The good-old flashcard is a mainstay of the world of language learning. Students of all ages have likely seen or used a flashcard at least once in their lives. Flashcards are actually practical across a range of subjects, but they have a particular usefulness in the realm of language learning, and chiefly for vocabulary study.

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When you’re learning a language, individual words are the basic component that you are using. Just as you’d use bricks to build a wall, you use words to build your language proficiency. One starts with the building blocks of words and simple phrases, and then later learns to put them together in coherent sentences and paragraphs. Flashcards, therefore, can be instrumental in laying a solid vocabulary foundation when starting out. They are furthermore crucial in adding much-needed advanced vocabulary as your proficiency grows and you need to widen your knowledge.

From this we can know when to use the cards, but it doesn’t really answer the question of how to use them. Let’s explore that now:

✍️ First things first: prepare your flashcards

Step 1: Cut your flashcards down to size

It’s easy to waste paper/card when you’re making flashcards. If you buy typical insert cards or index cards, they are likely large enough for an entire paragraph. Cut the cards down into quarters, big enough for your target word to be clearly written on one side, and the definition written on the other.

Step 2: Simple, simple, simple

Cutting the cards down to size should stop you writing too much anyway, but it’s worth reminding you that the information on your flashcards should be minimal, especially your definition or explanation on the reverse.

Step 3: Make the contents DIY

Doing the legwork yourself is beneficial not only because you can then tailor the contents exactly to your needs (pre-bought flashcards may have superfluous vocabulary), but also because the act of writing it out is the first “layer” of study prep.

Step 4: Organize

You can arrange your cards by topic, or by difficulty, whatever suits you best. Thematic organization will help you make connections between the words, which helps with retention.

🕵️‍♀️ Next: time to use your flashcards

When you’re using your cards, we advise you to employ the “spaced repetition” method. The key is not to binge all your flashcards in a day. Even if after one day you think you know them all, you’ll likely forget a good amount of them within two or so days. Spaced repetition allows you time to learn, process, rest and repeat, which is more effective in the long-term. Here’s how it works:

First, you practice the card words by choosing one side as your question and the other as the answer. So, for example, you could start by looking at the words and reciting the definitions. Repeat this process over 20 minutes, separating your finished cards into “Know,” “Not quite” and “Don’t know” --- the middle is for those one’s you can half remember but needed a hint.

Second, you take a five-minute break

Third, you return to the cards for another 20 minutes

Fourth, you set the cards aside for at least one day (but don’t exceed 2 days)

Finally, you repeat the process and organize the piles again. Hopefully your “Don’t know” pile is getting smaller.

It’s a simple method, and takes time, but it really works. One more piece of advice for learners using flashcards is that “honesty is the best policy.” Be strict with yourself when you don’t know; don’t make excuses. It’s tempting to say “oh, well I knew that really.” One way to avoid this problem is to work with a friend who will be stricter on you.

Last but not least – don’t forget to shuffle your cards after you’re done! Remembering the order is not the same as remembering the word. Happy studying!

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