Colourful Semantics: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

A teacher's guide to Colourful Semantics: how can educator's use this instructional concept in the classroom?

What is Colourful Semantics?

Colourful semantics is a psycholinguistic approach that is often used to develop children's speech and writing abilities. The technique was developed by Alison Bryan and was first published in a case study [1997] with the child Alison was working with. Colourful Semantics has been described as “a theory that explains how people understand language”. The basic idea behind colourful semantic analysis is simple: we can learn about what someone means when they use words or sentences simply by looking for patterns in their speech. We do this because there are regularities in our own linguistic behaviour which allow us to predict what will happen next. For example, if I say something like ‘I am going home now’ you know that it probably means that I want to go somewhere else later on. Furthermore, these predictions are not just based on my current state of mind; rather, they reflect an understanding of the way things work generally. This kind of knowledge allows me to make sense of your utterances even though I don't have any direct experience of them myself. In fact, all human communication involves such generalised inferences.

The key point here is that although we may be able to infer meanings from individual instances of language, we cannot rely solely on those inferences. 


Who can use Colourful Semantics?

Anyone child who needs to get better at interpreting others' messages. You might think that only native speakers would benefit from learning colourfully-semantic methods. However, anyone who speaks more than one language could also gain from using CS. Why? Because most languages contain some form of colouring or structure – either through metaphor, simile or metonymy. These forms of figurative expression provide additional information beyond literal interpretation. They help us interpret each other's statements without having to resort to explicit explanations. So, whether you're trying to communicate across cultures or within your family, Colourful Semantics offers a powerful toolkit for getting along with others.

A Colourful Semantics Resource can support language comprehension in many ways. First, it provides a framework for analysing the structure of natural language expressions. Second, it helps learners identify the kinds of inference processes involved in making sense of others' utterances. Third, it shows students how to apply these skills to their own writing. Finally, it encourages teachers to develop innovative teaching strategies that take advantage of the insights provided by CS. A colourful semantics resource includes our innovative teaching tool, Writer's Block. This toolkit can help children spot the crucial patterns in grammatical structure. The learning strategy also supports children to take a playful approach to the learning. Collaborative approaches such as mental modelling enable children to talk about their learning and in doing so, develop a wider vocabulary.

colourful semantics wall display
colourful semantics wall display


Why use Colourful Semantics?

Using colourful semantics as an approach to teaching grammar gives students access to a rich set of tools for thinking about language. By providing a systematic analysis of the structures underlying sentences, coloured semantic resources offer a clear explanation of why certain constructions occur together. Students learn to recognise common patterns in sentence construction and then discover how these patterns relate to real life situations. As well as helping students to become fluent communicators, this process teaches them important concepts such as:

• How words combine into phrases and clauses;

• What makes up a complete thought;

• How different types of word order affect meaning;

• How metaphors work;

• How idioms function;

• How similes and metonyms operate

colourful semantics structure
colourful semantics structure


Colourful semantics helps children understand the structure of sentences. It can be used to colour code and identify grammatical structures. This approach acts as a code helping children to process the otherwise invisible details in sentences. Our block building process can be used to help children play with structure and develop complete sentences. Because pupils are using a playful tool, the building blocks, the structure can be manipulated multiple times until the child creates the correct sentence. Our research has shown that this encourages children to try out new ideas and not be so worried about 'being wrong'. The incremental nature of using building blocks means that children can develop a three part sentence or four part sentence and gradually increase the complexity. Once children are comfortable with this new toolkit it can then be used to develop autonomous play and form the basis of an assessment of sentence comprehension. Camouflaging assessment activities into play provides teachers with an authentic formative assessment opportunity. Getting the foundations for sentence production right using a colour coding approach builds confidence and autonomy.

The purpose of semantics is to explain what meanings are conveyed when we speak or write. In practice, however, there are two main problems associated with understanding meaning. Firstly, we often don't know exactly what someone means until they have finished speaking or written. Secondly, even if we do know what someone meant, we may not be able to tell precisely what they said because of ambiguity.

How can colourful semantics develop expressive language skills? 

