Colourful Semantics

Colourful Semantics

Based on independent research carried out in the UK by Alison Bryan and others between 1997* & 2011** the fun, effective and exciting Colourful Semantics mobile application was developed by London Speech Therapy to work on developing a child’s
  • spoken sentences
  • answering WH-Questions
  • use of nouns, verbs, prepositions and adjectives
  • story telling skills
  • written sentences
  • written language comprehension

Children work through the 5 levels of the Colourful Semantics programme to eventually produce grammatical and informational sentences:

  • Level 1 – Who? “the man”
  • Level 2 – What doing? “is eating”
  • Level 3 – What? “the sandwich”
  • Level 4 – Where? “in the kitchen”
  • Level 5 – Describe? “big”
With the end result being: “The man…is eating…the big …sandwich…in the kitchen”

What is unique about this approach is that children learn to associate different ‘types’ of words with particular colours whereby:

  • Level 1 – Who? “the man” (Subject – Orange)
  • Level 2 – What doing? “is eating” (Verb – Yellow)
  • Level 3 – What? “the sandwich” (Object – Green)
  • Level 4 – Where? “in the kitchen” (Location – Blue)
  • Level 5 – Describe? “big” (Adjective – Purple)
Colourful Semantics is used with a wide variety of clinical presentations including:
  • Language delay or disorder
  • Specific Language Impairment (SLI)
  • Autistic Spectrum Disorders
  • Hearing impairment
  • Mild and Moderate Learning Disabilities
  • Cerebral Palsy

Colourful Semantics is available in English and Arabic from the iTumes store

*Bryan, A. (1997) Colourful Semantics: thematic role therapy. In Chiat, S., Law, J. and Marshall, J. (Eds) Language Disorders in Children and Adults: Psycholinguistic approaches to therapy. London: Whurr.
** Bolderson et al in (2011) Colourful Semantics: A Clinical Investigation. Child Language Teaching and Therapy October 2011 vol. 27 no. 3 344-353.

Alison Bryan

I qualified as a Speech & Language Therapist in 1984 after studying at Manchester University. My first job covered a huge range of client groups from adult acute and long stay to community clinics and special schools. It was here that my interest in SLI [Specific Speech & Language Impairment ] was first stirred. In 1987 I moved to Mid Essex to work in an Infant Speech & Language unit, as well as community clinic.

In 1992 I gained a Master’s Degree from Birkbeck College, London in Cognitive Neuropsychology. This was based on the adult theory but I spent the two years viewing all I learned through the developmental perspective! This culminated in a case study which was published a few years later, co authored with David Howard [tutor at Birkbeck]: [Bryan A. & Howard D. (1992). Frozen phonology thawed: the analysis and remediation of a developmental disorder of lexical phonology. European Journal of Disorders of Communication 27(4): 343-365].

By now the psycholinguistic approach to looking at speech and language impairment in children was just starting to be more widely considered. Stackhouse and Wells were developing their psycholinguistic model but it wasn’t yet in general circulation. A group of us, who were also trying to look at adapting processing models for children and using psycholinguistic investigative techniques, set up a SLT Special Interest Group [SIG] in Developmental Cognitive Neuropsychology.

Towards the end of 1992 I moved to Hertfordshire taking on a role in an Infant Speech & Language Unit as the Specialist SLT in Specific Language Impairment. It was here there I met Gordon and the Colourful Semantics journey began.

Colourful Semantics is available in English and Arabic from the iTumes store

The early years

Colourful semantics: the early years!

I had been fortunate in my first job of working with a large team of very experienced SLT’s, one of whom was Eirian Jones. In 1986 she published a paper which described a therapy she used with an adult Broca’s Aphasic client [BB]. This was based on the Garrett model of sentence level output processing and highlighted the importance of verb semantics. This had already caught my interest whilst working with adult clients. On moving to the unit in Hertfordshire I was very struck by the similarity between one young man in the unit, Gordon, and Eirian’s Aphasic client.

They both had this preoccupation with trying to use the right morphology and function words but actually their real issue was with accessing and organising the lexical content. Could this be due to the fact that both BB and Gordon has been following therapy regimes which emphasised the phrase and word level grammar, which was typical of therapy programmes at that time?

