What is Red?

What is Red? by David Lisgo

What is Red -- National Institute of Fitness and Sport in Kanoya

I began to think more deeply about pre-reading programs when I heard from some Japanese elementary school teachers that they would not be allowed to teach any form of reading and writing in the classroom when English was introduced into the curriculum. My personal view is that a four skills approach of listening, speaking, reading and writing, as well as the use of phonics to assist in the teaching of reading and pronunciation, is essential if success in English is to be attained. "What is red?" is a series of materials which is aimed at narrowing the gap between speaking and reading so as to make the learning of reading simpler and easier when students enter junior high school. These materials can easily be adapted to teach reading, but they are mainly for pre-reading programs, such as you will find in language schools and elementary schools. The title, "What is red?" is from a song of the same name.

What is Red?

Another thing that I was told by these elementary school teachers was that there was little or no budget available to them to purchase English language teaching materials. So in developing these materials I have set out to create very inexpensive, interesting and versatile materials, games and activities. The "games and activities" are centred around a series of about 100 single colour flashcards, which have been divided into nine levels. Level 1 consists of these cards (there is also a 'question card' with three question marks on it):

red: apple, dog, bedpink: elephant, book, egggray: igloo, octopus, batblue: umbrella, cat, bagyellow: gorilla, tiger, bug

I'm now going to share with you a series of activities which can be used with just the above cards.

1. Song: What is red? Have the children sort the cards according to colour and put the cards in columns on the board. Then sing the song with actions. The song structure lends itself to a teacher singing the first line and children repeating it in chorus style, though once the children know the song, then they will easily sing it all themselves. The song is very useful for introducing new vocabulary and colours. Here is the Song (to the tune of 'Frere Jacques'):

What is red?What is red?Can you see?Can you see?An apple and a bed.An apple and a bed.And a dog.And a dog.

What is yellow?What is yellow?

What is blue/pink/gray etc.?

2. What is red -- Touch and stretchWith the cards still on the board call on individual children to touch single cards and vocalise of the words, then ask questions like "Two or three cards?", whilst indicating the meaning of your question with your fingers. Then link a number of cards together to form a chain, obviously the longer the chain the more challenging the task, so care should be taken not to make the task too difficult.

3. What is red -- Noisy teacher (please be quiet)Play the game "noisy teacher" sounding out some of the words on the board in a very loud voice. In "sounding out" we use the individual sounds within the word, for example /D/-/O/-/G/, /E/-/L/-/E/-/F/-/A/-/N/-/T/ (putting letters within the strokes indicates sound and the capitalisation indicates shouting) and have the participants remove those pictures from the board. Then play 'noisy teacher please be quiet'. This time start off by being noisy and having each child say "Noisy teacher please be quiet.", then sound out the words quietly, for example /b/-/e/-/d/, /g/-/o/-/r/-/i/-/l/-/a/ and have the students remove those cards. The children love this activity, but it's not for every teacher.

4. What is red -- Cluedo (I know!)When I first play this game, I do so with the target cards displayed on the board, but this game can be made more challenging by hiding the cards from your students eyes. Give simple oral clues regarding the cards, having participants call out "I know!", whilst you ask the question "What is it?" For example:

"It lives in the sea, it has eight legs and it squirts ink.""I know!""What is it?""Octopus!" (Ideally "It's an octopus.")

You can teach the children such questions as "What is 'ink'?" or "What is 'ink' in Japanese?"

5. What is red -- On my headInitially show the children four or five picture cards and have them identify the vocabulary. Have participants stand in a semicircle with their hands by the sides of their heads and place a card in their hands, which can be seen by other participants, but not by themselves. They call out "I know!" and the teacher asks the question "What is it?," to which they answer "It's a dog.", "It's a gorilla." or whatever their card might be. If the activity is too easy, then just add more cards (and children). This game is a lot of fun and highly useful for learning vocabulary.

6. What is red -- What colour is the...?Using the same cards, holding them in your hands with the pictures hidden from your students, ask the children

"What colour is the dog (cat, bug etc)?"

Children have great memories and will soon have no problems answering "It's red.", "It's green.", etc. To have the students practice the question "What colour is the...?" I created a number of colouring worksheets. The teacher has a pre-coloured worksheet and the students individually asks the teacher "What colour is the dog (cat, bug etc)?", the teacher answers according to the pre-coloured worksheet and the students colour their worksheet. When the activity is over, the children check their work for accuracy.

7. Sound isolationShow one of the picture cards and ask the children to the isolate initial sound. The first time you do this is a little confusing for the students, but soon they will be guessing at the initial sounds. Once a child has a close approximation of that sound, then play around with the sound using songs, gestures and actions. Such activities will greatly assist pronunciation now and in the future; they also gives you an opportunity to work with some of the more difficult sounds such as /f/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /p/, /r/, /v/, /w/ etc if need be. Later, when you are using more of the cards, you can have the children sort the cards are according to initial sound. I usually restrict the number of sounds to two when doing this activity so as to avoid too much confusion.

8. Mystery cardHide a CVC picture behind the question card and place the initial sound picture clues above the card on the board. For example, the mystery card is 'bed' so the picture clues will be 'book', 'elephant' and 'dog'. Elicit the dialogue:

"I know!" "What is it?""It's a bed."

At this stage most of the children won't have a clue as to what is going on, but don't explain just let them work it out in their heads. Before long it will be a simple task and a great skill to take with them into junior high school. Do a few cards this way, then give oral clues only for other cards, for example "apple, nut, tiger" (ant) or "book, umbrella, tiger" (bug), this greatly simplifies the activity and speeds the process up. I always use the same cards/words when giving clues as they act as a mnemonic for the children.

9. How do you spell...?After playing the game "mystery card", I teach the children the question "How do you spell...?" And have them answer using the sounds within the words and are not the alphabet. We are getting very close to phonics here as we are teaching the processes of blending and segmenting, but since no actual reading or writing takes place, then it's a pre-reading skill using pronunciation of individual sounds. I ask the question "How do you spell cat?", some bright child may say "c-a-t" using the alphabet, but 'seeaytee' doesn't say "cat". Eventually a child will say /c/-/a/-/t/ and there will be a great 'ahaa' moment in the classroom, before long children can use this activity between themselves.

10. Sound it outA final activity for the whole class, sound out all the words to the whole class, as soon as a child recognises the word he or she stands up and shouts out what it is. For example:



Very soon you will be able to do this activity with new and old vocabulary alike.

There are many other activities we could do using just these 15 vocabulary items, but the above should be sufficient for the children to learn 15 words, 5 colours, 10 initial phonemes, some basic blending and segmenting skills and a number of simple questions and answers as well as deepening their listening skills in such activities as "Cluedo" and "What colour is the...?"

I got the idea for the song from Sue Nicholls who wrote "Bobby Shaftoe, clap your hands", published by A. and C. Black: London. The games and activities were picked up and developed by myself during my 23 years of teaching phonics, but I must also thank the many presenters and authors who helped me in this.

This paper is based on a presentation which I first gave at the ETJ Kyushu Expo in December 2008 and again in September 2009 at the Kitakyushu JALT meeting, where it was voted the best presentation of 2009.

David Lisgo is a school owner, author and teacher who works part-time at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya.

Note: “What is Red?” materials are published on Blending a Hand disk 4. Should anyone wish to obtain the materials that are mentioned in this paper, then please don't hesitate to contact me at stedefaest at ybb.ne.jp#.

Lisgo offers more teaching advice at his regular column at ELT News.

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