How Flashcards Put You at a Disadvantage in Language Learning, and How to Overcome that Disadvantage

by David

Index CardSince grade school, I had used those 3×5 inch index cards to make flashcards, writing a question on one side, and the answer on the other. When I started studying Spanish nearly ten years ago, I went back to the flash card idea to review and learn vocabulary.

It didn’t work.

I’d make 20 flash cards, go over them dozens of times and actually learn the words and meanings. Later, in a test, conversation or reading assignment, I would see the word again. But with the change in context, I no longer made the association with the English translation.

You see, learning with flashcards is really just another form of rote learning.

Flashcards Encourage Rote Learning

Rote learning is any type of learning where you focus on learning the material at hand while purposely ignoring the inner workings of it. You ignore how something works and why you want to learn it, and instead focus solely on memorizing the material, often word-for-word, so you’re able to regurgitate it at a later time. I often memorized facts in this fashion, to be able to recall them for an exam.

With language learning you don’t want to memorize the facts while ignoring the why and how. You don’t want to learn a word in isolation, or in a stack of flashcards, because when you run across the word in a real-life context, you likely won’t recall the meaning.

A Better Stategy

A better strategy is learning the words in their real-life context, so that the next time you see them in the same or similar context, it will jog your memory and you’ll know their meaning.

Let me explain this in a more practical fashion. We’ll take an example word estreñimiento in Spanish, and assume you need/want to learn it. Instead of repeating estreñimiento – constipation dozens of times with flashcards, let’s see how you can learn it better.

First of all, find the word in its context. Do a web search and find some pages that talk about the subject. Look it up in the encyclopedia. Find it used in sentences. Almost anything will do, so long as you’re not dealing with the bare word. Now let’s see how we’re going to interact with the word to actually learn it, since flashcards are off-limits. Here’s a few suggestions: reflextion, observation, reasoning, active learning (doing), analysis, communication. These are basically critical thinking skills. Reflect on the word. Have you seen it before? Does it sound like any other Spanish words you know? Does it look like it comes from a Latin root that Spanish and English have in common? Now observe the word. Do you recognize any familiar affixes? Maybe -miento? Now do some reasoning. Estreñimiento kind of sounds like the English word strain. If you’re estreñido, you’re definitely going to do some straining. Now for some active learning- make the sounds of a person with estreñimiento or picture how someone’s face looks when they have this condition. Analyze the word further. Can you derive a verb, adjective, adverb from it? Use the word in some communication. Use the word in the essay you have to turn in this afternoon. Work it into your hour of Spanish conversation practice.

Now you might say, David, I do all those things, but I still forget the words I’m studying, that’s why I want to use flashcards.

I Still Need Flashcards

I often had the problem that I’d be learning some words, using the above techniques, but then all of the sudden in a conversation I’d want to use a word, but couldn’t recall it quick enough to use it. Here’s where I’ll suggest using a small notebook to write down some words, to remind you of them. I’d suggest a notebook simply because you can carry it with you easier and flip through it to find the word you’re thinking of. It seems more practical to me than flashcards.

I will admit flashcards do have a place. Sometimes, you want to memorize something for just a few hours, and then forget it. I also realize that each of us has a certain inclination as to our learning preferences. Some learn by listening, others by reading, other by writing, others by doing etc. If you do choose to use flashcards, try to use some of the techniques I’ve mentioned to change your rote learning into something more permanent. It’ll help your foreign language abilities.

Thanks Liz for the inspiration that sparked the thought that spawned this post.

6 Comments  leave one »

29.Apr.2007 - 11:19 am

You have a good point. I just wish they made time for learning words that way in class! When I was taking Spanish classes at my school, the teacher would just pass out a long list of words and tell us we need to memorize them all for a quiz in two days. I hate the idea of it, but I got used to rote learning. Now I feel like I’m brainwashed for life, because flash cards still work pretty well for me. Then again, it is true that I’ve forgotten almost all the words I learned in Spanish class… So maybe they don’t work at all, lol.

30.Apr.2007 - 11:00 am

You right about being brainwashed. I think the root of the problem is how teachers are taught to teach. If all they know is to pass out a list of 100 vocab. words for the students to learn, they can’t do much better. When I was studying German, I was lucky enough to have a great professor who was also a researcher in Foreign language teaching/learning/acquisition, and he used all kinds of new innovative methods to teach us vocab and language. It was really quite fun– and I can still speak some German to this day. But even if your teacher hands out a list of words to memorize, I think you can choose how you’re going to memorize them. And that will be the difference between if you learn the words and forget them the next week or if you remember them a year later. So you can go ahead and use the flash cards– nothing wrong with them– I’d just suggest trying to assimilate the words in context, so you will be able to actually use them in a Spanish conversation, and not just be able to pull them up for the matching exercise on your Spanish test. Anyway, you might also like to check out this post on some memory techniques as well.

30.Apr.2007 - 1:14 pm


I agree flashcards are a horrible way to learn a foreign language. An alternative technique I used while living in France was keeping a vocabulary diary. When I was walking around and I saw an object or thought of a word I wanted to know then I wrote it down and found the definition.

I tried to associate the word I was learning with the physical object or learn it in context as it was needed not through a sterile memorization technique.

Good post. I also think teachers need to rethink how they are teaching.

02.May.2007 - 8:20 pm

I think Flashcards can be used poorly or well. There’s a cool site called you might want to check out — it has interesting approaches to memorizing vocabulary in various ways.

Virtual flashcards are part of the picture, but not the whole thing.

(I’m not involved with quizlet, by the way, I’m just a fan.)

06.May.2007 - 5:49 pm

Before we throw out flashcards, we must consider who is doing the learning.

I teach students in middle and high school, and in any given class, approximatey 1/2 are special needs, i.e. memory retention being one. For these students, using flashcards helps them to buid a collection of words from which they can draw. Yes, I agree re: using words in context, and the students do that, but only once they have gained a degree of familiarity with the vocabulary.

So, unlike others who have posted thus far, I am not as quick to write off flashcards.

07.May.2007 - 10:53 pm

Good comments Miss Profe. I do agree that each and every one of us has different learning needs and we all have different learning styles. So my experiences with flashcards aren’t necessarily going to apply to other learners. Flashcards actually have helped me learn a lot of vocabulary, but for some reason that learning wasn’t permanent. I was able to memorize lots of words and put them in “short-term” memory for tests and such, but that was about it. I guess what I’m looking to say is that for me, flashcards worked for vocabulary memorization, but not for language learning. It’s been a while since I got out of school, so I’m not up on all the linguistic buzzwords, but for language learning I need to study/learn words closer to the context where I need to recall them (in real-life conversations) to be able to recall and use them in real language. But then again, these are just my experiences.


Leave a Comment