When my daughter was very young, we would read the toddler classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? In the story, the title character spots a red bird, a yellow duck, a blue horse, a green frog, a purple cat, a white dog, a black sheep and a goldfish.
It’s a lovely book, but now I know it probably isn’t a great one for teaching a kid her colours.
A study by Melody Dye, a former academic researcher in cognitive science, suggests that there’s a problem in the way adults typically present colour words to young children — and it’s tripping them up. She has explained the dilemma in Scientific American:
We like to use colour words “prenominally”, meaning before nouns. So, we’ll often say things like “the red balloon”, instead of using the postnominal construction, “the balloon is red”.
Why does this even matter? She explains that it has to do with the way human attention works. Whether or not we realise it, in our conversations with others, we’re tracking what is being talked about, and often visually — for instance, if I mention a giant dog running in circles, you may very well start looking for said dog.
Stick the noun before the description narrows a kid’s focus. Explains Dye:
Say “the balloon is red”, for example, and you will have helped to narrow “red-ness” to being an attribute of the balloon, and not some general property of the world at large. This helps kids discern what about the balloon makes it red.
In her study, when kids heard the colour words postnominally, their learning improved significantly. The takeaway: Instead of saying “the red balloon,” say “the balloon is red”. Or change up the title of your favourite toddler book: “Brown Bear … oops, I mean Bear Who is Brown.”