How to use word lists and flash cards effectively
Vocabulary lists and flash cards are almost universal practices among language-learners. Suppose you have a list of vocabulary you have gathered from sentences from the news, and now you want to practice those words. Once you have made a list of words to study or a stack of physical or digital flash cards, what do you do with it? Here are three ways language learners can use vocabulary lists and flash cards effectively.
1. Do not study words in isolation.
A vocabulary list typically contains only isolated words; the same is true of many flash card decks, including most user-generated Anki decks and Memrise courses. But the purpose of language learning is to learn a new system of communication. And in real communication, words typically occur only in the context of sentences or phrases. To truly know a word is to be able to recognize it instantly when you enounter it in authentic speech or text, and to be able to use it without hesitation in your own speaking and writing. These skills are not the same as knowing the word’s definition.
To this day, despite all we know about the importance of context-based learning and the inadequacy of rote memorization, the vast majority of language-learning and vocabulary apps continue to teach isolated words out of context.
At best, studying isolated words is inefficient. At worst, it can amount to productive procrastination: going through the motions of learning without actually building meaningful knowledge and increasing your ability to communicate in your target language.
Flash cards can be a useful study tool for language learners, but only if they are used effectively. Always study vocabulary in the context of real example sentences.
2. Beware of productive procrastination.
I once saw a classmate in a 10th-grade Honors English class meticulously creating flashcards for every word on her study list. The list included the word “murky,” so she made a flashcard with that word on one side and its definition on the other. Since she was a native speaker with a strong vocabulary, I asked her whether she already knew the word “murky”; she said yes, she did know it. But nevertheless she was making a flash card for it along with the other words on the list.
Simply writing out a word or sentence by hand strengthens your memory of the word or sentence. And flashcards coupled with a spaced-repetition system definitely have a place in language learning. But it is easy to go through the motions of studying vocabulary by doing things like making flashcards from a vocabulary list. Since making flashcards can be time-consuming, we recommend using them to focus on particular sentences, words, or grammatical constructions that are giving you trouble. Do not waste time making flashcards for words you already know.
WordBrewery users can export their study lists to flash card programs like Anki or Quizlet, and we are about to add a new feature allowing users to print PDFs of their word lists with example sentences as either formatted lists or flash cards.
3. Understand that a word’s definition is a temporary crutch, not the target of your efforts.
Quick: define the word “cat.”
If you are like most people, you do not know a “definition” of either that word or any other word you use on a regular basis. You can probably create a definition for it, but doing so requires some thought. And yet surely you know the word “cat.” You know it fluently because you can instantly recognize it when it appears in texts or speech, and you can automatically summon it without conscious effort when you need it in your own speech and writing. That is what fluency means. Fluency does not mean memorizing definitions.
And yet for centuries, language learners have studied vocabulary by trying to memorize definitions of isolated words, just as the classmate mentioned above was trying to do with the word “murky.” This is an inefficient and low-value study method. So if you are studying basic Japanese and you learn that “neko” (猫 | ねこ) means “cat,” you could make a flash card with “neko” on one side and “cat” on the other, but that is not the only approach. Consider these far-superior alternatives:
(a) Making a flash card not for the word “neko” itself, but for an authentic example sentence containing the word “neko.” This is WordBrewery’s preferred approach: that is why WordBrewery always teaches words in the context of real sentences and never in isolation. This works much better than memorizing isolated words and is much more rewarding and enjoyable. Consider: even if you have never studied a word of Japanese, you probably now know the word “neko” simply because I have just used it in two sentences in this post. I will use it three more times in this post, and at that point you will have taken a substantial step toward memorizing the word. That is what efficient, painless language-learning feels like.
(b) Associating “neko” with a picture of a cat. This method is advocated by Gabe Wyner in his excellent book Fluent Forever, and it will be familiar to users of Memrise or Rosetta Stone. I find that preparing materials for this method is too time-consuming to be efficient. However, it is helpful if the process of gathering pictures and matching them to words can be crowdsourced, as it is at Memrise. If, like me, you don’t want to spend study time searching for images, you can likely get the same effect by taking a moment to visualize the item you are studying.
(c) Associating the word “neko” with a specific cat you know. This is how most children first learn the word “cat.” To a child, “cat” first means the household cat; only later is it abstracted to the general concept of “any cat.” This method is very effective for long-term memory because it links the memory of the new word to a rich, extensive network of associations, feelings, and experiences. The process of long-term learning—the learning that matters most, especially to self-educators and lifelong learners—consists primarily in building up this network of associations. As cognitive linguists Dagmar Divjak and Catherine Caldwell-Harris explain, “slow learning allows information to be incrementally integrated into long-term memory structures, where they have rich associations with many patterns, facilitating generalization and abstraction.”1
(d) Not making a flash card at all—instead, just keep reading, and review the word as needed when it comes up in the context of future sentences. By definition, high-frequency words will appear more often than other words in most texts you read; this means that you can automatically review and strengthen your high-frequency vocabulary simply by reading a lot. If I am right that you now know the word “neko,” making a flashcard for it would be tedious and redundant. Better to move on to conquer new words as they arise in the context of new sentences.
If you want to be sure that each sentence contains high-frequency words you need to review, you can read sentences on WordBrewery; every WordBrewery sentence has been tested to ensure it consists entirely or primarily of high-frequency vocabulary at a particular level. So each word in a beginner sentence is either (a) one of the 500 most frequent words in a language or (b) a name or other proper noun. Every sentence you interact with on WordBrewery increases your knowledge level for each word in the sentence, and when your knowledge level reaches a certain score, we conclude that you have thoroughly mastered that word and we add it to your total of “mastered words” displayed in your statistics meters.
A behind-the-scenes look at how WordBrewery tracks your mastery of high-frequency vocabulary words as you read.
To master a word on WordBrewery requires that you encounter the word in the context of real, relevant sentences from the news many times. Most language-learning apps and systems measure effort, but language learners are not interested in effort for its own sake; rather, they are interested in fluency. When WordBrewery’s algorithms indicate that you have mastered a word, you will have truly mastered that word and it should never again be an obstacle to fluent reading, speaking, and listening in your target language. And you will have accomplished that without making a single flash card (unless you choose to do so).
Dagmar Divjak and Catherine Caldwell-Harris, Frequency and Entrenchment, in Ewa Dabrowska and Dagmar Divjak, eds., Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics 64, De Gruyter Mouton (2015). ↩