Theory Friday: Flashcards

One of my sidelines this year is to tutor an hour a week for students who are tutoring other students in introductory Greek. It always seems complicated to explain that. We are only in our second week, and in fact the student-tutors have not yet commenced their tutoring of their students, so we have taken the opportunity to do a little bit of meta-thinking about language acquisition/teaching and methods. Of course, you know this is just the kind of thing I like to do.

What follows is a post-factum write-up of some of the things I covered.


This week we spent some time thinking and talking through Flashcards. Good old flashcards!

What is the quintessence of the flashcard, physical or digital? I take it, that it is the direct correspondence of one discrete unit of information with another. This is both the genius and the weakness of the flashcard approach. For, the flashcard can never get away from this 1:1 correspondence model, even when it becomes something like X:y,z,a,b,c – it is still operating on a correspondence model. At the same time, this segmentation and compartmentalisation is what allows it to work so well for massive rote-processing. Once we accept this limitation, we can think through two related questions:

  1. How do we mitigate the traditional weaknesses of flashcards?
  2. How do we complement the use of flashcards for better learning outcomes?

I’ve gone back and forth on flashcard use. I think that overall they are an inferior method of learning vocabulary in general. But they do have their uses, which is why I swing back to using them occasionally. Their advantage is that they allow massive rote learning of vocabulary by a relatively automatic process. This is very useful for initial stages, at which constructing materials or finding texts that allow high comprehension is difficult. This is one reason flashcards should, in general, be built on corpus frequency – high frequency vocab initially acquired by flashcards can rapidly be both solidified and nuanced by extensive comprehensible input.

The weaknesses of flashcards include some of the following:

  1. Encouraging a correspondence/translation approach to language
  2. Reinforce native-language thinking patterns
  3. Present words in a decontextualized manner
  4. Prioritise Visual-Textual learning processes
  5. Ineffective for structures

Point 1 is the most difficult, because of the quintessence of flashcards. I think it best to mitigate this through complementary approaches. Point 3 can be mitigated by including contextual information on one side of the ‘card’ – a sentence, clause, or even a phrase, can contextual new information in a way that provides more language-oriented material than just ‘mental factoid’ gloss. This sentence or phrase should be relatively simple, it should be something the learner can process without any great mental difficulty – i.e. they shouldn’t operate in a sentence beyond what the learner is already comfortable with and the rest of the words should be familiar and immediately understood.

Point 4 and point 2 can be mitigated in relatively complementary ways: by replacing native-language glosses with pictures, and/or using audio information. Pictures have two downsides: they require a very large ‘up-front’ cost in generating a deck with relevant pictures (I’m thinking digitally here), and specificity of pictures can be problematic. One has to think carefully how to use a picture to represent a concept in a way that is non-ambiguous. I’ve never seen an audio-to –text deck, but I think it would be brilliant, if one whole ‘side’ of the deck were just audio material. I suppose the extreme would be audio-to-pictures.

Point 5 has to do with things like untranslatable particles/modal markers, etc., things that need to be understood as part of a larger unit. In Greek ἄν is my default example. Practically useless on a flashcard. This can be mitigate by embedding these kinds of words/structures into sentence level units and highlighting/underling/otherwise marking the targeted information. The learner then is responding to some actual language use, while being reminded of the target information.

On to my second question, how to complement flash-cards. As I said earlier, flashcards are really like intense boot-camp for acquiring a basic vocabulary. Personally, I think they make best sense when used solo, when other materials are not available. I would complement it by carefully constructed graded reading material, which is going to establish contextually comprehensible input and increase reading proficiency, and verbal practice of some sort. Flashcards would then be used to pass your time on the bus or something, reinforcing this basic information in another form. Next time I’ll talk about intensive and extensive reading practice and gradation.

Would love to hear your thoughts/experiences/relevant research on the topic of flashcards.