Drilling Vocabulary with Flashcards

This seems like the most basic thing in the world, right? And I guess there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to do it. I mean, drilling vocab is drilling vocab, right?

Well, sorta.

I’m going to outline the way I was taught to drill vocab when I originally trained as an EFL Teacher and having tried various other ways since, I’ve come to the decision that this is, in fact, the best way to do it.

Comments are most welcome!

Okay here we go!

Step 1: Gather your flashcards…

Actually, here we don’t go! Ha ha! Take a gander at this article first.
Also, there is no actual need to have flashcards for everything! A rough drawing on the board, a gesture or two and then something to remember it by is enough. But that’s another article.


Right. You’re back. Let’s press on…

You take the items you want to drill and you present them one by one (obviously!).

The “trick” to this technique is in going back over the list every one or two items.

That’s it, essentially! Wow! Radical, huh?

It’s really, really, really simple, but…

(a) it’s really effective


(b) I rarely see teachers doing this (and I don’t know why; That’s why I’m writing this).

Let’s take an example so that it’s perfectly clear what I’m trying to say here.

Teacher: What’s this? [holding up a flashcard or prompt or drawing on the board]

Students: [blank look meaning “Don’t know.”]

Now, they obviously know what it is in their native language (L1)—providing the picture is clear and large enough—but what they’re saying is that they don’t know what it’s called in the foreign language (L2)]

T: It’s a tiger. [T gestures to listen again] Listen… tiger [T gestures to repeat]

Sts: [repeat] Tiger

T: Again…

Sts: Tiger

[insert individual drilling and one more choral drill here]

T: Okay, next one. What’s this?

Sts: Monkey!

T: Close, close. What colour is he?

Sts: Orange!

T: And he’s quite big… bigger than a monkey, I think. [gestures included here].
Any other ideas?

Sts: [blank look, meaning “Uh, no, Teacher, sorry...”]

T: Orang-utan. Listen… orang-utan. Everyone…[gestures to repeat]

Sts: Orang-utan.

T: Again [gesture to repeat]

Sts: Orang-utan.

[insert individual drilling & once more choral drill here]

T: And this one? [pointing to pic of tiger above new pic/flashcard of orang-utan]

Sts: Tiger!

T: Good! This one?

Sts: Orang-utan!

T: This one?

Sts: Tiger!

T: Okay, next. What’s this?

Sts: Penguin! [pronunciation not quite right]

T: Excellent! That’s right! Listen to me… [correct pronunciation] penguin. Listen again… penguin…

Sts: Penguin.

T: Again.

Sts: Penguin.

T: Good. Okay, what’s this?

Sts: Tiger!

T: And this?

Sts: Um… orang… orang…

T: Orang-utan. Again…

Sts: Orang-utan.

T: And this?

Sts: Penguin!

T: This?

Sts: Tiger!

T: This?

Sts: Orang-utan!

T: This?

Sts: Penguin!

T: You guys rock!

…and on it goes!

This seems like a very long and tiresome method for drilling vocabulary (and the example seems pretty tedious), but believe me…

…it is effective!

This is why an 8-item list can easily take 10 minutes or more to drill. Sometimes it flows really smoothly and the target vocab is easy for the students to pick up (for whatever reason). Other days it requires more work.

But the following basic procedure does NOT change:

1. Elicit vocab if possible—and if they don’t know it, just give it to them! (More on this in another article!)

2. Model the pron clearly. Twice.

3. Get them to repeat.

4. Listen carefully to the pron and correct where necessary

5. Go back to the top of the list of items and drill through—You will almost always find that they have forgotten the item you just introduced when you do this. That is, the most recent item. Almost without fail!

So you then re-drill the latest item, then do a couple of others at random, interspersing the latest item they’ve forgotten between each one (example, “penguin, penguin, tiger, penguin, orang-utan, penguin…”).

Then do the whole list from the start in non-random order (they’ll remember the most recent item now!)… and then you can move onto the next item.

