Flashcards in the Classroom: Ten Lesson Ideas

The other day, I was preparing a lesson with an intermediate group of young learners and getting my flashcards printed and laminated.  However, when chatting to some other teachers in the staffroom, with myself behind the laminating machine, there was a brief comment that flashcards are more suited for beginner or elementary learners and more appropriate for young learners.

Flashcards are really good but more suited for young learners or really low levels of students.

Unfortunately, I really have to disagree with this sentiment as I have used flashcards with many different levels as well as ages of learners.  With this post, I really would like to push the boundaries of what is considered suitable for learners and offer teachers practical ideas on how they are able to incorporate flashcards into lessons with more than just young learners or beginner/elementary classes.  With this post, you will find 10 practical ideas for including flashcards in the classroom.

1. Circle Drilling

The most common use of flashcards in the classroom is for drilling and checking pronunciation with the class.  You can either nominate individual students or get whole class drilling organised with the use of flashcards.  However, when doing the Young Learner extension course at the British Council in Bucharest, I was introduced in how you could add a bit of a competitive element to drilling and pronunciation.  Get students to sit in a circle – get learners to place their desks to the sides of the classroom – and then they all sit down.  Introduce the vocabulary to the learners and drill pronunciation.  The next step to circle drilling is to hand one flashcard to a student to your left or right and then get them to pass the flashcard to the next student.  You can speed up the drilling by handing more and more cards to the students next to you and then watch the chaos ensue.  The students will find it incredibly enjoyable and highly competitive.

Drilling and Repetition in the ELT Classroom
Everyone enjoying circle drilling.

2. Pelmanism Flashcards

Another popular activity with flashcards, particularly if you have a picture and corresponding text, is to play a game where you match the picture with the correct text.  It is recommended that you demonstrate this activity to the learners so that they are able to pick up the rules of the activity.  Basically, you get place all picture and corresponding text flashcards face down and shuffle them up.  One student picks up two cards and if they pick up a picture as well as a corresponding word, then the learner will get one point.  It is best to get students to keep their pair of flashcards so that they are able to count up how many points they have achieved.  Young learners and adults alike enjoy this game in the classroom and is a wonderful memorisation activity.  If you have a large class of students, it is best to ensure you have at least four sets of picture/word flashcards for this activity, and share one set of flashcards among a small group of two to four students.  Therefore, if you have nine students, group them into three groups of three students and give each group a set of flashcards for the pelmanism game.

Pelmanism Flashcards
Grouped flashcards at the ready for possible lessons.

3. Bingo Flashcards

If you don’t have two sets of corresponding flashcards (either a set of pictures or a set of words), you can still use the one set of cards for a similar pelmanism game.  I developed this bingo flashcard game with a small group of elementary learners and we were looking at hobbies and interests.  I created my own set of flashcards, laminated these and then used them in the classroom to review the language from the previous lesson.  We reviewed the language by drilling and checking pronunciation (similar to the first flashcard idea) and then I shuffled them all and then placed them face down nicely on the table.  Then I called out one vocabulary, and one by one a student turned one card up.  If the card was the one vocabulary that I called out, that student would gain a point.  If it was not the vocabulary which I called out, then the student would turn the card back down and then the next student would turn up a flashcard.  The turn goes round student by student.  The student with the most flashcards at the end of the game wins.  You could get students to play this with one set of flashcards or you could group students into small groups each with their own set of cards, you call out the corresponding word or picture and then each group try to guess the correct card.  It is very similar to bingo but with flashcards.

Flashcards available for a bingo-style game.
Student made flashcards available for a bingo-style game.

4. Flashcard Whispers

The other day, I wanted to review vocabulary with a group of Chinese students and rather than naming the game “Chinese Whispers”, I decided to call it “Flashcard Whispers”.  I would use the flashcards to prompt the word/picture and students whispered the word/picture to the front of the group and the first group to write up the word or draw the picture would gain a point for their team.  It is a lively activity for students and gets them up and out of their seats during the lesson.  It is best used at the end of the lesson as a review and they leave the classroom with a smile on their faces.  Try it out and be creative with the points – the teams will be very competitive.

5. Student Created Flashcards

Why spend your own time making flashcards when students can be quite creative and make suitable flashcards for the classroom?  One way I do this is with idiomatic language.  For example, money related idioms are very visual and students could be quite creative by drawing suitable pictures for idioms.  You could use these pictures to supplement or review idioms at the end of the lesson/week.  If students make their own flashcards, which are then laminated, they could be used again and again.  Students also have a sense to own the language that they are learning and it becomes more memorable.  You could then use the student created flashcards for various games suggested above.

Student Idiom Pictures:
Student Idiom Pictures: “To make ends meet” and “To cost an arm and a leg”.

6. Flashcard Sentences/Questions

A really quick and easy way to get students up and about is to create sentences on each piece of card (laminating is an option) and cutting up pieces of paper.  Write up a word on each piece of cut up paper, and then students have to rearrange themselves in order, so that they are able to create a sentence or question.  I was introduced to this activity in the wonderful “Five-Minute Activities” which I would recommend any teacher to purchase as there are also a wonderful range of ideas for lessons.  I have used this activity successfully with both adults and young learners alike.  When you check, you could get students to say the sentence/question one word at a time to check understanding or whether they are correct.  Students then start to recognise patterns in English and, as like the previous activity, it is more memorable for learners.

