The COLOR VOWEL Chart was initially conceived by Karen Taylor in 1999. She made her first chart out of poster board, construction paper, and Velcro, and despite its crude form, Karen’s international teaching assistants appreciated the way it helped them to pronounce academic and technical vocabulary. Karen met Shirley Thompson in 2000. Quickly recognizing their shared interest in pronunciation, multi-modal instruction and brain-based learning, Karen and Shirley started meeting regularly to share ideas and further develop the Color Vowel Chart.
Karen and Shirley perfected the Chart with input from hundreds of ESL students and teachers at American University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland College Park. Dr. Robin Barr, Linguist In Residence at American University, has worked continuously with Karen and Shirley over the years to help ensure that the Color Vowel Chart is both linguistically accurate and accessible to teachers and learners.
The Color Vowel Chart is used across the U.S. and around the world by English language teachers and learners at the K-12 level, in Intensive English Programs, in Adult Education programs, and in MA TESOL and certificate programs, as well as by speech therapists, reading specialists, pronunciation/accent trainers, dialect coaches, and choral directors. The U.S. Department of State’s Office of English Language Programs started distributing The Color Vowel Chart around the world through their Regional English Language Officers in 2013, and the Chart was is featured in the new U.S. Peace Corps TEFL Certificate training program. Learn more about these projects.
It’s worth noting that the Color Vowel Chart is not just a thing you show to students– rather, it is the cornerstone of the multi-modal, brain-based approach to teaching English that we’ve come to call the Color Vowel Approach. The best way to get started with the Color Vowel Chart and this powerful Approach is to purchase the Teacher Starter Kit or the Fully-Equipped Classroom, both of which are available in our online Shop.
Which version should I use? We offer two versions of The Color Vowel Chart: the Key Word Version and the IPA Version.
The Key Word Version is our recommended version. It is especially appropriate for those who work with adult learners, low-literacy learners, and K-12 learners– those for whom having to learn a phonetic alphabet may detract from the larger purpose of learning, recognizing, and practicing the vowel sounds of American English.
The IPA Version (IPA = International Phonetic Alphabet) contains the added feature of phonetic symbols. The IPA Version is useful with learners who are already familiar with phonetic symbols and is most often used in TESOL education, including applied linguistics courses and teaching methodology courses.
You’ll want to choose the variety that best represents your way of speaking English and your geographic setting. Read this article to help you decide which variety is best for you. If you’re still not sure which variety to use, we recommend the 4th Edition (auburn) Chart.
Yes. The basic shape of the Color Vowel™ Chart refers to the traditional linguistic vowel chart and mirrors the shape of your vocal tract. In practical terms, the shape of the Chart represents the vowel sounds according to how they are produced as a combination of jaw, lip, and tongue positioning. To learn more about the relevance of the shape of the Chart, watch our video of Color Vowel Yoga.
Absolutely. Young language learners (and native speakers too!) benefit from the meaningful use of color and the absence of additional terminology (such as the misleading reference to ‘long’ and ‘short’ vowels) as they learn to recognize relationships between how words sound and how words are spelled. [Hint: instead of referring to “long” and “short” vowels, try identifying sounds as moving (for “long”) and non-moving (for “short”) vowels.] Learn more about how we talk about vowels in our book The Color Vowel Approach, available in our Teacher Starter Kit or The Fully-Equipped Classroom.
For beginning and lower level students, the Color Vowel Chart can be especially powerful. You can indicate the vowel sound of a word simply by pointing to a Color Vowel (such as GREEN TEA) and repeating the word (teacher, GREEN TEA, teacher). Our mantra for teachers, especially those who work with low-proficiency students, is don’t talk about the Chart– just use it. With more advanced students, we recommend simply using the Chart and waiting for students to ask their questions, as student-produced questions reliably indicate when learners are ready to have a metalinguistic conversation about the Chart.
It is important to start with the understanding that every English word has exactly one syllable that receives primary stress. The word potato, for example, has three syllables, but it’s the second syllable that receives the primary stress: poTAto. Students coming from languages with more “even” stress (known as syllable-timed languages) may not perceive the primary stress and will therefore not produce stress. By identifying a word’s ‘color’ (the vowel quality of the stressed syllable), we’re helping students master an essential aspect of spoken English. (The word potato is therefore GRAY.)
Though color is an obvious feature of the Color Vowel Chart, one’s visual perception of color quality is not necessary for understanding and making use of the Chart. Rather, the key word phrases and key images are the central feature of the Chart (rather than the visual color), as each key word phrase features the target vowel sound (e.g. GREEN TEA = /iy/). Teach with the black-line version of the Color Vowel Chart, and one can quickly appreciate that color actually plays a secondary (though still powerful) role in the Color Vowel Chart.
That’s an easy one! Phonetic symbols are great for linguists and teachers, but are confusing for many students, adding a layer of complexity to the already challenging vowel system that students need to learn. Perhaps more significantly, phonetic symbols have to be written in order to be used (think about it– apart from schwa, how many IPA symbols can you name?). Turning to the board to write a symbol requires visual decoding and essentially disrupts the instructional focus on speech. Color Vowels are a simple yet powerful mnemonic that can be referred to both orally and in writing.
If your students already know a phonetic system, that’s great! By assigning the colors of the Color Vowel Chart to their phonetic symbols, they can now talk about vowel quality without having to write the phonetic symbol for all to see. They can even write the symbol they know on the student version of the chart.
Keep in mind that the Color Vowel Chart simply serves as a conceptual overlay that makes it easier for everyone to identify and talk about vowel quality. If your textbook uses different symbols than our “IPA Version” of the chart, then go with the “Key Word Version” of the chart.
We created a modified set of IPA symbols that simply represent what happens with vowel sounds. Notice that all of the vowels that move– GREEN, GRAY, WHITE, BLUE, BROWN, ROSE, TURQUOISE– are represented by a vowel plus a superscript /y/ or /w/. (These “moving” vowels include tense vowels, diphthongs, and glides.)
By noticing the superscript, one can easily see which vowels “move” and in what direction. For example ROSE moves toward /w/. GRAY moves toward /y/. Those that don’t move – BLACK, RED, SILVER, MUSTARD, OLIVE, AUBURN, WOODEN, and PURPLE – are represented by a single symbol.
Just above PURPLE, you’ll notice a watermark /r/. We include this to remind teacher and learner that the vowel sound in PURPLE is a “cross-over” sound in that it is nearly identical to the vowel-like consonant /r/ sound that characterizes American English. In The Color Vowel Chart, the /r/ symbol is handy for teaching ‘r-controlled’ vowels. Read more about teaching r-controlled vowels in our blog.
Yes. What this means is that:
Bibliographic citations for our work should contain the following:
Taylor, K. & Thompson, S. with R. Barr (2016). The Color Vowel Approach: Resources for connecting spoken English to vocabulary, reading, and spelling. Santa Fe NM: English Language Training Solutions.
Taylor, K., and Thompson, S. (1999). The Color Vowel Chart. Santa Fe NM: English Language Training Solutions. www.colorvowelchart.org
Yes. The phrase “Color Vowel” is a Registered Trademark. When referring to the Color Vowel Chart in an article or document, the trademark symbol ‘‘®’’ should be placed at the upper right corner of the trademarked phrase (“Color Vowel”) in the most prominent place at first usage, and it should be linked to our website with the following URL: www.colorvowelchart.org.
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