Using Books to Teach Colors

For many children, learning to identify basic colors isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Teaching Colors to ToddlersLast month, I stumbled across the Scientific American article Why Can’t Johnny Name His Colors written by Melody Dye.

Dye, who helps run the Cognition, Language & Learning Lab at Stanford University, conducted a study where toddlers were asked to identify color swatches.

“The test was not designed to trip kids up. Far from it—we only tested basic color words, and we never made kids pick between confusable shades, like red and pink.”

Even so, after months of testing the majority of children would fail the test outright. Parents who had started off confident quickly became dismayed when their child failed to differentiate between a red swatch and a blue one. “One mother, in particular, couldn’t seem to stop herself, and took to nervously grabbing her little boy’s hand whenever it veered away from the correct choice,” said Melody Dye. Shortly after this incident, testers began blindfolding parents to prevent interference.

Surprised? According to Dye, “children, across every language studied, invariably learn their nouns before their colors.” Confusion arises when adults use color words prenominally, meaning before nouns. To increase comprehension, use color as a postnominal modifier instead.

“When you stick the noun before the color word, you can successfully narrow their focus to whatever it is you’re talking about before you hit them with the color. Say ‘the balloon is red,’ for example, and you will have helped to narrow ‘red-ness’ to being an attribute of the balloon, and not some general property of the world at large. This helps kids discern what about the balloon makes it red.”

View the full article here.

Want to give this method a try with your toddler? The books you choose can make all the difference. Many of the most well-known books use color before noun.

Here, I’ve selected three picture books that use Dye’s recommended method for teaching colors to babies and toddlers.

Lemons Are Not Red - CoverLemons Are Not Red (©2004) by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

This book uses simple shapes and straightforward language to help children match objects to their colors. Each page uses only one or two colors to cut down on color-confusion, and the clever cutouts make it interactive and fun.

A Color of His OwnA Color of His Own (©1975) by Leo Lionni

“Elephants are grey, pigs are pink. All animals have a color of their own – except for chameleons.” Seeing the same chameleon change many different colors establishes the relationship between nouns and colors. Children will love the vibrant painted illustrations, too!

My Many Colored DaysMy Many Colored Days (©1996) by Dr. Seuss

Full of playful, energetic paintings, this book makes learning colors fun!

Each of these books provides an easy to understand relationship between objects and colors. I hope you’ll give them a try!


  1. I think color picture books are fun. We also like Lois Elhert’s Growing a Rainbow. I didn’t realize that kids had trouble learning their colors. Maybe the kids they tested were too young. I think kids get this by Kindergarten without too much effort.

    • I definitely agree that by Kindergarten most children have a much easier time identifying colors. The children tested in this particular study were two and three years old.

  2. stanleyandkatrina says:

    Okay, my daughter is 10 years old and we still read blue hat, green hat. It is one of our favorites and we are huge Sandra Boynton fans. It has become a comfort book before bed after so many readings when she was younger. Katie, your lists are awesome Thanks for sharing!
    Christine M/Cool Mom
    Tech Support/Assistant to Stanley, Katrina & Neighbor Girl

  3. That is a really interesting study you mention. My kids have never had any difficulty with colors, but I’ll keep it in mind when I’m teaching again. These books that introduce color postnominally will be a good resource to keep in my back pocket. It might also help that we live in Southeast Asia and the kids, while not bilingual unfortunately, are regularly exposed to a language in which the colors are always postnominal. This is so interesting!

    Thanks for linking this up at Booknificent Thursday!

  4. Pingback: 100 Easy Lessons to Teach Your Toddler | Nanny Websites

  5. Pingback: 100 Easy Lessons to Teach Your Toddler

  6. Pingback: 100 easy lessons to teach your toddler | Momaha Blogs

  7. For slightly older readers, An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers, shows how colors interact or play off of each other. There’s also a color glossary and wheel.

  8. Kristina Wise says:

    My son is a year and a half and he knows all of his ABC’s in and out of order, he knows all his shapes and he knows numbers 1-11 but colors seem to be very challenging for him. What book would you recommend for him ?

    • Color is a much more abstract concept than shapes or numbers, so some children don’t get the hang of it until about age three. For your son I’d recommend “Lemons Are Not Red” by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (featured in this post). The direct language and simple illustrations make it an excellent choice for young toddlers. 🙂

  9. Reblogged this on It's Jazzys World and commented:
    This is awesome! Trying to make a lesson plan right now and this was a very helpful resource!!! Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *