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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Using Flashcards in the Classroom

Szilvia Szita, The Netherlands

Szilvia Szita is currently working in The Hague/The Netherlands. She mainly teaches Hungarian and German. She has co-written course books, teachers' handbooks and grammar books for both languages. She also publishes poetry and literary translations. E-mail:


What are flashcards?
How to make flashcards
A few practical tips
Working in pairs and small groups
Working all together

What are flashcards?

Flashcards are very handy tools for language learners as they present vocabulary in small units. Students usually like them but find it pretty boring to work with them on their own.

In order to increase efficiency and to keep students' motivation high, I combine vocabulary review at home with flashcard-based classroom activities. In my experience, this works very well.

On the following pages, I would like to share a few ideas as to how to prepare flashcards and work with them in the classroom.

How to make flashcards

I feel it is very important that not only the activities but also the creation of the flashcards should be the result of a collaborative effort. We make our cards after completing a chapter in the textbook in the following way:

I give each student one exercise/text in the textbook, from which I ask them to select a given number of expressions (between 8 and 15, depending on the group size) that they want to put on flashcards. If you have a large group, two or three students can have the same exercise/text.

Each student records their expressions with a translation into their mother tongue and relevant grammatical information in a text file. For example, the lines in such a document for a German-speaking group may look like this: to follow a course, followed, followed - einen Kurs besuchen.

The students send me their file via e-mail.

After making some corrections if necessary, I compile the lists into one document. Then, using the Table function in Word, I make flashcards. For this, I fill one page with English expressions and the next one with their translations so that when printed double-sided the English expression and its translation are on the same card.

I send this document back to all of my students via e-mail. In this way, everyone has all the expressions that the group collected, on flashcards. (Some students make electronic flashcards from them, others print them out and work with the paper version at home.)

I also prepare my set of flashcards and bring it to the classroom whenever I want to work with it. I mainly use the cards for vocabulary review but they also come in handy for sentence-building activities or story-telling.

A few practical tips

Even at beginners' level I always ask my students to select expressions not just words. The only exceptions are words with a well-defined meaning (e.g. sometimes, red) but even then I encourage them to include the words in an expression e.g. I sometimes go dancing. Or: a red scarf etc.

It is my experience that the number of flashcards should not exceed 100 per chapter as students are likely to get discouraged if there are too many of them.

There are eight chapters in the book I use, so by the end of the course students have 800 cards as a "tangible proof" of their progress. Sending out this message about measurable progress (even if it largely depends on the work your students are willing to invest in their studies) right at the beginning of the course can be very motivating.

Before bringing the cards into the classroom, I ask my students to work through them at home. In this way, they can familiarise themselves with the expressions prior to the classroom activity.

The work in the classroom can then serve two very useful purposes: (1) The students help each other review and memorise the vocabulary on the cards and (2) I can give clarifications about the use or pronunciation of some expressions.

All activities are designed to promote collaborative learning as this is the way I like to teach. However, they can be adapted to a more competitive context quite easily if you feel this is a better way for you to work with them.

All activities have visual and oral components, some of them also include writing.

The description of the activities is based on bilingual cards but you can also make cards with a verb on one side and verb + preposition on the back or a verb/noun/adjective on one side and the whole expression on the back etc.

All activities presented here can be used at all levels.

Working in pairs and small groups

1. First my cards, then yours

  1. Distribute the cards you would like to review so that each student has the same number of cards in their hands (between 10 and 20).
  2. In the first few minutes, students review their cards on their own.
  3. Then, they work in groups of two. Ask them to swap their cards so that every student can translate the expressions they reviewed in step 2. It happens very naturally in this phase that the partner who checks the answer repeats the expression and tries to memorise it too.
  4. When the pairs have gone through all their cards, they swap them and translate the expressions on their partner's cards.

2. How much can you still remember?

  1. The students work in groups of two. Each group has approximately twenty cards. Ask the students to review the cards together.
  2. When they have finished, ask them to give their set of cards to another group.
  3. Ask the groups to work through the new set of cards.
  4. When they have finished, give them their cards from the first round back so that they check how many expressions they can remember (this usually comes as a surprise to the students as they think that they are done with the cards for that day...).
  5. Ask every group to present five important expressions to the whole group.

