On reading (2): reading in colour

How can reading in colour make it both easier and harder to focus?

In the last post, I looked at reading in terms of human evolution and the brain. The question that has to be asked is ‘so what?’

–       So what if reading is a subset of speaking?

–       So what if you can’t read without hearing the words spoken in your head?

–       So what if you activate the ‘sound production’ brain area when you read silently?

I asked myself these questions in the context of young learners. What does all this mean for ‘reading’ for them? I tend to wait until my young learners are literate in their L1 before I start on readers. Usually after their first year of primary education. So upwards of the age of 7.

Why? Well, so as not to interfere with the tricky process of learning to read. In neurological terms ‘learning to read’ is such a key process: once taught it cannot be untaught or forgotten (except for those unlucky enough to suffer a brain trauma). After learning to read, reading becomes automatic. Something which cannot be switched off.

Proof of this lies in the Stroop test.  The test shows the interference of ‘reading’ in a colour identification activity. All you need to do is look at the words below and identify the ‘ink’ colour of each of the words.

The Stroop Test

The Stroop Test

I’ve tried this on my nieces and nephews and it does show that the older children who are literate find the task harder then the pre-literate children. They can’t just focus on the colour of the ‘ink’ because they are automatically reading the words. For the 3 year olds the task is easy: there is nothing interfering with their ability to identify the colours.

You can try it with adults using an alphabet and language they know and one they don’t. You’ll notice the same interference.

Stroop in Urdu

Stroop in Urdu

Again so what? Well, when I think about my younger learners, I realise that when they see words in English, they are also trying to read them automatically. But they are using their L1 decoding system, with its associated sounds. Without the knowledge of what they words sound like, they quickly become discouraged.

The answer? Books with audio. Easy. My seven and eight year olds are happy to ‘read and listen’ to the stories. I am happy that they are getting extensive comprehensible input and that they are hearing the words they see. (I use the OUP Classic Tales an let YL’s choose their own story).

OUP Classic Tales readers with Audio

OUP Classic Tales readers with Audio

But is that enough? I don’t think so. From what I read about the brain, reading also activates the sound formation area: it’s as though as we read we’re preparing to say the words. So is the answer reading aloud?

For me no, (and for some reasons why not and some great insights take a look at this post Is reading allowed, aloud?). I’m a firm believer in the benefits of extensive reading, as described by Krashen in his recent talk at Wired In Wired out (see my ELTChat ‘Homework’ post for links). So I’m interested in helping my young learners become confident and enthusiastic readers and my focus here is on the brain processes they need to read for themselves, not yet in the skills associated with reading aloud.

So if you don’t want to read aloud, but you do want to help with the necessary activation of the ‘sound formation area’ what’s the alternative?

Well, I’ve been trying ‘colour vowels’ and the YLs have really taken to it as a pre-reading activity. We focus on the key story words: nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions and we group them into the  the ‘colour’ of the vowel sound.

Let me explain. One of the first things that children learn and retain are colours. They tend to be able to remember them and pronounce them correctly. This means that they have the ability to produce the sounds that make up those words. The chart below shows 11 colours and their vowel sounds:

11 English Vowels

11 English Vowels

It’s not all the vowel sounds, but I’ve found its sufficient to start off with. If you map the ‘colour’ vowels onto the Phonemic Chart (this is an adaptation of Adrian Underhill’s British English chart) , you can see that you have enough range to make nearly all the vowel sounds including dipthongs if you combine sounds and legnthen or shorten them. To see this being done in practice watch Adrian Underhill teaching.

The Phonemic Chart overlaid with colour vowels

The Phonemic Chart overlaid with colour vowels

I came across this colour vowel idea through a British Council presentation by Simon Shepherd (skip forward to 21 minutes for the start)  He gives a really good overview and suggestions for other pronunciation work. The YLs I teach are able to group the words and from there we can play with them in terms of pronuciation and things like rhyming. We play pelamnism both for pairs and sound pairs.

All very nice, but does this help them read? Well it certainly seems to have made them more enthusiastic about it. I sought feedback from the parents to see if doing ‘sound formation’ work had helped with their reading. The parents confirmed that the YL’s seemed more motivated to ‘read and listen’ to their stories, asking for them regumarmy, with an average of around 5 listens per week. I’ve noticed a big improvement in their recall of the language too.

