference in Milan in November 2005 one of the participants, a non-native speaker approached me saying that the session took away the apprehension he had regarding the phonemic chart. It was undoubtedly the best compliment I could have received. Indeed if making the chart accessible to children also provides their teachers with a more approachable reference system I believe it is a useful tool in any language classroom. Yes, any language. Phonemes are an intrinsic part of every language as are colours, hues or shades. Their non-interference with phonemes on a visual level makes them the perfect recall system while accommodating different standards of spoken English.

Works Cited

Celce-Murcia, M. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation: A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chen, M. (2005). Pronunciation in Colour . Available from: dest.gov.au/NR/rdonlyres/384FD5E6-CE40-412E-BE76-94707E4B404E/6857/Sub_344_WEB.rtf Internet.
Finger, J. (1985). “Teaching Pronunciation with the Vowel Colour Chart”. TESL Canada Journal, 2 (2): 43-49.
Graham, C. (1979). Jazz Chants for Children. New York: Oxford University Press .
Horrigan, M. (2006). “Colourful Phonemes”, English Teaching Professional, 42 : 46-47.
Lawday, C. (1994). You and Me, Pupil’s Book 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Mulder, J. (2002) Phonmap by Jan Mulder v3.0. janmulder.co.uk/Phonmap (Accessed 12th May 2002). Internet.
Nolasco, R. and Arthur, L. (1987). Conversation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Oxenden, C. and Seligson, P. (1996). English File Student’s Book 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Phillips, S. (1993). Young Learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Roach, P. (2000). English Phonetics and Phonology, A practical course, third ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Soars, J. and L. (2003). Beginner, New Headway English Course, Student’s Book, Italian Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Underhill, A. (1994). Sound Foundations. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers Limited.
Vale, D. and Feunteun, A. (1995). Teaching Children English, A training course for Teachers of English to children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wajnryb, R. (1990). Grammar Dictation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, K. (1993). First Light, Songs for English, Teacher’s Resource book. Hampshire, England, Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

The chart can be downloaded form the IH journal website: http://www.ihworld.com/ihjournal/index.asp

Author’s Bio:
Margaret Horrigan has been an English language teacher since 1991. She teaches adults and children and is a Cambridge trainer of DELTA, CELTA and CELTYL courses and assessor of CELTA and CELTYL. Margaret holds an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL and is currently Director of Teacher Training at IH Rome.

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