Flash Cards: Man’s Other Best Friend

I’m a teacher. I teach English as a second language in a Thai university. Today, due to a string of quite poor vocabulary test scores, I told my students to make (and use) flash cards. They looked back at me with dopey, confused eyes. One asked me where she could download them.

I knew it was going to be one of those days. And as I began explaining how to make and use flash cards, it occurred to me that maybe other people don’t fully appreciate just how helpful these wonderful tools can be. So, instead of reviewing the latest and greatest computer learning program, today we’re going old school. We’re going back to handmade flash cards.

When to Use Flash Cards

Some think that flash cards are only good for memorizing vocabulary words. This is a huge mistake! Flash cards are great for lots of other language learning activities. For example, you can use them to practice asking and answering questions. I started doing this myself when I first moved to Beijing, China. I had decided not to take a Chinese class. Instead, I hired a private tutor. I wanted to learn the basics first–the who, what, when, where, and why questions and answers. This is what I did.

    • First I decided on the questions and answers that I wanted to learn (“what’s your name?”, “where are you from?”, etc.).
    • Then I learned all the individual vocabulary words in the questions.
    • After that I memorized the questions and answers in their entireties.
    • Finally, instead of reading the English and then repeating in Chinese, I changed to reading the Chinese and giving answers to the questions in Chinese.

I did this with all the words and questions I wanted to learn. Then, twice a week I met with my native speaking Chinese tutor. When we met we worked on just one thing–perfecting the pronunciation of the questions and answers I had learned using my flash cards. It worked well!

How to Use Flash Cards

Step 1: Choosing What to Learn

The human brain likes to categorize. Grouping related things together helps it store and make use of the vast amount of information we stuff into it. Because of this, I purposely categorize my language learning–why fight our own brains, right? For example, if I want to learn food items, I’ll make a pile of “fruit flash cards.” Then I’ll make another pile of “vegetable flash cards”. …and another with the names of my favorite dishes. Categorize like this, and you’ll be doing yourself a big favor!

Step 2: Making the Flash Cards

This is pretty simple. I like to use thick 3 X 5 index cards, but you can use any pieces of paper you like. You just put the word you want to learn in your target language on one side of the paper and the same word in your native language on the other. Done!

Step 3: Using the Cards

  • I like to make stacks of about 25 to 30 cards. Any more than that and my learning speed starts dropping. Too few cards, on the other hand, and my long-term retention rate starts to drop. Play around with a few stacks of cards and see what’s best for you.
  • Start with the stack of cards (your native language side up).
  • Go through the stack a few times, looking first at the native language side of a card and then at the target language side.
  • Then go through the stack again. First look at the word in your native language. Then try to remember–and say it out loud–in your target language. If you get the answer right, put the card in the “correct” pile. If you get it wrong, put the card in the “incorrect” pile. Go through the whole stack of cards, separating them into the 2 piles.
  • Now pick up the cards in the “incorrect” pile and repeat the previous step, putting the cards you get correct into your “correct” pile.
  • Do this over and over again until all the cards end up in the “correct” pile. Congratulations! …but you’re not done yet.
  • Pick up all the cards and shuffle them (this is important). Never go through the same pile of cards in the same order. If you do, you’ll have great difficulty recalling the meaning of the words in a new context (your brain only remember them in the order you learned them).
  • Take the shuffled cards and repeat the previous steps. Keep repeating until you can go through the whole pile of cards without missing any.

Step 4: Lifetime Retention

If you go through and learn a stack of cards, you’ll know them for a while, but, eventually, you’ll forget them. You can do several things to keep this from happening.

    • Learn your vocabulary words in categories. Once you know them, though, start to mix them up. For example, take your “fruit” stack and your “vegetable” stack and mix them all together into one big stack. At first, it will be difficult to get all the answers correct. Master them again you will, though! And now that you have relearned them in an expanded context, their definitions will be further cemented into your brain. The more contexts you learn in, the better you’ll remember the words!
    • Revisit your words in time. The world-famous Pimsleur Method is largely based on what is called the Theory of Spaced Repetition, or, Paul Pimsleur’s own theory, Graduated Interval Recall. Here is a good real-world example of how it works (taken from our sister site’s Pimsleur Spanish review).

You’ve been introduced to someone and really want to remember their name. What do you do? You repeat their name over and over again 20 times in your head. Then what happens? The next day you can’t recall it! Frustrating, right? Don’t worry. You’re not stupid. You’re just not learning properly. Watch, I’ll show you.

You’re at a party and you’ve met someone. She tells you that her name is Lisa. She then excuses herself to go and get a drink. She comes back 5 minutes later and a mutual friend approaches you and says, “Have you met my friend Lisa?

You say, “Yes, we met just a few minutes ago.” You wander off and 30 minutes later you say to someone “Who owns that nice sports car in the driveway.” They reply, “Oh, that’s Lisa’s.” Then, an hour later, you see Lisa standing alone.

You walk up to her and say, “Hi, Lisa. Having fun?” She says that she is. Finally, at the end of the night, you see her one more time, and you say, “Good night, Lisa. It was nice meeting you.”

What happens now?

The next day you remember her name! And how many times did you repeat it? Just 5 times! Strange, right? In the first example you repeated the name 20 times, but you still forgot it the next day. In the second example you repeated it only 5 times but you remembered it the next day. Why?

Well, according to years of professional review and research, the human mind remembers words best when exposed to them at intervals–these intervals: 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, 2 years.

If you would like more information about the theory, click here.

  • Finally, use the words you learn to practice the 4 core second language acquisition skills–reading, writing, listening, and speaking. For example, as I did back in Beijing, use the words you’ve learned in conversation. Or, if you’ve memorized french “food” words, get a French cookbook, read the ingredients, and make the dishes. In short, use what you’ve learned. Don’t just memorize a bunch vocabulary words and then never put them to work!

Flash cards are a tim-tested, free, and incredibly helpful tool. If you’ve got any tips, tricks, or personal experience using them, please share in the comments below.

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