So taking the adult model and thematic role theory from Eirian’s paper I decided to adapt her colour coding therapy for this developmental disorder. Now Eirian’s therapy with BB was focused on analysing the functional argument structure of sentences through input activities. However, Gordon seemed to have more underlying awareness of the argument structure than BB but was unable to use it, so it was decided to adapt the therapy to include both input and output aspects.

Colour coding was not new by any means. One particular form was used at Moor House School in Surrey. From here a resource to develop language through literacy skills for SLI children was published called Language Through Reading. LTR was based on the LARSP and so each level was carefully graded for grammatical complexity. In addition the phrase and word structure elements were handily colour coded ! e.g. Nouns = orange Verbs = Yellow Determiners = white

This resource was available in the Unit and being a working therapist, without any idea that this was going to develop into Colourful Semantics, I simply borrowed some of the materials from the first level of LTR to work on the relationship between verbs and actors! This is how the colours for WHO (orange) and DOING (yellow) were chosen ! More colours were added, some chosen fairly randomly, as the therapy developed to fit with the theory and Gordon’s particular needs.

However, the underlying theory for the coding was very different from LTR. The key with Colourful Semantics is not to highlight the grammatical structure of a sentence [e.g. subject, verb, object ] but to illuminate the meaning relationships of the sentence through coding the thematic roles that the words represent.

This sounds very technical, but in practise the basic coding is very simple.Whatever question you ask to get the information, that is the colour you use for the words. In a very few months Gordon made dramatic progress, which is all documented in the original study written up in ‘Language Disorders in Children and Adults’.

Gradually the therapy was shared with other SLT’s culminating in the conference in June 1996 called ‘Making New Connections’ where both adult and child cases studies looking at therapy for speech and language impairment were presented for the first time together. The book above documents these case studies and the debate around comparing intervention for adults and children.

Colourful Semantics is available in English and Arabic from the iTumes store

The journey

In the following years the therapy was shared with a wider range of SLT’s and teachers through conferences, courses, and Special interest Groups [SIG’s]. One important step in the journey was the development by Susan Ebbels of Shape Coding. [see reference list]

Susan worked as an SLT at Moor House school in Surrey, where there was already the colour coding scheme and LTR resource as mentioned above. Through incorporating some of the principles of Colourful Semantics Susan developed a fantastic coding scheme using shapes which enables complex syntactic information to be coded and manipulated, not just thematic role information.

The two schemes are currently both used in Hertfordshire and for some of the SLI bases there is a natural progression from Colourful Semantics to Shape Coding as children move through Key stage 2. Although not all children need to change, for some Colourful Semantics covers all the coding needs they have.

In the light of this practical outworking of integrating the two systems, one simple change was made to the original colours and a few shapes were incorporated instead. This is now the version used most widely where I have been involved in the training:
  1. WHERE words changed from red to blue
  2. WHAT LIKE words changed from blue to cloud shape
  3. Auxiliary verbs can be coded with diamond shape if needed for written sentence development or work on early spoken grammar

Colourful Semantics is available in English and Arabic from the iTumes store


The therapy has developed widely since that first case study. If is now used for:
  • Spoken sentence construction from preschool to Key stage 3
  • Written sentence construction
  • Written language comprehension
  • Vocabulary support
  • Narrative support
In addition it is used with a wide variety of clients and in many different settings and in several countries
  • Mainstream support
  • SLI bases
  • ASD
  • Preschool clinics – individual and group therapy
  • Hearing impairment
  • Special schools [MLD]

Colourful Semantics is available in English and Arabic from the iTumes store


To download the instructions for using our app: download: Colourful Semantics App Instructions (998.78KB) added: 27/03/2013 clicks: 2810 description: Instructions for the Colourful Semantics App Our free pack Since 2009 we have provided our Colourful Semantics programme free and have had over 10,0000 downloads from visitors across the world :)

To download our free Colourful Semantics programme click –> download: Colourful Semantics (612.68KB) added: 28/02/2013 clicks: 12799 description:

To download our free Colourful Semantics ‘easy print’ pack click –> download: Colourful Semantics - Easy Print Version (1.26MB) added: 28/02/2013 clicks: 6653 description:

Colourful Semantics is available in English and Arabic from the iTumes store