I tried a lot of things during my years as a teacher. Some flopped and some worked so well they became a go-to strategy in my tool kit. One of these was color coding. It became clear it was a game-changer the very first time I used it, and I started to build it into as many activities as I could. The reason it works so well is that color coding makes learning visible for both students and the teacher.
Color coding is not the same as coloring. Instead, teachers and students highlight components of assignments, so each one is clearly visible (you can also underline with crayons or colored pencils).
Read on to see how this strategy works to improve the quality of your students’ work.
Use color coding to annotate good copies
The first time I used this strategy was out of total frustration. I was so tired of students leaving required elements out of their assignments, that I decided I’d give them a way to ensure that they didn’t.
On the day before the assignment was due, I told them to bring their draft. When they arrived in the classroom, each student got a handful of highlighters and crayons, and we got to work.
I projected the rubric I was using for assessment, and told students to either highlight or underline each of the required elements.
This meant that they at least had to think about it before they passed in the final copy. If they were missing a component, they had time to fix it either in class or at home.
They repeated the process on their good copies too. Why? Well, that was for me. Because another beautiful thing about color coding is that it makes learning visible for the teacher too. When something comes in color coded, you can very quickly see where the student may have gone wrong and what they may have left out.
Use color coding so students can see what they need to do:
Have you ever given a really great mini-lesson? It was well planned and beautifully executed and you just know you nailed it.
But then, as your students work, you see that several just aren’t getting it. Or you’re inundated with questions. You feel like making a few sarcastic comments about not listening, but you wisely bite your tongue.
But what if they were listening and still didn’t get it? It happens all the time, and it’s not because the lesson wasn’t well planned and beautifully executed. It can be because some students don’t do well with oral instructions and need some visuals as well.
I’m one of them.
By using color coded samples, you can help your students see exactly what they need to do. You’ll deal with fewer frustrated students and read much better products from them too.
For example, with the quotable quickie assignment you see above, I showed them what I wanted them to do, color coded each step, and required them to do the same before they passed it in. I never saw so many beautifully embedded quotes!
The image below is from a mini-lesson I did on perspective as well as using imagery and figurative language. Students wrote a paragraph about a setting where they felt happy or content. Then they had to write it again from the point of view of someone who didn’t enjoy that setting.
When I modelled the process, I used a different color for each type of sensory imagery and underlined the figurative language. Students identified what each one was and then used it as a model for their own paragraphs.
👉🏻 You can find this activity in my Teaching Point of View resource.
Use it to improve sentence fluency
This was an activity I borrowed from Gary Provost. We were working on sentence variety and I stumbled across his passage, “This sentence has five words.”
I asked students to highlight the short, medium, and long sentences in different colors, then did it again with version that I wrote.
Then, students chose two paragraphs in their own piece of writing and did the same. They could very quickly see if they had a good balance of short, medium, and long sentences afterward and could work toward adding more variety in their assignment.
Tips for Successful Color Coding
- Consistency is Key: Establish clear color coding guidelines and stick to them. This ensures that students develop a consistent and reliable system for themselves.
- Accessibility Matters: Consider students with color blindness when choosing your color code. Ensure that the colors selected are easily distinguishable for all.
- Incorporate Technology: This doesn’t require paper and highlighters. Students can easily highlight digitally as well.
I hope you found something that works for you!