You may well have children in your class with a developmental language disorder. Language development in children who struggle with speech sounds and/or vocabulary, is characterised by poor use of syntax and morphology, difficulty producing meaningful utterances, and difficulties comprehending others' messages. Children with phonological disorders tend to produce short, ungrammatical utterances which lack cohesion. They also make frequent errors involving sound-symbol correspondences. These children typically show little interest in learning their native language. Language impairments in children are common. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, approximately 1% of school aged children suffer from some type of communication impairment. Of these, 10% will experience significant academic failure due to their inability to communicate effectively. Children with specific language impairment usually display delays in acquiring basic linguistic abilities including grammar, lexis, morphosyntax, pragmatics, discourse, reading and writing. In order to succeed in school children need to develop a certain level of academic language proficiency. Children with language difficulties find it difficult to express themselves clearly and coherently. This makes them less likely to participate fully in classroom discussions and more prone to making mistakes.

Colourful semantics sentence strips
colourful semantics sentence strips

Children with semantic deficits are unable to recognise the relationships between different parts of sentences. For example, they might say: "I like my dog" rather than "My dog likes me". An expressive language disorder such as dyslexia affects both receptive and productive aspects of language processing. The term 'dyspraxic' refers to those individuals whose motor control system does not work properly. Dyspraxia is one of several terms used to describe a group of conditions affecting movement coordination. Language therapists are often used in schools to provide extra support in enabling children to develop expressive language skills. Language development is a key part of literacy and its importance cannot be underestimated. The earlier a developmental language disorder can be diagnosed and treated the more chance a child has of having a positive school experience.

Using Writer's Block for Colourful Semantics

For some children, building sentences is hard work. Adopting a playful and colourful semantics approach might provide a more engaging experience. As a classroom resource, some schools use colourful semantics sentence strips. These however, can get blown around the classroom and we all want to save paper. Writers block comes with miniature whiteboards that can be wiped clean. They slot into the building blocks providing just enough room for children to write one word. The colour of the blocks can be used to identify the word classes, for example verbs could be read. This process enables children to explore the structure of sentences playfully. Starting with a simple three part sentence, a child can connect new words and try out different types of sentence structure. Very quickly, a learner can realise that an adverb can go in more than one place. This type of approach for children builds autonomy in the classroom. In one of our research schools, we have seen how this type of approach has helped children with autism. It's not just for Special Schools, we think that a colourful semantics teaching approach brings a lot to mainstream classrooms. 

An example of colourful semantics
Colourful semantics example

Colourful Semantics Teaching Resources

There are many different resource types available in the education market. Many schools create their own DIY solutions using the usual classroom materials such as laminated paper and post it notes. Writers block is a comprehensive resource pack that can be used to put colourful semantics into action. There are lots of resources available on our website that support the use of this teaching approach. As always, if your school is interested in exploring this approach please do get in touch and we would be more than happy to explain the concept further.


Using visuals to support children with speech problems

We have been researching how the block building methodology can be used to act as a stimulus for speech. As children build and make connections they engage in a continuous speech of explanation. This verbal reasoning enables pupils to adopt a wide range of vocabulary. Many of the early adopters use the miniature whiteboards for recording the core vocabulary from the topic. The child's role was to find the conceptual connections. As groups of children explained their understanding to one another the grammatical content flowed naturally into the dialogue. We used the term 'thinking first'. The block building areas were essentially an extension of the child's mind. They were free to play with the content and organise their ideas before they committed pen to paper. The teaching staff were able to guide the class with their vocabulary selection. This meant that everyone had had an opportunity to rehearse their explanations orally. For those children who were having difficulty accessing the language we were able to adopt a dual coding approach and incorporate visuals into the blocks. The pictures acted as a prompt for all members of the class. Presenting the core vocabulary alongside the picture bank helped the encoding process for everyone. The blocks were also organised with a colour scheme that everyone had access to on colourful classroom wall displays. The pictures were carefully chosen from a website called the noun project. We were also successful in finding images to reinforce the verbs.

Reflective Questions about Colourful Semantics

1. What is colourful semantics?

2. How did you come across this idea?

3. Why should I consider adopting this approach?

4. Where can I find information about this topic?

5. Are there any examples of where this approach has worked well or failed?

6. Is this something that my school needs to adopt?

7. Can you recommend any books/resources that will help us learn more about this topic?


Key takeaways for Teachers

1. A good understanding of the cognitive processes involved in learning will help teachers make better decisions about what they teach.

2. Children learn best when they feel engaged and challenged.

3. Teachers need to know which strategies are most effective for each individual student.

4. Different approaches may suit different students.

5. Some learners find writing difficult but others enjoy the process.

6. Using visual supports helps children who struggle with reading.

7. Playfulness encourages creativity and imagination.