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Visualizing Essay Elements: A Color-Coded Approach to Academic Writing
Visualizing Essay Elements: A Color-Coded Approach to Academic Writing

Students take comfort and gain confidence when they associate color with different components of writing. The science proves it.

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Written by essaypop
Updated over a week ago

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At essaypop, we’ve long known it to be true, and our users across the country confirm it consistently in our communications - using color to enhance the task of academic writing works. Students we’ve surveyed have indicated that the color-coding used in the essaypop platform is not only engaging, but it helps them to better remember what the constituent elements of their essays are.

Many teachers that we’ve interviewed have said that essaypop reinforces the analog color-coding methods they've always used such as highlighting essay elements with markers or writing and organizing them on different-colored pieces of paper flashcards.

Using color to help emerging and proficient writers understand the building blocks of composition more clearly is not a new concept and certainly not one we invented (although we like to think that we have perfected the method). In fact, it’s an approach that has been proven by researchers to be effective. Here we are posting several summaries based on larger studies. on the topic. Access to the full studies is included along with these summaries for those who would like to take a deeper dive into the subject.

This video goes into detail about how essaypop uses color to teach students how to write.

The Studies

Study 1

Researcher, Bryce A. Geigle has studied the emotional and organizational effects of using color during writing instruction in his study, “How Color Coding Formulaic Writing Enhances Organization: A Qualitative Approach for Measuring Student Affect”. His work gets into how very natural it is for students to associate academic concepts with consistent color-coding. This is taken from the study:

“Writing with color creates engagement in the writing process. By nature, most students are not born with a natural passion for writing. Learning to write proficiently takes time, patience, and dedication. For students to learn to write, it is the teacher’s job to engage students. The more engaging the approach, the more engaged students will be in the writing process, and utilizing color is an effective way to accomplish this. Color is primal and ubiquitous and automatically evokes thoughts and emotions. Writing with color creates an immediate and natural connection between students and their writing. Especially when working within established templates, color breaks down the structure and “formula” of the paragraph in a way that powerfully scaffolds the task for students.”

You can read the entire study here.

Study 2

We have always been impressed by the way color acts not as the "metacognitive glue" that helps students hold onto the complex components of essay writing, but as developing confidence along the way. Ruth Li, of the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, bears this out in her study when she concludes that “color-coding activities render visible and legible the discrete elements of writing and enhance students’ metacognitive awareness of academic argumentation in various rhetorical situations.” (from “Visualizing Essay Elements: A Color-Coding Approach to Teaching First-year Writing)

She also found in the study that “Experimental groups’ scores reflected a significantly higher increase in isolated written expression skills than the control group’s scores. Students’ Contrived, Spontaneous, and Overall Writing skills reflected a significantly higher increase in the experimental groups’ scores than the control group’s scores. Analysis of students participating in the experimental groups regarding students’ reaction to the color-coding strategy revealed higher self-confidence and desire to participate in writing activities and tasks.”

Li also points out that “adding a color-coding schema to the writing process promotes informational familiarity and recall, through the graphic organization of the text, enables students’ visual perceptions, and enhances inquiry-based thinking.”

You can read the entire study here.

Study 3

We have always been pleased with the success teachers have had using essaypop to teach academic writing to emerging writers in elementary and middle school, English Language Learners as well as students with disabilities. Claudia Cecilia Otto of Oklahoma State University develops the following research-based findings in her exhaustive study, “The Effects of a Color-Embedded Writing Strategy on the Written Expression Skills of Students with Mild-Moderate Disabilities”:

“Colored and graphically laid out information structures communicate complex information by chunking, queuing, and filtering undifferentiated black-and-white text (Bezemer & Kress, 2008; Keyes, 1993; & Horton, 1991). First, adding color visually separates or “chunks” information into organized and manageable units according to particular categorizations, designated by a color code. Chunking through the use of color adds two dimensions to information by separating and consolidating different informational groups. Clusters of information that are color-coded show existing relationships within the content material (Viau, 1998 b & First, MacMillan, & Levy, 61 1995). Different relational types of information, enhanced with color-coding, can be more readily deduced than manipulated into understandable segments.

"Second, adding color visually presents significant queues of the particular structure of the presented information, designated by a particularly designated color from a preset color code. Different levels of color-coded information can be considered a “visual organization [and] perceived unconsciously (pre-attentively)” (Keyes, 1993, p. 639) as specific sequences."

"Finally, adding color visually filters information by creating layers of information. Color creates a perceptual layer of differentiated and consolidated visual information (Keyes, 1993) because adding color signals critical types of information. Various types of information can be filtered out as relevant or less relevant information (Keyes, 1993) through the use of designated colors on specific information versus no color on other information.”

You can read the entire study here.


So yes, there is a lot of research available that shows that learning with color is highly effective. And it should come as no mystery why this is true. Any educator who has assigned an academic paper has witnessed students react to the proverbial “blank, white piece of paper” with a palpable sense of dread. In fact, we’ve all probably experienced this ourselves at some stage in our own development as writers.

It’s also no surprise that familiar colors, especially when matched with partitioned-off writing frames, make the prospect of composing cogent, written arguments and explanations more approachable and less intimidating. We’ve known that colors help the process for a long time; so have our users. It’s gratifying to know that researchers have concluded the same thing.


  1. Johnson, A. H., Chen, J. Q., & Liu, X. (2016). Effects of color-coded outlining and color-coded paragraph writing on the writing performance of students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 31(1), 10-21.

  2. Olinghouse, N. G., Graham, S., & Gillespie, A. (2015). The efficacy of a writing intervention using self-regulated strategy development and color-coding compared to self-regulated strategy development alone for improving writing quality among struggling writers in grades 4 and 5. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(2), 523-540.

  3. O'Donnell, A., & Sheridan, M. (2015). Enhancing early writing instruction with color-coding. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43(2), 85-94.

  4. Yokota, J., & Teale, W. H. (2014). Color-coding: A multi-sensory approach for teaching reading and writing to English language learners. Early Childhood Education Journal, 42(4), 251-257.

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