You might think flashcards are just for children and classrooms, but that’s simply not true! Every learner can use them, including adults. They are an incredibly valuable learning resource, and used correctly they can be very useful for language learning.

 What are flashcards?

There are several common types of flashcards, which will be discussed in more detail later, but essentially they are cards (physical or digital) with a word, phrase or picture on each side. In language learning, they are used to aid memorization of vocabulary, verb conjugations and common phrases.

What types of flashcards are there?

There are several different types of flashcards and some are definitely more common than others for language learning. Below is a brief outline of the most common types, what they look like and how they work.

Single word/phrase

Perhaps the most common type of flashcard, the aim here is to recall a word or phrase in one language when presented with it in another. As stated previously, these should be practiced both ways (i.e. French to English and English to French) but really the most effective way is to recall the target language from your native language. This is an excellent type of flashcard to create with Anki, and there is a wide range of pre-made lists available to download in many languages, or you can create your own!

Pictured: Travelflips, available in French, German and more languages.

Image-based

These cards encourage you to recall a word by using an image as the prompt. This might sound more difficult than the previous type, but as mentioned above, there is evidence to suggest that images actually help us remember things more easily.

Pictured: Usborne vocabulary cards, available in French, English, Russian and more languages.

Why are flashcards so useful?

Research shows that long-term memory improves if some study time is dedicated to recalling information through testing. Testing yourself is, of course, a way to assess your knowledge, but it’s also a great way to create it. If you test yourself before you feel confident, you’ll encourage your mind to work harder and actively recall the information you’ve been learning, rather than just passively reviewing it. Once you get used to it, you’ll be surprised by how effective this method is at highlighting what you’ve already memorized, and what you still need to work on.

Integrating flashcards into your study routine is a simple and effective way to take advantage of this “testing effect” and speed up your memorization of words and phrases.

There’s also evidence to suggest that flashcards which use pictures (either as well as, or instead of words) can be even more effective for memorization, because of something called “the picture superiority effect”. This basically refers to the fact that pictures seem to be easier for people to remember than words. The reality of this will vary from person to person, but it’s definitely another big plus for using flashcards in your studies.

Flashcards are very versatile, and can be used by people of all ages, for solo study and with a tutor, in many different ways. We’ll be looking into different games and activities with flashcards in a future blog post. But needless to say, one huge benefit of using flashcards is their versatility. Once you’ve memorized the words or phrases on a set of cards, it does not mean their use is finished. They can be used again and again in many different ways, to support the learning of different elements of a language.

Gap-fill

Also known as “cloze text”, gap-fill exercises are very common in language learning, and well-known companies such as Assimil and Editions CLE use this method for vocabulary building. All earners, regardless of age, can make notable progress in their studies by learning and remembering words in the context of authentic phrases. 

At The Staircase, we use this principle to make gap-fill flashcards that are fun, memorable and accessible to every learner. Our flashcards also include images that make learning even more effective and memorable.

Pictured: « Mes premières leçons, » The Staircase gap-fill flashcards

We currently have two sets of printable French gap-fill flashcards available via our Etsy store 🛒:

“Mes premières leçons” (My First Lessons), illustrated by Ben Towle.

These flashcards are designed for students learning French with an online tutor. They teach French phrases that students can use to communicate during a lesson, as well as vocabulary for technology and computer accessories.

“Animaux sauvages” (Wildlife), illustrated by school children from Valencia, Spain. All profits donated to Noé, French environmental protection association. 

These flashcards teach names of animals, built into full sentences, so you can learn and practice a range of vocabulary and grammar, while learning interesting wildlife facts at the same time.

What’s the best way to use flashcards?

Spaced Repetition Systems 🔄

One of the most significant things you can do to get the most out of your flashcards is to time their use in a very specific way, using a method called “spaced repetition”. This means reviewing newer or more difficult flashcards more frequently than the older or easier ones. Using this kind of spaced repetition system will prompt your brain to recall a word/phrase just before you’re about to forget it, jogging your memory and making sure you hold on to it, so it doesn’t slip away.

It might sound complicated, and actually, it is! But a lot of research has been done into how people learn, what kind of spacing works and how to create algorithms for spaced repetition. And thanks to the wonder of modern technology, there are now some really great apps and computer programs out there to help you take advantage of this knowledge and put this system to use. 

One such program is Anki. It’s open source, customizable, and free to use on desktop computers and Android phones. The iPhone app does, however, cost around $20. 

One important thing to note, is that even once you have successfully memorized a word, you shouldn’t get rid of the flashcard! While you should definitely feel proud of your accomplishment, your work is not necessarily done. If it’s a very common word that’s used frequently in everyday conversation, chances are you’ll remember it. But if it’s a less common word that you do not have opportunity to use regularly, it may slip away over time. This is exactly the premise that spaced repetition works on, so it is important that cards are never permanently removed from circulation.

Practice in both directions ⬅ ➡️

Another important piece of “flashcard best practice” is to ensure you always review your cards in both directions. For example, if you are learning names of fruit in French, you will likely have a card that says “apple” on one side and “pomme” on the other. Due to the way we learn and remember, it will probably be much easier for you to recognize “pomme” as being the name for apple than for you to recall, without any clues, the French word when presented with the English. For this reason it’s essential that you practice both ways. After all, when you’re speaking French you need to be able to recall words from memory, without seeing key vocabulary written in front of you.

End on a high

Always end your study session on a high! This is great advice for any kind of study, but it’s particularly easy to apply when using flashcards. When you’re working through a set of flashcards, especially early on, it’s likely that you’ll make mistakes or get stuck. In these moments it’s completely normal to feel frustrated and discouraged, but it’s really important that you carry on. It has been proven that if an experience ends on a low, your lasting overall impression will be negative, regardless of how positive it was before that point. So if you’re struggling with your flashcards and want to quit, just keep going until you get one right. Then if you stop, at least you’ll have a more positive memory of the activity. And in fact, you may well find that once you get one right you feel encouraged to keep going.

Sentence-building

Flashcards are not only useful for recalling and repeating words and phrases. They can also be used for games and activities. Combining different sets of flashcards can be a great way to inspire sentence creation and the use of new grammatical elements. Kloo is a great example of a game that uses flashcards to help students create sentences quickly and in a fun way. 

Question-answer

This type of flashcard is a bit less common for language learning, and used more for learning or revising facts about a subject (e.g. What is the capital of France? Paris!)  But they can be very useful for practicing verb conjugations, or for learning synonyms. For example, you could have the infinitive of the verb on one side – manger (to eat)- and the present tense conjugations on the other (je mange, tu manges, il/elle mange etc.) Or perhaps a list of synonyms: se nourrir, grignoter, déguster

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