“Five-Minute Activities” (p.96 Ur & Wright, 1992).

7. Pronunciation Checking Drills

A few weeks ago, I decided to create my own pronunciation flashcards for a lesson to review vowel sounds.  I printed these out and then laminated the pronunciation cards.  I visited Cambridge English Online Flashcard Maker and then created, printed and laminated the flashcards for use in class.  In fact, this free Flashcard Maker is very useful and I would recommend this website for all your flashcard making.  There are numerous pictures which you can embed in the cards, or you could draw your very own images for your flashcards.  You can create flashcards at any size (A4, A5, etc) and then print out when they are ready.  In fact I made these flashcards by inputting the text into the flashcard template.  So give the website a try.  Anyhow, once I created the phonemic vowel flashcards, I used them to elicit the corresponding sound from students as well as drill sounds – the students loved this activity.  After this activity, I got students to make their very own words using the corresponding vowel sound.  So a vowel sound with /e/, students could suggest: reset, bet, test, etc.  It was a great activity and got them to think outside the constraints of spelling particular topics of words.  We looked at the words the students created using the vowel sounds to help and it really made the students aware of their own pronunciation and how it also impacts on particular words.

Vowel phonemic flashcards ready for class.
Vowel phonemic flashcards ready for class.

8. Flashcard Hitting

When I was observing a fellow young learner teacher a few weeks back, he decided to use flashcards for his group of very young learners.  I was really impressed at how much he was able to incorporate them in his lesson.  One game which I particularly enjoyed was where he got two teams of students lined up and rows, with the learners facing the board.  He gave each pair of students at the front of the row a folded piece of paper – much like a ruler – and then called out a word.  The students then had to hit the corresponding picture.  The first student to hit the correct picture, their team was awarded a point and at the end of the activity, the team with the most points won.  The students rotated after each turn so all students had a chance to play the game.  He obviously spent a little time sticking up the flashcards upon the whiteboard in preparation for the game but the students loved it and I could see it being adapted for teenage or adult classes.

9. The Missing Flashcard

Another memorisation game which I used in class is whereby I bring in a set of objects and students close their eyes and I remove one.  One by one, the students have to remember the objects removed from the table.  However, these are with physical objects and young learners really enjoy this activity.  Nevertheless, you can use this with flashcards.  If you stick up a set of 10-12 flashcards up on the whiteboard and draw a small border round each, you can do a similar activity.  You drill all vocabulary from the flashcards with the learners and then you ask students to put their heads down on the desk.  Quickly remove one flashcard and then get students to put their heads up again.  Ask students which card is missing.  You point to each flashcard and elicit the vocabulary and then point to the missing flashcard and hopefully students remember the missing flashcard.  As more and more flashcards are removed, when you point to the blank borders on the whiteboard, the students should be able to remember the missing flashcard.  When you have a blank whiteboard and you point to the non-existent flashcards, the students will then feel a sense of achievement if they are able to remember the missing flashcards.  Try this activity out and is a really good 10-15 minute filler at the end of the lesson.

10. Flashcard Chunks

If you have two themes of flashcards and you would like to combine them, then this final idea might help.  For example, if you have a set of pictures of sports organised for flashcard use as well as set phrases to practice the Present Perfect Continuous, then you could elicit/drill lexical chunks with all ages.  Put the pictures on one side of the table and the corresponding set of time reference markers (using “since” or “for”) face down and pick up randomly a picture as well as a corresponding time marker and elicit from a student a suitable sentence.  So for example, if you pick up a picture of someone ice-skating and a chunk “2006” students could create a sentence such as: “I have been ice-skating since 2006”.  Check suitability with the other learners in the classroom and then drill the chunk of language with all other students.  It is a useful activity to focus on a particular grammar structure and does require a little more preparation than the other flashcard lesson ideas.  However, it does require a little more from the students and they will be able to find their way around the language with the required flashcard prompts.  This is possibly my favourite idea and have left this for last.

Using references of time for drilling.
Using references of time for drilling.

These are a range of ideas you could incorporate in class and you can see that flashcards are suitable for a range of levels as well as ages.  So please stop with the idea that flashcards are best suited for elementary and/or younger classes.  I hope that I have inspired readers to use flashcards more creatively in their lessons and that learners enjoy the use of the flashcards.  Just a few quick tips for managing flashcards:

  • Make flashcards large enough so students at the back of the class can see what they are.
  • Laminate the flashcards so that they can be reused in future lessons.  It will save you time in the long run.
  • If you don’t have a laminator, you can Sellotape the pictures/words onto card or use a plastic envelope to protect them.
  • Make your own library of flashcards and keep them in either a folder or within envelopes so that they are easily accessible.
  • Create a magazine drop-off box in the staffroom so that teachers have ready access to a range of magazines for pictures, text, etc for flashcard making.

Finally, I leave this post with a few questions for you to consider:

  • How do you use flashcards in lessons?
  • Do you use flashcards at all with your learners?
  • What is your favourite activity?
  • Do you have an activity to share with our readers that is not mentioned here?

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