Flashcards are probably one of the most commonly used tools for learning a language. Certainly, through my many years of language study (including English), I often found myself using them to pick up new vocabulary words. Flashcards are convenient, effective, and simple enough to make and use. But how can you utilize them to their full potential?
Personally, I’ve always learned best through repetition. Continually practicing vocabulary over and over, drilling grammar with workbook exercises, and listening to the same content on repeat are exhausting but effective ways for me to study. And using flashcards for vocabulary is one of the best means to practice repetition.
Here is how I go about learning new vocabulary!
Of course, the first step to using flashcards is taking the time to make them. Although I alternate between physical flashcards I handwrite and online tools like Quizlet, my method for creating them remains the same.
First I choose a list of vocabulary, which normally is around 10-30 words that are related to the same topic (ie jobs, colors, etc.), and I write them in a notebook for easy reference. Then I make the actual flashcards. I follow a pretty typical format of having the vocabulary word in my target language on one side and the English definition on the other. Since there can be multiple definitions for a word, I keep my flashcards in groups (either clipped together or in different sections on Quizlet). This way I do not have to worry about all possible definitions when I’m studying, just the relevant ones.
As I am creating the flashcards, I make sure to verbally repeat the word I am writing over and over, starting the process of trying to embed it into my brain. I do not repeat the translation in the same way, and instead, simply write down the translation while continuing to repeat the term, starting to mentally connect the two.
Once the flashcards are made, I proceed to test myself endlessly. Although some people may find it easier to first practice repeating both the vocabulary and translation over and over, I immediately dive into quizzing myself.
I start by looking at the new vocabulary term and trying to remember the English translation. If I am successful in remembering it, I move the flashcard to one pile, and any that I am unable to remember move into a second pile. I then study the second pile until I am able to move all of them into the first pile. I repeat this process until I am able to translate all the terms quickly.
After I feel confident translating the new terms, I flip the flashcards over and now practice remembering the actual term just by looking at the translation. Usually, at this point in quizzing myself, I have a good grasp of the word, but maybe am not entirely accurate on pronunciation or spelling. So in order to improve, instead of simply remembering the term, as I do for the English translation, I say the new vocabulary word out loud while simultaneously writing it down in a notebook. This way I can check the spelling and practice the pronunciation. Just like before, I repeat this means of study until I am able to come up with the words quickly.
If you are using Quizlet, like I often do, the site has a “learn” feature that works somewhat similarly to my manual study. Similarly, with the learn feature, you have to continually type the vocabulary so the handwriting component is not necessary.
— ⭐️Kinross High Languages ⭐️ (@ML_KinrossHS) February 19, 2018
And once I have studied the vocabulary I normally test myself, to the same extent, on the terms a couple of days later to make sure I have committed them to long-term and not short-term memory.
The best part about flashcards is that they are easy to pick up at any point in your studies and you can refresh yourself on old terms that you may have forgotten. When I am refreshing myself on old vocabulary, it is never quite as long a process as when I first memorized the terms. If I do not remember all of the vocabulary immediately, it usually comes back fairly quickly. But continuing to practice old vocabulary keeps me from forgetting a lot of useful terms I have learned.
Overall, flashcards are an easy, familiar way to study new vocabulary. And although you cannot study a language through flashcards alone (listening, speaking, reading, and writing practice are all essential, and in order to have a functioning grasp of a language you need to practice them all in many ways), they are definitely an effective way to pick up vocabulary. Which is, of course, an essential part of any language learning process.
Stephanie is a writer who received her Bachelor's Degree in English at Vassar College (2020). In her time not working on her WIP novel, she is busy reading, studying Korean and Japanese, or learning new K-Pop choreographies.