How Words in Color Integrates “Breaking the Written Code of English” with Comprehension – Paula Hajar

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Paula Hajar


Among the arguments often used against decoding approaches to teaching is the contention that decoding, in its attention to graphemic and phonemic patterns, decontextualizes words, sentences and other utterances, and strips reading of meaning.

Those who teach reading by Caleb Gattegno’s Words in Color approach contend that quite the opposite can be true: that, in fact, even in the earliest stages of learning to decode, students who use Words in Color are constantly challenged to analyze the expressions they are decoding against their own life experiences with language. “Who might say this?” and “In what kind of situations?” are questions that are brought to bear on even the simplest decodings.
Such conversations are possible, in fact, even when students are just beginning to decode vowel sounds, such as the diphthongs “down”, “sigh” or “oh”. Even at this level, students can create variations in tonality that suggest a variety of persons, situations, moods, and motivations for a given expression. And once the student is able to read a syllable (that is, a vowel sound either followed or preceded by a consonant), then meaning-making is a possible part of every subsequent learning-to-read activity, even if it is only to comment on whether something that has been decoded is really “English” or not.

Words in Color – Chart 3

Calb Gattegno -Words in Color Chart 3, 1978

Calb Gattegno -Words in Color Chart 3, 1978 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

Matching attentiveness to meaning with attentiveness to the demands of decoding permeates Words in Color practice. Another typical beginning exercise is for students to look at the Words in Color charts (each of which is an array of words whose connections are not only phonetic and graphemic but also occasionally grammatical) and to find words that could stand alone as meaningful utterances in common vernacular speech, and then to propose various cases in which such utterance would be appropriate. One easy example is imperatives (“Sit!”, “Stop!”) or exclamations (“Pop!”, “Yes!”, “Fun!”). Alternatively, students can look at one-word utterances as answers, and then create possible questions for them. For example, if the answer is “Pam”, the question might be “Who’s absent today?” or “Who gave you that?”.

The focus on context can also become a focus on usage. As students graduate to creating multi-word sentences and they can experiment with word order and idiom, all the while their own experiences (and therefore their own sense of truth) to evaluate whether something “sounds right”, asking, “Is this English?” and then “Whose English is it?” In this way they continually engage in the critical examination of their own language and the various ways it is used, as they do in speaking the language they know, but also critically, much as a linguist or cultural anthropologist might. Thus even though the restrictions on what they are reading are initially quite tight, the learners need not sacrifice sophistication in their discussion of what is being read.

The Words in Color approach also stresses early attention to the melody of language. Using this approach, even the most neophyte of readers will not fall into the trap of reading in the monotone we have come to associate with the efforts of an early decoder, and which surely strips reading of meaning. From the beginning of the decoding process, students are explicitly encouraged to attend to the rhythm and meter (and thus by definition, the sense) of what they read. In fact, as soon as they begin to decode words of more than one vowel, students learn about the schwa, or unaccented vowel. Initially teachers will give students the “beat” of a word, using a rap of the ruler or their own fingertips tapping on a desk or the wall; students develop their own aural acuity and their familiarity with the spoken language to judge for themselves whether they are pronouncing a word correctly. In this way they avoid the traps of pronouncing words in accents that bear no relation to the spoken language as they know it.

When they graduate from decoding words to decoding sentences, students can use among their criteria for correctness the melody of the sentence: the rise of the voice for a question, the pause that is marked by a comma, the changes in tone that are inherent in the direct quotation or the imperative — all of which they must attend to as part of the early decoding process. The teacher’s tapping fingers or ruler can guide them, as they bring to their own awareness that one property of language is melody, and that as speakers of the language they already have criteria for melodic correctness. Because they are relying on their expertise as native speakers, they can avoid later difficulties that crop up with a mechanical approach that focuses exclusively on phonemic correctness (without the attention to melody).

Students who are at the decoding stage also can experiment with the many ways a single sentence can be voiced, and how they can create mood, character and even situation through intonation and inflection. In his book The Common Sense of Teaching Reading and Writing, Gattegno develops this theme through the suggestion of an exercise in which decoders experiment with these variations in intonation to say the same sentence “softly, irritatedly, as a warning, as a caress, as a prayer, shouting as if to request stopping, jokingly, frightened, as if exhausted”. (p. 89)

Another of the games Gattegno suggests, one that works on character and role, has students use the Words in Color charts to create sentences that might have been said by different types of people, for example, something said by a jealous person, something said by a kind person, something else said by an elderly person, by a young child, an invalid, a guest, a host, etc. The sentences students create can be comic, somber, angry, or factual; but students have to draw on their experiences, intuition, and insights to create these sentences.

A third game played by students working on comprehension as they work on decoding sentences involves imagining a sentence as part of a larger text, and then imagining the rest of the text — what came before and what might come after. Again, context-creation and attention to narrative can (and should) follow close on the heels of decoding.

Yet another exercise that is sophisticated but becomes quite common even in the early stages of decoding, is for students to discuss inference, which arises when sentences are ambiguous. A few examples can illustrate. Using only charts three, four and five, the teacher could visually dictate (point to the words silently with a pointer) the sentence, “Then Daddy landed on the dusty tent” and then engage students in a line of inquiry about the various meanings of “landed”. What were Dad’s activities just prior to “landing”? (Was he flying a plane? Making the forty-yard dash from a nearby playing field? Tripping over the tent poles?)

Or using charts one, two and three, the teacher could visually dictate the sentence “Mom sniffed at Sam’s pants” and ask the questions: Why did Mom do that? Who was Sam to her? Was he her baby who might need a diaper change? Her husband, whom she suspected of breaking a promise not to go to a smoky bar after work? Her son whose laundry she was collecting? And so forth.

Because such sentences imply off-stage as much as they explicate the action on stage, they are a good stimulus to student-made illustrations. These drawings can show the “whole story”, serving as indications of the extent to which what the students have read has engaged their imaginations.

Because of the challenge of working within restrictions (typically students are restricted to a certain array of words on the charts, and/or to a particular mood or character), beginning students find themselves less often engaged in describing their own experience, which has become a primary focus of several versions of the whole language method of learning to read and write. Rather, they must use their imaginations to locate a bridge from themselves to environment outside of themselves, as they know it. Thus, in the way it challenges the reader to look outward, it is a more social way of learning to read and write, though self and personal experience and knowledge are, from the beginning, identified as a student’s most basic tools for reading and interpreting these created texts.

By adding to its focus on decoding skills the emphases on melody, inflection and intonation, three technical aspects of reading that are often neglected by other approaches, the Words in Color approach drives home the point that, because they allow the reader to imply and infer, contextualize, and create ground for anticipation, those aspects of reading are key to comprehension. Melody, inflection and intonation are, in the end, what give students the tools, opportunities and habits of connecting the words on the page, however simple in the beginning, to their experiences with life, and with language usage. It is in this way that a method of teaching reading such as Words in Color that ostensibly emphasizes decoding skills, also supports the meaning-making emphasis that is the hallmark of other approaches.


Gattegno, Caleb. The Common Sense of Teaching Reading and Writing. (1982) New York: Educational Solutions, 1982.

© Paula Hajar
Teachers College, Columbia University

The Science of Education in Questions – N° – 15, Une Education Pour Demain, France. February 1997.

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“How Words in Color Integrates “Breaking the Written Code of English” with Comprehension” by Paula Hajar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.