3. Cards on a washing line

  1. Choose 20 to 30 cards you want to work with. Stretch a "washing line" (a rope) in the classroom and hang up the cards with clothes pegs. Alternate sides so that the students who work in pairs standing on the opposite sides of the rope see the English expression on one card and the translation on the next.
  2. Ask the pairs to work through the expressions on the washing line (it is always the student who faces the English side of the card who will check the answer of his/her partner).
  3. When they've finished, they swap sides.

Acknowledgement: I learned this exercise from Sylvia Clemens (Learn Dutch Fast) who used it for a different purpose.

4. Twenty cards on a table

  1. In this activity, the students work in groups of two or three. Choose twenty cards for each group and lay them on free tables with the English side face-up (you can also make several sets of the same cards for each group).
  2. From each group, one student goes to the table with the cards and tries to memorise as many expressions as possible in two minutes (the students can always turn over the card to check the meaning). Then, each student goes back to their group and dictates the expressions they can remember.
  3. Now, another student from each group goes to the table and tries to memorise some more expressions and to check the accuracy of the expressions already noted (e.g. Was it "I'm angry with you" or "about you"? etc.).
  4. Finish the exercise after four or five rounds. Ask the students to compare their notes with the flashcards and correct their mistakes.

Acknowledgement: I learned this exercise from Andrea Westphal (Deutschinstitut Aachen) who used it in a slightly different way.

5. Flashcards on different tables

  1. Lay out the flashcards you want to review on three or four different tables so that there are 10 to 20 cards on each table. The English side is face-up.
  2. Ask your students to form small groups (of two to four). Each group stands around one table. First, they read the English expressions (if they don't remember the meaning of an expression, they can always turn the card over to check).
  3. Then, ask them to turn all the cards over so that the English expression is facing down. Now, the exercise is to translate all the expressions as a team, checking their answers by turning the cards over as they go along. At the end, all cards should be turned over (ready to use for the next group).
  4. When they have finished, ask them to go to another table and do the same thing (in order to avoid collision, it is good idea to have one or two extra tables so that the groups don't have to wait for each other).
  5. Finish the activity after three or four rounds.

Working all together

1. Swapping cards

  1. Distribute the flashcards to review among your students so that everyone has the same number of cards (not more than eight).
  2. Ask the students to review the cards in their hands on their own.
  3. Then, ask them to go up to someone in the classroom and check if the person can translate the expressions on these cards into English. When he/she can, he/she gets the card. If he/she doesn't, the student keeps it. Then, they swap roles and work through the cards of the partner.
  4. When a group has finished, eeach student goes up to somebody else and works with the new person as described in step 3. After two or three rounds, some cards will come back giving the students another chance to translate expressions they couldn't the first time.
  5. At the end of the activity you can ask your students to present two or three cards they find most useful, to the whole group.

Acknowledgement: I learned the idea of swapping cards from Simon Marshall at a teacher training.

2. Board game with flashcards

  1. Lay out the flashcards on a free table so that they look like the board for a boardgame, the cards represening the squares.
  2. The students work individually or in groups of two. Each student/group places a token on the first square (which should be a card with the word Start on it).
  3. Student/Group 1 rolls the die and moves their token by the number of squares indicated by the die roll. The numbers on the die correspond not only to the numbers of squares but also to different tasks, e.g. 1: Ask your neighbour a question using the expression on the card 2: Make a sentence in the present tense 3: Make a sentence in the past tense 4: Make a conditional sentence in the present 5: Make a conditional sentence in the past 6: Let your left-hand neighbour make a sentence for you etc. You could write all these rules on the board before starting the activity so that everyone can see them.
  4. The game is over when one student/group reaches the final square.
3. All flashcards on one table

  1. Lay out all the flashcards you want to review on a free table. The side with the expression in the mother tongue is face-up. If you have a group with more than eight students, you can work with two sets of cards on two separate tables.
  2. Ask the students to come to stand around the table and explain to them that the goal of this activity is to review all these expressions, in the following way: if someone knows the English translation for an expression, he/she takes the card in their hands, reads the expression in the mother tongue out loud and translates it into English. Then, he/she lays the card back on the table with the English side face-up.
  3. The game goes until all cards are turned over.
  4. At the end, give your students a few minutes to read and memorise the expressions.


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