How to teach vocabulary with color file cards

Color file cards are a great way to teach vocabulary. I’ve used this system as both a student and a teacher with excellent success. As a teacher, I used it when I taught Spanish and as a learner when I was studying German and French as an adult. There are lots of different ways to use them. Here’s how I do it:

Choose a different colour card for each part of speech. I like to use green for verbs, since green means “go” in the traffic lights, that colour is already associated with an action. I teach Spanish where there are both masculine and feminine nouns. I use the tradition of colours to create a visual cue. I put feminine words on a pink card and masculine words on a blue card. Some may call that sexist, but you can use any colours you like, really. I use yellow for adjectives, green for adverbs and purple for prepositions and anything that doesn’t fit onto one of the other cards. Students tell me that when they are in a pressure situation and can’t remember if a word is masculine or feminine, they try to recall what what colour card the word was on. The cards create a mental visual cue that students can use during tests and other situations.

Write out the cards. I like to fill up the cards by theme, putting 5 – 10 words on each card. For the green cards, I write the infinitive form of the verb on the back of the card, where there are no lines. On the lined side, I write out the verb conjugation. Some of my students say they prefer to put one word on each card, as it makes it easier for them to remember. The act of writing having the learner write out his or her own cards is an important part of the learning process.

Be monolingual or bilingual. You can either write just the target language on the cards, or you can write the target language and the learner’s native language on the cards. If you choose the bilingual option, you can use one side of the card for one language and the reverse for the other language.

Use the cards as a study aid. Cards can be stored in a file card box or carried around in a plastic zip bag. They are more portable than a big, heavy textbook.

At the beginning of a new term, I bring a few cards to class as an example of how I make my own cards. I explain how students can make their own cards and use them as a study tool. I emphasize that learners creating their own cards makes them a more powerful study tool than store-bought cards. Let students make the cards “their own” by allowing them the flexibility of having as many words on the cards as they choose, adding pictures or stickers or whatever it is that will help them learn.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


6 Responses to How to teach vocabulary with color file cards

  1. yuyu says:

    I’d would like to know if there’s a book or where to find more information to read about this topic. I’m interested in doing some reserach in my class using this.

    • That’s a great question. I don’t know of any books myself, but that doesn’t mean that there are none out there. I’d be happy to chat with you further about the methodological and pedagogical side of it. Feel free to drop me an e-mail at sarahelaineeaton (at)

  2. @ Liz – Thanks. I agree with you, completely.
    @ Ellen. Good idea. It had never occurred to me! I’d love to do that.

  3. Ellen James says:

    Sarah – this is great idea – hands on, visual, active, effective. Have you shared these sorts of ideas with the teachers in the CBE?

  4. Liz Asbury-Brown says:

    This is a great idea and one that I would use to teach adult learners new vocabulary in order to expand their vocabulary. Adding color breaks the manotony of learning and just like kids, adults like working with colors.

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