Why are flashcards so popular in language teaching?

Image of a child using flashcards to memorize new words

Every educator has their own go-to language teaching resources and teaching methods. This could be that “there to get you out of a tricky situation” lesson plan or stimulus that you can always rely on when something goes wrong or when you just haven’t had time to plan or prepare something new and exciting. And for many language teachers, a set of flashcards will often fit the bill!

Tried, tested and trusted by generations of teachers across the globe, the humble flashcard remains a staple of language teaching. But why have they proved so enduringly popular, how can they best be deployed by educators and what’s the future for flashcards in the era of online / hybrid teaching? Well, this blog post aims to find out!


The simple concept behind flashcards

Just in case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a flashcard is a piece of card with language-learning information (e.g. vocabulary) on both sides, which is intended to be used as an aide for memorization. For example, a teacher creates 10 different flashcards to teach numbers 1 to 10 – one side carries the numbers in the student’s mother tongue with the answer in the target language on the other side.

Flashcards are therefore ideal for exercising the mental process of active recall. When the student is given the question (a picture, a sound or a word), they are then prompted to recall the answer.

Flashcards are simple, easy-to-use resources for teachers to use in their language classroom and they’re also easy to create. They remain a great way to introduce, practice, and recycle vocabulary, and they work for students learning on their own and in small groups. Importantly, flashcards are easy for students to take home and to play with their parents / families, encouraging broader involvement in language learning.


Advantages of using flashcards in language learning

There are many other reasons why flashcards have long been a mainstay of language teaching. These include:

  • Highly flexible – Flashcards can be used to teach any language and any topic. They can be used in a formal classroom setting, in the cafeteria or on the bus home. They can be professionally produced or quickly created on scrap paper. And they can be created by teachers and / or students!
  • Engaging – Every student wants to be the first to go through the whole deck without getting one wrong and every student loves coming up with the question that no-one can answer. And if you see a set, they’re impossible to leave alone!
  • Direct – As a family relative used to say: “You either know it or you don’t!” There’s no room for umms and ahhs, the answer is either right or wrong. It’s immediate and easy to see where additional work is required!
  • Confidence-building – Linked to the above, flashcards can be incredibly motivating for students to quickly see how much they actually do know. This helps encourage them to tackle bigger challenges that lie ahead. And if the student is nervous about demonstrating this in class, then they can build confidence by using flashcards at home.
  • Revision – On the day of the test, it’s much easier to quickly review key points / vocab on a series of flashcards rather than wading through pages and pages of notes. Short, bullet point prompts are all you need on the big day. 

And of course perhaps the biggest reason why flashcards are so popular is because they actually work and do help improve learning outcomes. Let’s now look at why that is the case.


Research-backed reasons to use flashcards in the language classroom

As outlined above, flashcards are incredible tools for introducing, memorising, revising and consolidating vocabulary. Schmitt’s 2008 research clearly shows that re-visiting vocabulary is key to building memory and language acquisition – the core purpose of a flashcard is to help learners increase the number of times that they encounter key words and phrases.

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence reinforces the importance of teachers catering to a wide variety of learning styles during a lesson / course. Both visual and kinaesthetic learners can be difficult to support in language lessons but flashcards can really help. They can be designed to be colourful and to feature attention-grabbing images. Equally, many of the activities associated with flashcards (handling them, sorting, quickly reviewing them) also appeal to kinaesthetic learners.

The use of images that learners can recognise also provides a useful context through which students can access the curriculum by scaffolding it onto their existing knowledge. The Cummins Matrix suggests that this approach enables the language requirements of an activity to be reduced without actually reducing the lesson’s cognitive demands.

As outlined above, flashcards are also useful as they help stimulate discussion and learning through collaborative activities. Multiple research studies highlight how such activities provide real opportunities for communication and can therefore be invaluable for language development.

For examples of how flashcards can be effectively incorporated into the language classroom, do check out these suggestions here


Next generation flashcards

Yet despite these advantages of using flashcards, it’s increasingly apparent that technology solutions can be even more effective in supporting language learning. In fact, research in 2019 at Stanford University found that a language learning chatbot was significantly more effective in helping students learn and retain information.

Moreover, students reported that the chatbot was “more conversational and more fun. They (students) felt like they had a true study partner.” Unlike flashcards, the chatbot was also able to “recognise near-miss answers and offer additional guidance and even encouragement to the student.”

Advancements in cloud-based language learning portals and other language teaching tools are transforming flashcards to make them more personalised and tailored. Not only do they provide detailed statistical information about student performance, such software includes gamified elements to keep students engaged and motivated to learn. Personalised learning algorithms also ensure that all students are appropriately tested and stretched to improve rather than simply relearning content that they already know and understand.


Whatever language you teach and whatever teaching tools inspire you and your students, Sanako’s market-leading tools are here to help. We’re constantly innovating and looking to use technology to enable language educators to teach languages more efficiently and more successfully. That’s why we have now added flashcards into our web-based language teaching platform to support online and in-person lesson delivery. You can read more about teaching with flashcards on Sanako Connect here!

Flashcards feature in Sanako Connect