The right age to teach colourful language to your kids

Colourful language, as in red and blue, not the four-letter vernacular, is something parents will often start teaching their children from a very young age.  So, what is the purpose of naming colours and when should you teach this colourful language to your kids?  

It seems very “first world” of us to know colours so that one day we can choose between the 50 shades of grey and white for our house paint colours (which by the way are double alabaster, tuna and silver chalice, Resene range).   And, while I love to remind my husband that male brains can scientifically see less colours than females (because the colour gene sits on the X chromosome, something women have two of), I realised I don’t actually know what to expect of my two-year old daughter when it comes to naming colours.   

Colourful Language is being thrown around willy nilly

Well, I’m not sure what crowd you’re in with but most parents I know keep a pretty tight lid on the colourful language of the swearing variety when there are kids about.  However, in terms of conversing with their child and asking questions when reading a story, colour questions are completely overdone!  As speech pathologists, we are often frustrated with the amount of attention the likes of red, orange and green are getting while other adjectival categories (like size, shape, texture, type, emotions, sound, smells…and the list goes on) seem to receive relatively little attention by comparison.   This is usually evident in well-meaning parents and educators alike who know its important to turn book reading into a conversation and stop and ask the question “What colour is the boat?” rather than asking something that is relevant to the story or something that interests the child.

Did you know that children don’t correctly begin to name colours until around 3-4 years of age?

Colour knowledge questions only have a right or a wrong answer which stops the conversation and sets them up for failure if they aren’t really at the developmental stage for learning colours.  

Colourful Language is purposeful

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Colours in the world of language are adjectives; describing words.  They can sit before or after a noun (AKA a naming word) to describe a person, place or thing:  ‘a forest green tree’, ‘the blue dinosaur’ or ‘The girl’s hair was fiery red’.  In terms of understanding language, colours can be useful as ‘information carrier words’.  When asked the question “Would you like the red pen or the blue pen?”, the colours, ‘red’ and ‘blue’ are known as the information carrier words as they provide the information that is key to understanding the question and responding appropriately.  Or if you have a toddler you know that this question is redundant as they want the yellow highlighter not the red or blue pen on offer.

For older children, authors may use colours to build a strong image in the mind of their reader describing the night as ‘pitch black’.  For younger children, colours are a useful way to extend your child’s language skills by building your child’s utterance beyond the single word stage.  Child says: “Tar!”  Adult says: “Yes! It’s a car.  A red car!”

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

Next time you are reading a book and you go to ask your child the question “What colour is that?’ refrain, pause and try asking yourself these four questions before you let your ‘colourful language’ slip out of your mouth:

1. Is my child the right age for learning colours?  

Remember, 3-4 years of age.  If they aren’t, just point out the colour to them instead of ‘testing’ them.  “Look there’s a grey elephant!”

2. Is my child interested in colours?  

No?  Wait until your child is interested in colours before starting your colour quiz.  If they are interested in colours, all their cognitive resourcing can be used on learning rather than on maintaining attention.

3. Is there a better question that helps them understand the story?  

“Why is an elephant a bad pet to have in your house?”  (Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell)

“Why is the Wombat frightened?”  (Wombat Stew by Marcia Vaughan)

4. Can I ask a question about colours in a different way?  

Different question formats allow your child to improve their comprehension skills. Rather than just asking “What colour is that?” try any of the following:

  • Find another hat that is red
  • Point to something that is long and red.
  • Tell me something that is yellow.
  • Can you think of another food that is green?
  • Find the things that are NOT brown.
  • How are the duck and the sun the same?  (A:  both yellow).

Remember, some questions are easier than others so your child may or may not be able to answer all these question types.  

For more ideas on what questions to ask your child see Blank’s Levels of Questioning at www.wisewordsaustralia.com

Add some ‘colourful language’ to your child’s world but remember don’t start too early and don’t overdo it…there are plenty of other words in the English language for your kids to learn!

Thanks for hearing our call,

Your Little Birdies xx