As a comprehension-based and communicative language teacher, I’ve largely dismissed promoting any use of flashcards due to their connection with memorization. Beyond disappointing research about this kind of explicit learning, my classroom experience has confirmed that the more students are aware of language, the less fluent they seem to become. For example, the frequent note-taking academic students are typically those who can’t respond without second-guessing themselves and checking said notes, overly concerned with accuracy, etc., which slows them down quite a bit. Above all else, teaching practices requiring memorization lead to inequity since individual differences can’t be accommodated. Then, Eric Herman lobbed some mind grenades in Acquisition Classroom Memo #39. He can be trusted to do that, and we’re all better teachers for it…
In short, this is a pre-reading vocab activity to front-load some meaning. The process? To start class, students spend 1-5 minutes with simple Google Slide “flashcards” containing select vocabulary:
This vocabulary comes from any texts to be read that day. In order to make flashcards useful, though, I’ll be avoiding some pitfalls and adhering to research-based principles Eric Herman shared, as follows:
- Only Words That Will Be Read
Flashcard Blitz isn’t intended to be a daily class routine regardless of content. If there isn’t a particular text planned for class, no Flashcard Blitz. This ensures that flashcards aren’t used in isolation.
- Pictures & Retrieval
The slide format is simple, divided into two sections. In the first section, each word has one slide: the Latin + English [w/picture, whenever possible] together. The next section includes just the Latin (i.e. flashcard front), and then just then English [w/picture, whenever possible] (i.e. flashcard back).
- Spaced Study & 10-20 Max
Students are instructed to go through the first section, wait 15 seconds, then go onto the second section (i.e. self-testing with the “front/back” slides). Since Flashcard Blitz is being used to boost the “bootstrapping” of vocab that will be read during a single class, there shouldn’t be many new words at all. In fact, for Flashcard Blitz, I suggest the lower end of 10, and maybe just 7 or 8 words.
- Change Order
After use in class, drag the slides into a different order in the first section, and each pair of slides in the second section so as to avoid memorizing a series of meanings.
- Set Aside The EZ-To-Recall Words
Instruct students to skip words they easily recall, spending more time with words they don’t know.
Do I think a few minutes with flashcards means students magically know all the words in the text? No way. However, the limited time certainly provides an opportunity to hold meaning in short term memory long enough to make the reading faster, when students receive their input.
Flashcard Blitz is also a concrete task that students can complete with ease. It can even serve as a communication break—breaks that pause or reduce input, allowing students either to think, or briefly interact in ways that lack a communicative purpose. With remote learning, these independent yet simple tasks are really important.
What about Quizlet?
Quizlet and other apps might be flashy, but don’t follow all the principles from Eric’s research. The most engaging feature of Quizlet is probably the team race, but you can’t really do that with new words. We need students to move at their own pace. Flashcard Blitz, while low-tech, gets the job done.
A colleague showed us their department’s platform for Mathy stuff, and in an unlikely move, I’ve actually started using it in place of Google Slides for Flashcard Blitz! It’s one of those platforms that doesn’t require students to create a new login, and has a teacher dashboard so you can follow real time student progress (e.g. “hey Jey, I’ve noticed you haven’t logged in. Any connection problems, or…?”). It’s also got built-in card sort matching, which is an ideal way to have simple manipulative flashcards.
I’ve even started using it to monitor how far along students are reading during independent time, copying images of texts, and adding a glossary and simple interactive elements, etc.
You’d think students would click straight through, but no. Once the expectation is that students read, and there isn’t some product to complete (e.g. answering comp Qs), I’ve found that students do spend the class time doing so. Besides, this has been showing me how reading speed is quite slow. For the students who have been reading a lot outside of class time, though I’ve intentionally left out of that last page. Students do, in fact, ask me to establish meaning of words. That’s solid evidence they aren’t just clicking through to the end.