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Perhaps I am rushing a bit but I'd rather ask and get feedback rather than just let it slide. I've recently been working on teaching colors to my 2 year old daughter. She can say the common colors if repeating after me, but when I ask her to identify the color of an object, she always defaults to "green".

Is this normal? Is she perhaps confused about what I am asking her at this moment in time and I will see positive results later? When she gets one wrong, it's not like I get on to her or anything crazy like that. I just tell her the actual color, she repeats and we move on...and the next object is green too.

Am I doing something wrong? Am I expecting too much?

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2 cents: When we taught our daughter colors, the "breakthrough" came when we told her that there are light and dark variations of everything. She couldn't see that e.g. light green wasn't yellow, when it looked totally different to a darker green. She is still saying colors wrong sometimes, most often to quiz us though, since she knows most just fine. We can see her making progress, and that is what counts, even if the steps are small. –  PlasmaHH Mar 10 '14 at 11:29
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FWIW, learning colors is one of those things that seems to develop much later than feels normal, relative to other things. When my two-year old was speaking in multi-clause sentences, but still flubbing colors regularly, I thought he might be color-blind. I think there's a conflict between our (adult) sense of colors being in the "first words and basics" bucket, and the reality that they're a fairly meta condition of things that's harder to grasp than more concrete things. –  Jaydles Mar 10 '14 at 14:32
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Everyone, thanks for the feedback. I really just wanted to know it I was doing something wrong in terms of teaching her but apparently, from the advice, I'm on the right track. We actually had a good moment tonight where instead me asking "what color is the crayon?" I would ask her to retrieve said colored crayon. 100% success rate across the board. It's good to know that I am probably expecting too much. –  ChristopherW Mar 10 '14 at 15:27
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How do you expect your daughter to learn colours if you yourself are black and white? ;) –  Christian Mar 11 '14 at 20:52
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Your anxiety over your child not learning colors as fast as you like (even if you express it unconsciously, say, through pressure) will have far more of an impact than teaching her colors ever will. Perhaps your daughter will never learn colors correctly, and will excel amazingly at something else entirely. It's important to encourage but not force. –  Jason C Mar 11 '14 at 23:49

11 Answers 11

up vote 26 down vote accepted

You should also consider that 2-year-olds often don't react as expected when quizzed. My son (almost 3) is pretty intelligent for his age, but if I ask him what he did today, no matter what we did, he "played cars and trains". If I ask him what he had for lunch, it was "macaroni and cheese". He seems to find an answer that is a valid answer sometimes, and uses it every time that question is asked, because he doesn't really understand the concepts being discussed (in particular, he doesn't really understand 'past' and 'future', as most kids don't at that age). He knows what he did, but he doesn't know how to discuss it.

So your daughter may know the colors, but not know to correlate the idea of a green thing being green to being asked 'what color is this?'. To help that along, I would recommend having multiple identical objects of different colors - for my son, it was colorful wooden alphabet blocks with pictures on one side of animals along with alphabet/numbers - and then just talk about how this is the 'green' block and this is the 'blue' block, etc. Differentiating objects by their color helps to explain the concept that objects 'have' colors.

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Perfect! Identical objects that are different in color works pretty well. –  devnull Mar 10 '14 at 6:27
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+1 this is a good answer. Kids are very perceptive of attention, and my 3yo intentionally gives me the wrong answer to some questions because that gets a better reaction out of me. –  ashes999 Mar 11 '14 at 11:56
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This answer doesn't present not forcing the issue of colors as an option - or, more accurately, it doesn't present the option of encouraging the learning of colors without making it an overt issue. Anxiety over perceived learning speed of things like this, even if expressed unconsciously (e.g. via pressure) would have far more impact than teaching colors ever would. Most of the answers I see here only suggest ways to teach colors faster, but are limited to the notion that teaching colors faster is necessary. This answer hits that point. –  Jason C Mar 11 '14 at 23:57
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I think that talking about how objects have color is not forcing the issue. The point is not to quiz the child, but instead just model the information - that is low pressure AND teaches at the same time. –  Joe Mar 12 '14 at 0:32
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You are reading things into my answer that simply are not there. Nowhere do I or any of the other answerers here suggest such things. –  Joe Mar 12 '14 at 3:17

This is adapted from an answer to another question: 2,5 year old girl always picks black

Specifically, the linked source in that answer, Why Johnny Can't Name His Colors, mentions prenominal versus postnominal use of colors. This set me on track to this research article, Surprise in the Learning of Color Words (PDF).

