What Color is YOUR Name?

September 17, 2012 by admin

We had the pleasure of dining with Jazz Chants author Carolyn Graham a few years back in Washington D.C. The topic of the night?

The power of names.

Carolyn talked about how she splits her time between New York City, Paris, and Tokyo.  In Tokyo, she sings and makes music with young at-risk children.  And what does she do to connect with the children? “I sing their names! They love hearing their own names.”

I’ve since thought: Isn’t that true for all of us? And isn’t it convenient that we all— beginner or advanced learner, young or adult, anywhere in the world– have a name?

Moreover, have you noticed how hard it is to ‘hear’ foreign names that contain sounds that don’t exist in English?  Some Chinese names, for example, are nearly impossible for us to ‘hear’. Helping students learn to say their names in a way that English speakers can hear and repeat them can help open social and job-related doors.

So inspired by Carolyn, we started using names to introduce The Color Vowel Chart, both in classrooms and in training workshops.  Several years later, this activity has proven itself successful in: 1) introducing the sounds of English (including the major distinguishing feature of English: word stress); 2) personalizing those sounds; and 3) helping learners connect with each other meaningfully.

Activity: What Color is YOUR Name?

Materials: a poster of The Color Vowel Chart; rubber bands for illustrating stress; small (1.5″x 2″) post-it notes to stick onto the poster; pens or pencils for writing on the post-it notes.

Estimated time needed for this activity: 30-45 minutes


Start with stress

  1. Introduce: Today, we will learn how each of our names sounds in English. 
  2. Model: My name is Shirley. [illustrate stress by stretching the rubber band on the first syllable]. Shirley. Shirley. One part of my name is longer and higher than the other part. [Model two more times using students’ names.]
  3. Reassure: Your name might sound different in English, just as my name might sound different in your language. [Explore this idea as needed.]
  4. Invite: Now let’s practice with your name. [Have learners use rubber bands to say their names using one stressed syllable. (Deciding which syllable to stress is part of the process here.)
  5. Reflect: How does your name sound when you say it this way? [Invite learners to explore their feelings about how the sound of their name has changed. The point here is not to make them change the pronunciation of their name, but rather to introduce them to the “rules” of spoken English (here, the rule of word stress) and help them notice that stressing one syllable in a word may feel unfamilar or even uncomfortable at first.]

Move to color [can be done the same day or in the next lesson]

  1. Re-introduce: What color is your name? This may seem like a strange question. Today we will use colors to learn the sounds of English.
  2. Present: [present each color and corresponding vowel sound of The Color Vowel Chart and have students repeat after you] These are the sounds of English. 
  3. Model: My name is Shirley.  Shirley. Purple. Shirley.  My name goes here [placing her post-it on PURPLE in the poster] because the vowels [in the stressed syllables] sound the same. [Model two more times using students’ names.]   
  4. Reassure: Your name might sound different in English.  Try to notice how it changes.
  5. Prepare: Write your name (clearly!) on your post-it.  [Distribute one post-it to each learner. Have them write their name and underline the stressed syllable. Have them practice saying their name with word stress using their rubber bands.]
  6. Model again: Listen to the stressed [vowel] sound in your name.  What color sound is closest to the stressed sound in your name? [Model using two more names from the classroom]
  7. Invite: [Have students gather around the poster.]  So: What color is your name?  [Invite learners to post their name on The Color Vowel Chart. Encourage them to say their name out loud as they attach it to the poster.]
  8. Review:  [As a group, look at each color on the chart.  Review the names that have been placed in a given color (e.g. all of the “RED” names). Remind learners that English doesn’t have the same vowels found in many of our learners’ names, so the sound of their name may change.  If you find that a name has been incorrectly placed, help the individual and the learners determine where it can go.]
  9. Reflect: Is your name different in English? How different? [Use a 1-2-3 fingers-up scale, where 3= very different.]  Why is it different? [Invite learners to summarize what they’ve learned about spoken English: one syllable in a word is stressed most; the sounds of English are different from their first languages.]

Practice before you teach it!:  What color are the names below?  Say each name out loud, paying attention to the vowel color of the stressed syllable.

Common names in English
Joan – ROSE
Bruce – BLUE
Austin – OLIVE or AUBURN
David – GRAY
Brian – WHITE
Rochelle – RED
Patrick – BLACK
Jessica – RED
William – SILVER
Elizabeth – SILVER

Try these common R-colored names*:
Miriam – GREEN–>PURPLE or
Mary – RED–>PURPLE or

* Learn more about teaching r-colored vowels by reading our recent article, Glide into R with The Color Vowel Chart.

Try these international names*:
Eshetu (Amharic) – RED or GRAY
Hisoka (Japanese) – ROSE
Ju Long (Chinese) – OLIVE
Kofi (Ghanaian) – ROSE
Ebru (Turkish) – RED or GRAY
Supada (Thai) – OLIVE
José (Spanish) – GRAY

* It’s important to acknowledge that while many of us try to produce the “correct” (original) pronunciation of our learners’ international names, the average English speaker (in doctors’ offices, at the motor vehicle department, etc.) will usually apply English-speaking vowels and word stress to international names, possibly transforming them into something quite different.  English learners need to be prepared to recognize their name as it is pronounced using the phonological rules of English.  The answers shown above are examples of how international names might be transformed by the rules of English.

Karen Taylor is co-author of The Color Vowel Chart. Her first name is RED–> PURPLE.   Her last name is GRAY.

Copyright 2012.  This article may not be reproduced without the written permission of Karen Taylor or Shirley Thompson.  Please contact us if you wish to distribute this article in printed or electronic form.

5 thoughts on “What Color is YOUR Name?

  1. CMWatson says:

    What a wonderful activity! Could you please clarify “general” on the voting options?

    1. Glad you like the activity, CMW– let us know how it goes when you give it a try! Regarding the poll: the categories “ESL-general” and “K-12 general” are intended to convey ESL and K-12 in a general way. Then you can add specializations by clicking on additional boxes, such as “reading intervention” (for example) to convey yourself as a K-12 reading specialist. A bit clumsy, yes, but there you go. Hope this helps.

  2. I have a similar lesson that I use with my international business clients who work with American companies.

    I have a general lesson where I introduce common American names using the CVC. Then we go over the names of their colleagues using the CVC to pinpoint the stressed vowel sounds.

    Just last night one on my Chinese clients was struggling to say my last name; RYAN. I told her to lengthen the WHITE vowel sound, really lengthen it.

    Once she did that she was able to pronounce RYAN pretty well.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Susan. I just love anecdotes like yours. The phrase, “lengthen the WHITE vowel sound,” may sound bizarre to an outsider, but it’s an absolutely clear and undistracting instruction for the learner. Love it!

Comments are closed.

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