I may be a proponent of technology in the classroom, but physical flashcards are still the way to go for vocabulary review. Today I’m going to run down my ultimate guide to using physical flashcards to review vocabulary. While I will be specifically focusing on learning German, these tips are helpful for any language you are learning.
How to Write Perfect Flashcards
Writing the perfect flashcard is an art form that I don’t think a lot of language learners really understand. It isn’t about getting them done as quickly as possible so you can get on with the “real learning”. Making flashcards is just as helpful if not more so than using them to review vocabulary. Doing it properly, however, is the trick.
Use Multi-Colored Flashcards
In case you are unaware, German nouns have three grammatical genders plus the plural forms of nouns. This means that for every noun in German, you need to memorize if it is masculine, feminine, neuter, or plural.
Choose a color for each gender and one for the non-noun words (verbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, etc). It doesn’t have to be that you choose pink for feminine, blue for masculine and green for neuter. The point is to be consistent. No matter what color you use for each gender, just make sure it is always the same one.
I recommend using the same colors for gendered pronouns. For example “er” is the word for “he” or the masculine “it”. For this reason, I would put it on the same colored card that you use for masculine nouns. For pronouns like “du”, which isn’t necessarily referring to a particular gender, I would just stick to the “non-noun” color you chose.
Bonus Tip: If you use white flashcards for your “non-noun” words, you can buy them for less and buy them in bulk.
If You Don’t Use Multi-Colored Flashcards
Use different colors of marker for each gender if you don’t use multi-colored flashcards. I recommend black for non-noun words, but that is just because you will be using it a lot and black markers are cheaper and easier to come by. Again, the coloring doesn’t really matter as long as you are consistent.
Include plurals of nouns and irregular forms of verbs.
Under the original form of the noun with the article (der, die, or das). Include the plural form with the article (die) below the original form of the noun. Below verbs, write in any irregular forms. If the verb takes a stem-change in the present tense, write the “er, sie, es” form to remind yourself of this. If the verb is irregular in the Präteritum or Perfekt, write that too. Write all of these alternative forms smaller than the main form, but still large enough to be recognized at a quick glance. I like to try to write as big as possible, while still fitting it on one line for the original form and then a bit smaller for the other forms, again keeping it to one line.
Write large, clear letters. Write slowly.
Some people try to rush through the flashcard creation process as if they want to get it over so they can review, but writing the flashcards is part of the review. Take your time with this. Use the time you spend writing these cards to its fullest. The longer you take to write the words out, the longer you can review while you write.
Read out loud as you write.
Say the word in both languages over and over again. While you are writing “book”, say “das Buch, die Bücher, the book”. When writing “das Buch, die Bücher” say “das Buch, die Bücher, the book”.
There are a ton of benefits to reading the flashcards to yourself. Reading aloud gives your brain another mode of input while you are writing your vocabulary. It requires you to think about the word as you write it. You work on your pronunciation while you read. Then you hear the word being said, because you are saying it. This means you are using all of the components of language learning while creating flashcards. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
Repeat as you write.
Don’t stop at one time. Say the word as many times as you can. Keep repeating it as long as you are writing on that card and even when you are putting the card into the stack. Don’t forget to read BOTH SIDES out loud as you review including articles, plurals, and irregular verbs forms.
If you don’t want to or don’t have access to real flashcards, take a piece of paper and fold it in half vertically. Write the term on the top side and the translation on the inside. If you want, you can cut in between each term, so you can check each one individually. If you want to reverse the languages, you can just flip the paper. Don’t forget to color-code your vocabulary so you still get the benefits of using colored flashcards.
Why Use Colored Flashcards
The use of colors gives your brain another form of input to associate the gender with the noun. When memorizing vocabulary, your brain picks up on as many forms of input as it can to form a solid memory. For example: I remember where and when I learned certain words, because of the thing that happened directly before it. Maybe it was a food I was eating, friends I was with or something else. By using colors, your brain starts to associate the color with the gender. When you think of a word, your brain thinks of the color and then you can remember the gender.
How to Study with Flashcards
Now that you have your flashcards finished, how do you use them best while you are reviewing? The following is a step-by-step process that I follow, which works really well.
1. Start with German to English.
2. Look at the German word.
3. Read it out loud.
4. Read any plural or irregular forms, as shown on the card out loud, too.
5. Think of the English version.
6. Say the English out loud.
7. Check to see if you are correct on the other side.
8. Read both sides of the card a few times. Include plural or irregular forms as shown on the card.
9. Do this a few times until you can do it fluidly with ease.
10. Then try English to German with the same process.
Starting with German to English helps train your brain and get used to the words. It is easier to recognize German words than it is to come up with the German words from the English. Production is always more difficult than understanding. Once you believe you know the words well from German to English, you can start with English to German. Don’t forget that you should be saying all of the things that are on the card when you study.
Why Digital Flashcards are Less Effective
For those of you who are wondering why I don’t simply type out the flashcards into an app or online flashcard system, the answer is simple. They just don’t work as well. There are many benefits to using physical flashcards.
First and foremost, having something physically in your hand adds another mode of input that your brain can hold onto. The tactile sensation of using physical flashcards sticks with your brain better. When you have to flip the card yourself, your brain registers this movement and the kinetic aspect of the process. Taping a screen will never give you this same input.
Typing the words out on a computer or phone doesn’t stick with your brain as well as writing them out. When you type, it is quicker. This is one of the few times that this is not advantageous. Writing them out by hand gives you time to say the words out loud more often. It forces you to take your time and allow the information to sink in.
You can’t customize a lot of online flashcards in the same ways you can physical ones. Sometimes you can’t add colored text. I have’t found an app yet that will let you change the color of the card itself to match the gender of the noun.
The bottom line is that apps can replace a lot of things. You can read a digital book without having any ill effects. Dating online is apparently working well for a lot of people. But when it comes to flashcards, there is no replacement for physical cards.
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