The research suggests that using postnominal (or post-nominal) training is better for teaching children colors than prenominal training.

Results indicate that children as young as 2 years begin to reliably master color words when hearing them in training presented post-nominally, but not pre-nominally, and that adults challenged with learning novel color categories are affected by the same ordering effects. We suggest that children’s difficulty with color word learning is in part due to the challenge of having to make predictions from words to the properties they refer to, rather than being able to make predictions from the world to the words.

Examples:

  • Prenominal: "The red ball." The color comes before (pre) the noun (nominal)
  • Postnominal: "The ball that is red." The color comes after (post) the noun (nominal)

Now, I don't mean to merely replicate @Bossykena's answer. I think the study I linked to provides better support for using postnominal training.

When I read the answer on the other question, we were having trouble getting my son to identify colors correctly. So, with the study in hand, my wife and I proceeded to use color descriptions almost exclusively in a postnominal fashion.

We saw immediate results. His grasp of colors and ability to identify similar objects correctly by their colors grew enormously in a short time. The largest results were in the first couple of weeks.

We would also go out of our way to include color descriptions when speaking to him. We were already doing that in a prenominal fashion, but without much success. This leads me to give credit solely to the postnominal training.

At the same time, we also tried to increase our use of American Sign Language when using colors. The ASL usage did not appear to have any real effect at that time, but we did not put a particular emphasis on the ASL at the time. Mainly, it was used to reinforce that the color words were the "key" words of the sentences. With our new child, we'll likely place a greater emphasis on ASL during color learning, mostly because our own confidence in ASL has grown.

Since we don't know for sure that the ASL helped, but it was a factor, I felt it worth mentioning. If nothing else, it may help you feel like you're doing more, which can be emotionally satisfying on its own.

In short:

  1. Use postnominal color descriptions: "The bucket that is yellow."
  2. Describe objects with colors more often (or parts of objects): "Go get your socks that have bottoms that are black."
  3. Try including ASL if you want more physical/active training
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Is this normal?

Yes, it is.

One of my kids is like that; everything is "red". When asked to match colors, though, she can. What I did was show her colour swatches and asked her to show me things that were the same colour.

If I showed her the yellow swatch and asked her to show me something that was the same colour, she picked my yellow sweater. This meant she could differentiate the colors themselves; it was just the names that confused her.

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I recently read a scientific study that indicated that English-speaking kids had a harder time with colors than other kids, because the English language typically places the color before the name of the object ("The blue ball") rather than after ("The ball that is blue").

In the latter construct, the kid sees the ball, then hears the name of the color, so it can be associated as a characteristic of that object. When the researchers used slightly artificial constructs ("Look at that nice car. It's blue!" rather than "Oh, look at that nice blue car"), kids learned their colors much faster.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-johnny-name-colors/

But really, technicalities aside, it's not a race...

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Do you have a reference to this study I could view? –  ChristopherW Mar 12 '14 at 12:35
    

I like to play the I-spy game

I spy is a guessing game. One player chooses an object that is visible to all the players and says, "I spy with my little eye something beginning with ...", naming the letter the chosen object starts with (e.g. "I spy with my little eye something beginning with C" if the chosen object is a car). Other players have to guess the chosen object.[1] An alternative version is played where the colour is given rather than the initial letter (e.g. "I spy with my little eye something blue")

You can play it anywhere and also train general observation skills. In my experience, kids can play it from about 18-24 months old.

