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By Dr. Jon Aske


Flashcards, also known as word cards, have not been valued as much as they should by some teachers and researchers of second language (L2) acquisition in recent times. The emphasis in the last thirty or so years has been that language, and that includes vocabulary, is learned in its natural context, from being exposed to a lot of meaningful, comprehensible input, the way children acquire their first language.

Because flashcards present aspects of language with little or no context, this supposedly meant that the use of flashcards hasn't been central to the study of language in recent years. If anything, flashcards were tolerated as a strategy individual students use on their own.

However some have argued that although learning language in context is ideal, students at the beginning of their study (the first couple of years) should concentrate on getting to the level where they know enough of the language in order to comfortably make sense of most inputs, by any means necessary.

When it comes to vocabulary, we know from recent studies that a not very large number of high frequency words will allow the student to understand the words and the content of most texts. Here we are going to talk about using flashcards as one component, one tool of the whole student experience to learn those words. Flashcards should not take the place of the student's interaction with comprehensible input; it should be part of the focused language study part of learning a language, which some have argued should not take up more than 1/4 the student's time (Nation 2002).

We will also see that flashcards do not necessarily have to present information in totally decontextualized form: it is possible to have flashcards that include pictures, audio, and a full meaningful context (such as a sentence) in which the vocabulary is inserted.

What is a flashcard

When it comes to focused studying of L2 vocabulary, as opposed to learning the "natural way" (primarily incidental reading through reading), a student basically has two options: lists and flashcards.

A list is what one encounters in textbooks' glossaries at the end of each chapter with the L2 word alongside the L1 translation. One can "study" the word pair repeatedly, as needed.

A flashcard, on the other hand, presents one word at a time and the translation is hidden from view. Typically one is presented with the L1 word first (the stimulus) and has to guess the L2 equivalent (the response). It is also possible to "turn the cards around" and be presented with the L2 card first and have to guess the L1 translation.

A major advantage of the flashcard is what's known as the active recall testing effect. It has been shown that having to recall the answer helps form a link between it and the stimulus in the learner's mind. Having to retrieve the meaning of the word from memory, “results in far superior learning to seeing the word and its meaning at the same time” (Nation 2001:306).

In addition, flashcards allow the student to review some cards, the "difficult" ones, more often than others. As we saw, repetition (many encounters with the word to be learned) is very important in learning a word, since words (memories) can be easily forgotten if they're not used often before it is firmly implanted in the mind ("use it or lose it"). Repetition is crucial in creating a strong memory. The more times one is exposed to a word/card, the stronger the memory created and the longer it will be before it is forgotten (see forgetting curve). However, it is not efficient to review all words equally often. This is the other principle behind flashcards, what's known as spaced repetition: Cards can be easily rearranged so that cards that the learner knows less well can be presented at shorter time intervals than cards the learner has a better grasp of. In the days of paper cards this was cumbersome, since it meant putting the cards in different piles or boxes. As we will see with flashcard software this is now done easily and efficiently.

What does it mean to know a word?

There is a lot involved in learning a word. Besides its basic meaning, one needs to also learn things such as:

  • Spelling
  • Sounds, pronunciation
  • Grammatical status: noun, verb, adjective, etc.
  • Appropriate register
  • What words it goes typically together with (its collocations)
  • The frequency of the word
  • Different meanings or senses it can have in different contexts

How should flashcards be used

There are certain things students should be taught about when using flashcards:

Deliberate vocabulary study, whether in word lists or word card form, can result in the learner thinking that there is a one-to-one correspondence between words in the two languages.

Use cards to learn high frequency words.

Nation (2001) has the following recommendations for making cards:

  • L2 word on one side, L1 word on the other
  • Use pictures where possible
  • “Put the word in a phrase or sentence or with some collocates”, although it doesn't seem there is any evidence that this helps remember the word (Nation 2001:308)
  • On the other hand, keep the cards as simple as possible: don’t pack too much information (such as “collocates, etymology, constraints, grammatical pattern”)
  • Suit the number of words in a pack to the difficulty of the words (100 maximum)
  • In order to avoid interference, avoid having in the same card deck “words that are too similar, near synonyms, opposites, or free associates” (Nation 2001:303)

and the following recommendations for using the cards:

