Flashcards are a timeless way to absorb information, regardless of the subject. You’ve probably used them in formal schooling for remembering formulas or for names of parts of the body in biology. In language learning, using flashcards is probably the best way to pick up new vocabulary, along with reading, of course.
You can make flashcards in a variety of ways. Recently, it’s become more popular to use electronic flashcards -- most notably, Anki. Anki has been around for many years now, and the amount of pre-made decks of flashcards you can download is enormous just for languages alone! Electronic flashcards have the advantage of adding audio files, as well as most types of images. I think in most situations, electronic flashcards are fantastic.
However, let’s talk about using paper flashcards. Paper flashcards rock for two reasons:
1. You can take paper flashcards anywhere. For paper cards, all you need is a small box, and you’re ready to go. You don’t need any special programs or apps to use them. As long as you bring them along with you, you can totally rely upon them.
2. You can doodle all over them. You can design your cards however you want. I like to color code my cards with washi tape, varying on the subject of the card. I usually have different sets of cards for different languages that I’m learning. I also use gel pens to decorate them, and hand-draw images that represent my mnemonics. The ability to 100% personalize the cards makes the memorization more effective, in my experience.
So, then, how can you make the most out of paper flashcards? Here are six tips to help you use them efficiently and productively:
1. For each word, make a separate card for each of the different things you need to learn about it
For example, if I wanted to learn the word chat (French for cat), I would make one card for the gender of the word and another card for the meaning of the word. You could also make still another card for its pronunciation and for a picture (if you’re using electronic cards, for example).
2. Cut your flashcards into smaller pieces
Oftentimes, we make flashcards, but we don’t really use up all of the space on the cards, which is a waste of precious paper. If you cut the cards into halves, thirds, or even fourths--which I did for Chinese characters--you put just enough information on each card.
3. Don’t cram a bunch of information all on one card
This is true for both digital and paper cards. I’ve seen professionally pre-made flashcard kits for Japanese that have the character’s meaning, pronunciations (onyomi and kunyomi), stroke count, stroke order, and sample vocabulary all on one card. That is six pieces of information all on one card. There is just no way you can memorize all that at once. In this case, as outlined in suggestion No. 2, split the cards into smaller pieces, each containing information that is easier to handle.
Tip: Label what each card is talking about. Otherwise, it can get confusing.
4. Add some color!
Cards are boring just in black and white. Get creative. Use colored pencils, markers, gel pens, washi tape, highlighters, and whatever else to add some color to your cards. Making each card stand out will strengthen your association since the design is more dramatic. I like to use gel pens to draw images onto certain types of cards, and the washi tape is helpful for categorizing them, as well.
5. Get a nice container
I’ll admit, I’ve had to carry my cards in a zip-lock baggy on a few occasions. But keeping your flashcards in somewhere nice--a flashcard holder or a small box--makes you feel more organized, and, in turn, more likely to use them to study. And, it’s just more fun! Most flashcard containers now come with plastic dividers which you can label to further organize your cards. It’s a lot better than having them just shuffling around.
6. Space it out
This is something that Anki is good for--spaced repetition. Flashcards are no good if you go over and over them immediately. Spaced repetition works by putting gaps in between review times, thereby helping you to get the card -- the vocabulary word -- into long-term memory rather than short-term.
This is feasible with paper cards, as well. You can mark on the cards when you should study them next by using a system. This works best with rubber bands or washi tape since the markings aren’t permanent. Examples:
- Mark brand new cards with red to review within 15 minutes).
- Mark cards you’ll review tomorrow in orange.
- Mark cards you’ll review in three days in yellow.
- Mark cards you’ll review in a week in green.
- Mark cards you’ll review in a month in blue.
If you can’t remember the card, revert it back to the red stage and start over. Once you get the card past the blue stage, it’s time to recycle the card -- put it in the recycle bin -- otherwise, you’ll accumulate way too many cards.
I hope this gives you some incentive on how to enhance your flashcards, and help you pick up more vocabulary over time. Leave a comment, and let me know how it works for you!
Hero Image "11 Words" by Susana Fernandez (CC BY-ND 2.0)