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Do like my stepfather did with my stepbrother:

Requirements:

  1. 1 bag of M & M's or similar colored treats.
  2. A little patience

Now, tell your child they will get the M&M's they correctly identify the color of. In your case, it will turn out like this: "Green, green, green, green....... Red? Yellow? Blue? Blue, blue, blue, blue...... Red? Yellow? Yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow." Etc.

Rewards can be powerful.

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Pick the colors you want to teach.

Get some magnetic fridge magnets in that color. Let's say they are dog shaped

Put them on the Fridge

Tell him to go get the 'Red dog'

If he comes back with the red one, praise him, throw him up in the air, hug em. Say "Yes, this one is Red!."

"Now go get me the blue Dog"... Rinse repeat.

If he comes back with the wrong one, point out that it is a dog, but it is a green one instead of the pink one. Can you find me the pink one?

Positive feedback on a find. Good feedback with correction on a miss.

This is how my daughter learned her colors and numbers.

It was fun too.

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I read about a study that seems to imply that certain colors are easier to understand than others. They tracked primitive cultures' names for colors and found a natural sequence:

color progression

Though I haven't seen this applied specifically to parenting, it does seem to imply that a child would be best served by learning light-dark distinction first, then learn to distinguish red, etc.

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I don't have anything but anecdata, but my children both learned very differently than this. Orange and purple were two of the first colors for both of them, for some reason - for my youngest purple was his third word (and he knew what it meant). –  Joe Mar 12 '14 at 0:35
    
Sorry, but the results of this study have absolutely nothing to do with which color names are easier or harder for a small child in our culture to learn. Teaching anything sensitively and patiently is hard enough without introducing cargo cult pseudo-science. –  jwg Mar 12 '14 at 11:29
    
@jwg I was clear that the study was about cultures and not children. Making disparate connections between seemingly unrelated things is a driving force in innovation. I'm not claiming to be right -- more like "hey this cool connection might exist. Maybe we should check it out?" –  sbell Mar 12 '14 at 11:37
    
Making disparate connections between seemingly unrelated things is a driving force in innovation. It's also a driving force in bullshit. –  jwg Mar 12 '14 at 11:44

The difficulty for the child to understand is that colors are something abstract, so something they cannot take into their hands and play with. But at this age touching something is an important factor in learning.

An idea would be to get colored plastic sheets (yellow, magenta, cyan) and show them what happens when you look through them. This allows your child to actually play with something in his/her hands, and makes the abstract concept graspable, so to speak.

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It's normal, and you're expecting too much. Colors are hard, for a variety of reasons explained in this article:

  • Colors are not a thing like a "ball" or a "dog", but a property of a thing
  • Colors are societal construct interpreted differently in different languages, with lots of gray areas even within a language (is that particular shade red or orange?)
  • English has the unhelpful feature of placing adjectives before nouns, which makes them even harder for kids to understand

All told, your kid's doing OK if she can reliably recognize one (1) color by the time they're three, and it's not unusual for six-year-olds to still have trouble.

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+1 This is one of the only answers here that actually considers the option of not forcing the issue. –  Jason C Mar 11 '14 at 23:58
    
Why is placing adjectives before nouns harder to understand than the other way around? –  jwg Mar 12 '14 at 11:22
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@jwg Because you can't really conceive of an adjective without a noun to apply it to. In other words we're all mentally placing nouns "before" adjectives anyway -- as we hear adjectives we apply them to a placeholder until we hear the rest (she's got huge tracts of land). We would be able to skip this step in processing if the noun was always first. –  nmclean Mar 12 '14 at 15:17
    
@nmclean Interesting, thanks. –  jwg Mar 12 '14 at 15:37

Color is a difficult thing to teach . . . they don't know that you're talking about a quality rather than an object.

  • Kid: "Hey, just a moment ago, they told me that was an elephant, and now it's a grey. I'm so confused."

My daughter got it all at once when we were driving at night. The traffic lights had no visible structure beyond a circle of light. When I asked her the colors as we crossed through town, she made the connection.

  • Kesley (as I imagine it in her mind): "Ah! Red! Green! That's what they mean!"

She'll get it, and soon.

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