It’s hard to know if it is just the fact that they are able to say the words that is helping them with reading, or making them keener to read, but anything which encourages extensive reading outside of the classroom gets a big multicoloured star in my book.

I will be giving a demonstration of ‘Colour Vowels’ at the TESOL France Workshop on January 19 2013

On reading: how do you read?

How are you reading this? This is not a question of environment or media. Whether you are reading this on a tablet, laptop or smartphone makes no difference to how your brain is processing pixels into words with meanings.

As you are reading try to become aware of what is going on as you process pixels. How fast are you reading? Are you reading whole words or are there any, such as perspicacious, where you look again at the cluster of letters to work out the sounds, to get it clear in your mind?
Another question: ask yourself,

Can I hear my own voice saying the words in my head as I read this?

I’m willing to wager that you can hear your own voice. In fact, I’m willing to wager that you cannot read without hearing the words. Unless you have had a severe hearing impairment since birth it is unlikely that you are capable of reading without hearing.

Why is that? There is a short answer and a longer answer. Historians can provide us with the short answer – it’s because we’ve been speaking for far longer. Reading is a subordinate activity to speaking. Although some people argue that Homo Sapiens has always been able to ‘communicate using sounds’, which would date the capacity to speak as appearing around a million years ago, most historians and linguists put the age of syntactic speech at between forty and sixty thousand years.


Ebih-il Nu Banda, c2340 BCE, Louvre Paris

And what about writing? You can argue that the process of putting pen to paper, or reed to rock, goes back 30 000 to the cave paintings of Southern Europe. But ‘true writing’, a system of coding utterances so that they can be reconstructed as speech by someone else first appeared around 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. It also appeared independently in China and Mesoamerica, modern day Mexico.


Ebih-il Nu Banda, c 2340 BCE, Louvre, Paris

On the shoulder you can see an example of ‘proto- writing’ – a step from ‘true writing’ where logographs are used to convey words. The next step is to translate the speech sounds, rather than words, to symbols. The earliest form of this is cuneiform, which was originally written by pressing reeds into wet clay to make small angular marks. In this example these are scratches in stone:

cunieform 1

Cuneiform Script, c 1500 BCE, Louvre Paris

When symbols represent speech sounds, they can of course be used to code and reconstruct different languages. The example above shows writing in Acadian. Below you can see an early bilingual Acadian Sumerian dictionary, with the two languages both being written using the cuneiform script:


Bilingual Dictionary, c 2000 BCE, Louvre Paris

Cuneiform uses a syllabary: the symbols represent syllables: ba bo bi , ta to ti and so on. Some modern languages still use a syllabary, including Japanese, which uses two. The English language, of course, does not use syllabaries, it uses an alphabet. The next step towards what you are reading here can be seen in the Phoenician alphabet, where the symbols represent consonants, rather than syllables.


1st Millenium BCE, Louvre Paris

It’s easy for us to see the links between Phoenician characters and ours. What looks like a 4 in the middle of this piece of writing will be transformed into A – try looking sideways.

The addition of vowels is the last step to an alphabet. Even if you don’t read Ancient Greek, it’s hard not to pick out the name of the Greek god at the end of this inscription:

Louvre, Paris, Dedication to Dionysus

Louvre, Paris, Dedication to Dionysus

This brings us back to the present day, to here and now, to the fact that you are ‘hearing’ what you read. For this is what reading is: the reconstruction of scratches, squiggles or pixels into speech sounds, to form words that we understand through hearing them inside our head.

The other development in the ‘hear’ and now is that neuroscientists are able to demonstrate this quite clearly. The technology exists to look inside your head and see what parts of the brain are involved in the reading process. And what it shows is that whether you read aloud or silently you always activate the part of your brain that makes articulated language. It is if you are preparing to say the words that you are reading.

But this has been known for longer than functional MRI scanning has existed. The area of the brain that lights up at the front of the brain is known as Broca’s area, after the work of Paul Broca, the French scientist, active in the middle of the 19th century.


