This was surprising to me. I had never used flashcards as a teacher, thinking the practice was too old school, too random, too decontextualized, and not hearing based. Even though I have used flashcards myself to learn specialized vocabulary quickly for medical mission trips in Mexico and Guatemala, I had never considered using them with my students. But after investigating what Paul Nation had to say and discussing flashcards with other teachers, I decided to assign flashcards to my Latin students in the second semester this year. And it helped. Beginning students were able to read and discuss books in Latin at a higher level than I would have thought.

Here is a document that has most of this information on a single sheet of  paper for quick reference.

This is a sample set of vocabulary that we used to pre-teach vocabulary to students that arrived at the semester in a level 1A Latin class. It went very well. This was pre-teaching so that they could follow as we read and discussed the book in Latin in class. The real acquisition came as they were reading and re-reading the book.

This is what I’ve learned and what I’ve learned about flashcards and what I sent to students and parents:

Using flashcards to help learn certain vocabulary items has been shown to be an effective tool.*  Flashcards are particularly useful for beginners learning high-frequency vocabulary. They can support or replace learning with gestures (classical TPR).

Using physical paper flashcards can be more flexible, more focused, and more convenient than online apps. Some of my students have had success creating word decks with apps like Quizlet, but paper flashcards are more effective. When it comes to reading, students read faster and remember twice and much with paper vs digital.

Write the second language (L2) word on one side, and your first language (L1) word on the other side.

Here’s how to use flashcards effectively:

1) Connect to content. Make sets of flashcards that are connected to content, like an upcoming reading, historical time period, geographical location, story, or novella. Completely random sets of words are not as valuable as words you will soon see or hear in context. A mix of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and function words that relate to what you are reading in class) works best, i.e., do not make a list of just 50 fruits, or 50 household items.

2) Select a small set of words—studying a limited set, around 20 flashcards at a time, is best—15 to 30 can work, but don’t make each set too big. A larger set is often just a distraction. Master that set, and then move on to another set.

High frequency vocabulary tends to work best for flashcards.

3) Start with recognition. Look at the L2 side and see if you can come up with the L1 word.

4) Focus. Separate the words you know into three stacks, or put them in a folder with three sections:

  • Got it! You can say these quickly and confidently. Put these aside for now.
  • Working on it. Put these in a special stack and review them 1-2 times per day.
  • Don’t know it yet. Carry these with you and go through them 5-10 times a day.

Carry the Don’t know it yet stack with you and look at them 5-10 times a day until you get them down. Refer back to the Working on it stack once or twice a day until you are confident and quick with the translation. Keep going over the ones in your Working on it and Don’t know it yet stacks until you can honestly put them all in the Got it! stack. Then create another stack of flashcards for a different set of vocabulary.

Go back through your flashcard sets often to reinforce the learning and to maintain your vocabulary.

5) Shuffle. Shuffle the stacks each time you go through them to mix up the order. You want to be able to recognize words in random order, not just a specific, predictable list.

6) Repetition is key. Several exposures over time are best for learning. As the old Latin saying goes: Repetitio mater studiorum est: Repetition is the mother of learning. Once you have mastered a set (all the words are in the Got it! Stack), keep reviewing. Do not stop. Go over them several times that first day, during that week, after two weeks, and later, within the month. That way, they will be with you forever.

7) Switch to production. Once you recognize all of the words (when they’re all in the Got it!  stack), switch to producing the L2 words. Look at the cards in L1 (English) and see if you can come up with the L2 words. Repeat steps 4-6 until you have mastered production of the flashcards.

VARIATIONS: Think about making flashcards with the L2 word on one side and a drawing on the other side. Intermediate and advanced learners can write a description of the word in L2 instead of a drawing.

* SLA researcher Eric Herman has explained the value and effectiveness of using flashcards in his Acquisition Classroom Memo, as have Paul Nation and Rob Waring, in Teaching Extensive Reading in Another Language (highly recommended).