Do flashcards work? If yes, why, if no, why not?

Here is a post from an extremely astute language teacher:

I’ve been pondering something. Why is it that we think flash cards are

a good thing? I’m not saying that they are not, but I am questioning

why we think they are, specifically for vocabulary. Thoughts? And, my

apologies for cross posting, but I want to hit as wide an audience as


Here’s my dilemma: although I have used flash cards with my students only sporadically, not enough to make a judgment, my bias is against them. I won’t go into why b/c I would rather talk about what I do in my own language study which may contradict my bias against flashcards.

I make word lists. They are sometimes in the form of flashcards but more often just word lists. I am doing this right now with Urdu and Modern Greek. Here’s how and what my rationale is and my experience:

The Greek textbook has readings at the start of each chapter and then a long vocabulary list. I write out all the words in the vocab list that are NOT in the reading. I then reread the reading until I know the words quite well. I can then refer to the lists for those other words. Back to this in a minute.

My Urdu textbooks have words used in examples or lists of words as examples of the phonology of Urdu. They are not integrated into the textbook and are not listed in the glossary. So rather than peruse these words in the textbook, I copy them out, alphabetically by their English meaning. Where their Urdu spelling is available, I write that out, too (Urdu uses a modified Arabic alphabet).

Why do I do this? Several reasons:

What I fear is that teachers may try to use this with students who feel no connection with these words and feel little motivation for putting them on cards or in lists. I have studied these languages for a long time as an avocation and am so highly motivated to write these words out that I get as excited about getting to the task as I do when my favorite TV program is about to come on. (Did you doubt I was a nerd?)

And this latter is what we have to be honest about: most of our students thrill at being able to communicate in L2 and would genuinely like to be able to speak L2, but they are NOT nerds – they are not highly motivated. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that many of our language teachers are not so highly motivated or they would not ask the questions they do on the listservs.

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