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How to Teach Your Toddler Color Words

Parents are always eager to teach their children color words. It's so fun to use them to talk about the world around us!

However, if you have a child of your own, you'll quickly find that color words can be difficult concepts to teach. For one, your child probably won't catch on very quickly. And once they do realize that colors can help identify objects, then they'll likely call everything blue or red for a while.

So how should you go about teaching your toddler color words? A Stanford study from 2007 found that children (and adults, in a second experiment) learned color words much better when the color word (adjective) was placed after the object (noun). This would look like "The truck is red" (truck= noun, red= adjective) instead of "the red truck". There are a lot of theories about why this might be the case, but for our purposes today, just knowing how to put this into practice is enough.

When should you teach your child color words? Although parents are eager to teach them, adjectives are not what we Speech-Language Pathologists refer to as "core vocabulary" words. They're not among the first words that children tend to learn, and they're not the most important words, either. Other words, like "stop", "milk" or "help" are much more important to get immediate needs met. Only once your child has a handful (around 50) of these types of words will they begin to put two words together. When they reach this 2-word phrase, then some adjectives come into play. However, usually adjectives like "big/ small" or "one/ lots" will come before colors.

So, when should you start targeting colors specifically? It will vary by child quite a bit, but once your child has a handful of object words, you're probably good to go. If they have mastered the concept of "ball" (they turn their head and look at the ball when you say it), then you saying that "the ball is green" will start having meaning to them. To give even more context, this particular study was with 23- to 29-month olds. So don't worry if your child is under 2 and not even interested in color words yet.

And how do you know that your child is understanding color words? They can pick out the right color among an array of the same object in a variety of colors. So set out a bunch of legos and ask your child to give you the blue one. If they are consistent with that, then they'll likely start using color words on their own soon.

Once your child understands color words or even uses them, then you can start modeling the color word before the noun ("yellow flower"). Your child can then use color words to create 2-word phrases. Also, in English this tends to be the usual word order, so you do want to use that form eventually.

Now that you're equipped with the knowledge, you can embark on the journey of finding out your child's favorite color!




Ramscar, M., Thorpe, K. & Denny, K. (2007). Surprise in the learning of color words. In D. S. McNamara & J. G. Trafton (Eds.), Proceedings of the 29th Annual Cognitive Science Society(pp. 575-580). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.


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