  • “Learn receptively, then productively”: First see the L2 word and try to recall its meaning, which is easier to do; only later should you see the L1 word first and try to recall the L2 equivalent (Nation 2001:306)
  • “Keep changing the order of the cards in the pack" to discourage serial learning of words in list form (ibid.)
  • "put difficult words near the beginning” so as to review them more often (ibid.); also, we know that “items at the beginning and end of a list are learned better than items in the middle” (Nation 2001:307)
  • “Say the words aloud or to yourself”: Hearing and saying the words helps them pass into long-term memory (ibid.)
  • “Process the word deeply and thoughtfully” since “words that do not receive full attention and are analysed only at a superficial level do not stay long in the memory” and “words that are fully analysed and enriched by associations or images stay longer” (Nation 2001:310)
  • Say the words aloud, Hearing and saying the words helps them pass into long-term memory. (Nation 2001:307) “Process the word deeply and thoughtfully” since “words that do not receive full attention and are analysed only at a superficial level do not stay long in the memory” and “words that are fully analysed and enriched by associations or images stay longer” (Nation 2001:310)
  • To the extent that it is possible use mnemonic techniques to make a connection between the L2 word and the L1 word; Nation recommends using the "mnemonic keyword technique" (see below)

The mnemonic keyword technique

Learners of Spanish whose L1 is English already have a great mnemonic device for a very large number of words, namely the large number of cognates in the two languages. Additionally, mnemonic techniques have been proposed to help learners remember words. Mnemonic techniques allow you to remember things, in this case remember the L2 word. This can be done, for instance, by making an additional link, by means of an image, between the L2 word and the L1 word. This is called the keyword technique.

In the keyword technique, you first think of a word in L1 that sounds like the L2 word or part of the word. Then you think of a visual image that links the two words. Finally, you keep the image in your mind for about 10 seconds. For example:

  • L2 (Spanish) word: pestaña “eyelash”
  • L1 (English) word (keyword): paste
  • Image: pasting fake eyelash

Nation (2001) is a big proponent of this technique and has the following advice (p. 314):

  • “The keyword needs to overlap a lot in form with the unknown word for productive recall to be successful and repetition may be more effective”
  • “To be effective, learners need extended training with the keyword technique”
  • “the keyword technique works well on some words (usually where keywords are easy to find) and not so well on others”

  • Another example:
  • L2 word: carta “letter”
  • L1 word: cart
  • Image: A cart full of letters

Using flashcards to study things other than words

Traditionally flashcards have been used in language study to memorize the basic meaning of words or, in other words, to drill the meaning of words. It is not far-fetched, however, to use flashcards to drill other aspects of language, to interact with different aspects of the language in a somewhat decontextualized, controlled environment.

One thing that flashcards allow us to drill is verb conjugations, much like one would drill conjugations in exercise format. Thus for example one can be presented with a card such as this one:

Ayer mi madre (comprar) un carro nuevo.

This forces the student to think of the answer and reinforce the memory of the correct verb form in his or her memory. By turning the card around, the learner gets the kind of instant feedback that is so important for the learning process. Without instant feedback not much learning derives from such drills, and flashcards solve this issue elegantly. Turn the card around and you will see:

Ayer mi madre compró un carro nuevo.

Flashcards can also be used to drill conversation skills in a controlled situation (as opposed to a natural situation). One such way is by presenting the student with simple, constrained questions, which make the learner think of an answer. The reverse of the card can give instant feedback regarding the answer that was provided. For example the front of a card might have the following question:

¿Cuántos años tienes?

The learner things of his or her answer and turns the card around to see the following possible answer:

Tengo {número} años
Ej.: Tengo veintidós años

Again, these are contrained and limited contexts to acquire the language, not the natural contexts of real-life conversations and texts. Still, it is obvious that the whole classroom environment is an artificial one for learning a language so pretending to be in natural environments is no less artificial. Also, one advantage of this system is that it allows the student to reinforce memories of words and word usage and phrases in a safe and limited context, with instant feedback, something that is not available in real life. Also, remember that this is not meant to be a substitute for more real-life, contextful contact with the language, but as an additional tool to help the learner get to a high enough level of fluency and confidence where such crutches will be no longer needed and where he or she can have secure enough exchanges in the real world.


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