The other areas that are active are Wernicke’s area, which is involved in the decoding of language and the angular gyrus, which connects sounds to letters, as well as performing many other functions related to language, memory, numbers and so on.

The last area is at the bottom, known as the visual word form area. This area has been researched by many, including Stanilas Dehaene. This is an area that is believed to relate the form of words to their sound. What is fascinating is that this area is very active when reading in English, a language that cannot be ‘spoken as it is seen’. For those words who do not sound as they look, the shape and memory of the word is more important than the processing of the letters into sounds.

The area lights up      L’area illumine

By contrast, in languages where you do pronounce words as you see them, such as Italian, the ‘sound to letter translation’ area is more active. This experiment was conducted by a team including Uta Frith. It, along with the results of other experiments, is described in her book , ‘The learning brain’.

So what consequences does this have for language teaching? In my last post, which sprang from an ELTChat summary, I looked at what Krashen has to say about the role of reading in second language learning. What, if anything, does this information about how the brain reads tell us about our learners and their reading?  And what about the ‘reading aloud’ taboo?

Over the next few posts I plan to share some ways in which I’ve tried to adjust my approach to reading with different types of learners based on this information. If you’d like to comment or share any of your own experiences, I’d be more than happy to read and, of course, to ‘hear’them.

Sorry for handing my homework in late … ?

This post is a summary of an ELT Chat on the topic of homework which took place on December 12 2012 at 1300 CET.

The chat participants:


Having both suggested the topic and volunteered to write up the notes, I thought I’d better do some extra homework on homework. I decided to check out the links and watch presentations recommended during the chat. To be frank, I got quite carried away. At one point I was even learning so my about homework that I actually forgot why I was doing it…

So to focus on the task at hand : ‘What are the pro’s and cons of homework’

What are the con’s:

The unavoidable issue is that of ‘homework for homework’s sake’:

I often feel quite conflicted about homework.  Half the time I only set it because I feel it’s required of me. I think left to my own devices I would set homework about 10% of the time that I currently do @teflgeek

teachers often have to assign HW they dont reallly approve of – a major issue @Marisa_C

and parents expect it too @Marisa_C

It’s part of the educational culture @NailiahRokic

Sometimes parents see HW as a way also to follow what’s going on in class and sometimes test teachers @NailiahRokic

and the converse issue, where homework becomes necessary because:

contact time set is often insufficient to cover all important aspects of course @esolcourses

or the opposite reaction:

To those who teach kids in the school system: Don’t they already study enough? Isn’t it too much to ask them to do it at home too? @theteacherjames

a lot of parents in Canada are starting to revolt against HW. Ruining precious family time. Parents getting frustrated with stressed out kids @David_Boughton

and the con’s don’t stop at homework for kids. Homework and adults don’t mix well either.

Teaching adults means I can’t exactly lay down the law, it’s up to them if they do it or not @theteacherjames

that’s my current struggle with busy professionals. Barely time to show up to class @David_Boughton

So we’d expect an analysis of the tweets be mostly negative?

ELT Chat Wordle

(Un)surprisingly not. As @esolcourses put it:

homework is as good (or bad) as the teacher who sets it. Needs to be targeted & purposeful

So how can we best relate homework types to learners and class? I read Marisa Constantinides presentation on Homework vs Busywork. It has lots of great insights and also a really useful framework, which I’ve used here to organise the comments:

ELTChat Grid

Why do we do all of this homework?

I think HW has extremely good benefits when well planned and justified though. @theteacherjames

Makes adult learners more autonomous @SophiaKhan4

Pre-reading and post lesson activities really help to consolidate work covered in class @esolcourses

I do believe in HW, if it complements/improves whats being taught in class, but that also doesnt work if T doesn’t get s interested @NailahRokic


I always set optional extra work to do out of class, & in my experience (with adults and teens) s’s who do it tend to make better progress @esolcourses

And what about those SS who tend ‘not’ to do their Homework? How can we deal with ‘preparation’ homework that only some learners took time to do?

you put learners who haven’t watched it into groups with the students who have, to discuss @David_Boughton

