A colourful way to teach English

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First aired on Babel (13/8/12)


"What's stupid about English is that letters don't represent sounds."

After teaching English as a second language for 13 years, Judy Thompson firmly believes this is true. And she believes it's a big obstacle for those learning English for the first time. So Thompson decided to do something about it: she invented a new method for teaching English that used colours to represent sounds and she outlines this method in her book, English Is Stupid.

English has 26 letters in its written alphabet, but 40 sounds in its spoken form. There are 24 consonant sounds and 16 vowel sounds and it's the vowel sounds that prove to be the most problematic for students. "The relationship between the letter and the sound that it makes is zero," Thompson told Babel host Mariel Borelli. "There's no way anyone can look at a word and know with confidence what it sounds like."

In Judy's system, each colour represents the vowel sound in the name of that colour. Red represents the "eh" sound found in red, head and said. Salmon pink represents the "ih" sound found in fish. Salmon-coloured words in Judy's method include English, mister and sister. Pink is for pretty, women and busy. Mustard represents the second hardest vowel sound in English: "uh." Mustard is for sun, won, number and bus.

Olive is the hardest sound of all. Olive represents coffee, hot, not, fall and father. "The olive sound has a tremendous variety of spelling," Thompson said. "It comes a lot and we can hear people's accent almost exclusively in their olive sound."

Thompson has found that her method is extremely effective. She says that most students can learn the sounds associated with their respective colours within an hour, and will then begin to categorize words by colour in their head. She also encourages students to practice, practice, practice. Canada is a great place to be learning English, Thompson says. Not only are there many citizens who speak English as a second (or third or fourth) language, we're a country that supports and encourages new English speakers.

"Canadians are really generous," she said. "If you start with 'Can you help me with my English?' they will."

You can watch Judy's TedxOakville from 2010 below.

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