Incidentally, it need not be tiresome and boring at all. You should keep a fairly brisk pace when doing this kind of drilling because if you don’t then I guarantee you that it will be boring.

If you keep moving fairly fast, it keeps them on their toes and they know that they have to really pay attention to keep up. The class will pretty soon get used to this way of introducing and reviewing vocab and this will also help it run smoothly.

Note: Depending on the level of the students, as well as their age, I would be unlikely to introduce more that 8-12 new items in a single drill session like this. The human brain just can’t take much more than that, it seems. Of course, when we’re studying by ourselves we manage to do so, but this is somewhat different and, in fact, I would argue that when we’re doing it alone we’re not learning those items as effectively.

Why I think that is a more in-depth discussion for another day.

But the main reason I think 8-12 items can be learnt very effectively in a single class (no, not long term retention, that takes more work–which is partly your responsibility as the teacher. Again, a topic for another day) is that I’m working on the presumption that these 8-12 items are then “activated” in some way in the lesson.

The students have to do some sort of activity or play a game that involves them producing the vocab from the prompts (without the ability to simply read the words).

We would be much better off when studying at home, to do our learning in “blocks” like this, where we learn a set of expressions and then concentrate on strategies and drills to commit them to memory. Instead, though, we just power on and try to learn the list of 100 items.

Of course, we can only remember a handful of them the next day and conclude that learning vocab is difficult. It is, but it need not be. I’m veering into another article here! The point I would like to make here is that by introducing around 8-12 items and then playing some kind of “activation game” with them or doing some kind of exercise that involves thinking carefully to find the answer (and ideally producing it as well, oral or written–and the latter before the former if you like) will help the vocab “stick” better in the first instance.

Subsequently, you can then focus on working the items into long-term memory.

Good luck with it,

Vote this up or down. Select: Vote This DownVote This Up
Overall rating: 7 | Total votes: 9
Loading ... Loading ...

--- Advertisement ---

These ads are served by third-party sites and are hopefully, tailored to the content of this page.
If you see anything you think is inappropriate, please contact me and, if possible, I'll block it.

Feel Free to Suggest a Topic

Would you like me to cover something in particular?
Just get in touch via my Contact Form.

4 Responses to “Drilling Vocabulary with Flashcards”

  1. Gabi Gabi says:

    Congratulations for your article! I taught elementary students for years, other subjects not English, and discovered that it is indeed the best way to teach them new words. I will use your advice with my new little friend in an attempt to raise her grades in English. Thank you !

    I will read also other articles not only because they are useful but also because you have an engaging way of writing which I like :)

    Best wishes !


    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    •  Leslie says:

      Aww, thanks, Gabi! :smile:

      Hope you like the other stuff on the site.


      EDIT - October 2009:
      To anyone who hasn’t joined the Mailing List, I recommend you do. These articles used to be publically available and everything was linked to everything else.

      I’ve just overhauled the site and the simplest way to get all your EFL goodness is to join the mailing list. Links to all the articles will be delivered whenever I write something new.

      Also, I’m thinking about removing the mailing list and turning this into a paid membership site so get in now while it’s still free! :grin:

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Michele Brooks Michele Brooks says:

    I find the above article to be very interesting. I’m considering how to use it in an adult classroom. Am thinking that a game of concentration may be a good follow up.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    •  Leslie says:

      Thanks for the kind comment, Michele.

      There are actually a few other related articles I’ve written, one of which I linked to at the start.

      There’s also an article on here about what you referred to as “Concentration” in which I show you how to maximise the effectiveness of that game in your classes.

      There’s also an article somewhere about how to avoid tearing your hair out when laminating sets of cards for the “Concentration” game.

      EDIT - October 2009:
      If you haven’t already joined the Mailing List, now would be a good time to do so (while it’s still free! :grin: ).

      All of the articles I just mentioned (plus much more!) will be delivered direct to your Inbox. Talk about hands-off, eh?

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Leave a Reply