Can you predict the content? Can you interview other SS who saw it and find out?@KerrCarolyn

perhaps an idea might be for class to do something else while indiv Students report to T in tutorial mode @Marisa_C

I sometimes do a quick multiple choice quiz on homework as a warm-up, in groups @esolcourses

How can technology help? Here are some comments on using technology as part of homework:

Tech can often make it more useful/meaningful, as it allows for instant feedback & collaboration @esolcourses

That’s where computer game-like homework can be fun? @FrancesEales

can have an LMS packed with busywork too  – true also.  Important to be discerning @esolcourses

social media can create a useful platform for sharing content between the sts @theteacherjames

I’ve also set up voxopop group topics or vocaroo speaking tasks which sts practise and then record and send to me. @FrancesEales

Should homework focus on more than lessons?

“As a language teacher one cannot escape the feeling that language lessons in and of themselves are not sufficient to bring language learning about and to lead to eventual proficiency” (van Lier 1996, p. 42).

I was curious to find out what people thought about ‘language exposure’ and the role of homework in that so I asked:

I think exposure to English outside the classroom is very important and homework is one way – but is it a good way?

@Marisa_C Immediately responded to this with a link to Steven Krashen’s talk from the Wired In Wired Out conference in Instanbul.


 As part of my homework I watched the video, which was both interesting and entertaining, and well worth the effort. A summary for those of you who haven’t had the chance to see it:

As many of you will know, Krashen is linguist and award winning professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. He is an influencial figure to say the least! He is known for the introduction of the ‘acquisition-learning hyposthesis’. To sum this theory up in a couple of words:

Acquisition is a subconcious process (think of effortless absorbtion) and learning is a concious process (think of working something out step by step). According to his beliefs, activities which are focused on meaning rather than form, for example reading or listening to ‘comprehensible input’, are far more effective in developing second language ability than any other method.

In his talk he discusses reading for pleasure as a fundamentally important activity for language acquisition. The benefits he states are:

–      improved reading skills

–      better writing skills

–      increased ability to handle complex grammar

–      increased vocabulary

–      better spelling


ELTPics @AriannaBasaric

ELTPics @AriannaBasaric



All those who commented on reading agreed with Krashen:

 I always set readers (e.g. for a week) and we have a feedback sess in class. @FrancesEales

I’ve used the ‘book box’ too and extensive reading does indeed help @Marisa_C

@theteacherjames I try to encourage all my students to read as much as possible. Find out what they like, lend them books etc.

Put newspapers in the kitchen and lounge and they are always reading them @David__Boughton

@theteacherjames also provided us with a link to a set of reading circle materials from OUP


But it is not a matter of just setting reading as homework. As @Marisa_C says

may work if motivating pre-reading done in class to whet ss’ appetite and stimulate curiosity

In my experience, reading (and listening) for pleasure is fundamental to progress in language. For my young learners I let them choose from a selection of storybooks with audio and they listen to them for fun in the evenings. I never fail to be impressed at just how quickly these kids progress.

I was greatly interested in what Krashen had to say about adults:

“good readers are narrow readers they stick to one genre at a time, one author at a time and gradually extend it as they go”

I’ve recently started taking Agatha Christie books along to my adult  business learners and am getting a lot of traction with them. Most adults here read them as children and now find them really enjoyable to read in English. One of my learners was enjoying her reading activity so much she literally could not put the book down, and here’s the proof

Agatha investigates


I’m glad I did my extra homework, I’m glad I clicked on all the links, and even though I handed my homework in late, I enjoyed doing it and it is nice to know that the great and the good of linguistics (Krashen et al) agree with ELTChat.

“Those who really engage with the L2 in and out of class will do better. We have no right to force people, but the obligation to encourage them.”

What’s more I’m also glad I got carried away with my homework, I’m glad I spent too much time watching presentations and clicking links to potential homework topics (I watched a TV presenter having a type of stroke). In doing this I proved one of Krashen and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s main theories : that a person learns most when they are so absorbed in what they are doing that they forget why they are doing it. Some people call this ‘flow’: it felt like ‘fun’ to me.

Further reading



http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/guest-blog-h-is-for-homework/ -Guest post by Rob Haines in Oregon (USA)