Using colour coding to learn vowels, consonants and begin to spell

You may’ve seen educational resources like Montessori materials utilising colour coding for their letter and spelling programs. In this blog I will explain the purpose and possible benefits of using a colour coding system to help young learners understand consonants, vowels, and consonant vowel consonant (CVC) words.

The English alphabet is made up of 26 letters. Five (a, e, i, o, u) are vowels and 21 are consonants. A vowel is a sound that is made by allowing breath to flow out of the mouth, without closing any part of the mouth or throat. Consonants are sounds in which the air stream meets some obstacles in the mouth. Most consonants are not as smooth sounding as vowels; they pop, hiss, snap, or hum. Learning which letters are vowels and which are consonants is a core skill children need in order to create words. This is because, without vowels, words cannot be made and articulated – no word is made entirely of consonants. Furthermore, vowels and consonants work in patterns to form words. Understanding, recognising, and applying these patterns is how children succeed in reading, writing and spelling. Indeed, research has demonstrated that confusion with vowel sounds, or a lack of knowledge for the importance of vowels in words, creates many of the reading problems seen in schools.

Colour coding is one way in which children can be taught to recognise consonants and vowels and visualise the patterns they make when forming words. Dr. Maria Montessori introduced a colour coded system for vowels and consonants which has been widely adopted – red for consonants and blue for vowels. Colouring-coding the alphabet acts as a visual cue to help children learn the different types of letters. It can also help children learn different letter grouping, such as digraphs, blends, chunks and vowel teams.

Utilising a colour-coded alphabet system can help children to recognise basic spelling patterns in words, making reading and spelling in English more predictable. Using colour coding, children learn that certain letters typically occur in various and predictable patterns, and that vowels consistently make certain sounds when in these positions. The most common and most simple of these patterns is known as a closed syllable. A closed syllable is a syllable that has only one vowel and that vowel is followed by a consonant. In this pattern, the vowel will always make its short sound. Because of this pattern of consonant, vowel, consonant, these type of words are referred to as CVC words. Examples of CVC words include cat, dog, mat and cup. Students will nearly always begin learning these words first when beginning their spelling and writing journey.

In the Montessori system, students begin word building with the Moveable Alphabet, and start with words in the CVC pattern (red, blue, red). Other similar tools include colour-coded wooden letter puzzles. Students will quickly come to see that the 3-letter words they are forming all share the pattern of red, blue, red. They will be able to predict that other words they hear and say will also follow this pattern. Understanding patterns gives meaning to the often-confusing process of word formation. The predictability of patterns gives children confidence to make educated guesses when making new words.

Once children have mastered CVC words, they will be able to continue using the colour-coded alphabet to create longer and more complex words, such as words with a split diagraph (also known as ‘magic e words’, for example bike, kite, make, lake) which will have the red, blue, red, blue pattern. They will also see that consonants and vowels can work as teams to form words, such as CCVV (e.g tree) (red, red, blue, blue) or CVVC (e.g. boat) (red, blue, blue, red).

To research the effectiveness of using a colour-coded alphabet, Dr Nelly Joye, lecturer at the University of Essex, and Dr Emma Sumner, lecturer at University College London, studied the effect of using coloured letters with children aged 8-11 who struggled with reading. Amazingly, fifty percent of children improved dramatically when using colour-coded letters. However, some others actually performed worse! The researchers were obviously surprised at this polarising result. While no overall advantage to colour-coding was detected, this research shows how important it is to take individual differences into account amongst learners, highlighting a need for a more personalised approach to support readers.

Children who are visual learners, love patterns, crave predictability and enjoy mathematics may be the type of learners who will benefit most from a colour-coded alphabet. Why not give it a go with your little learner and see if it works for them?

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