Do You Use Flashcards?

Flashcards are a common catch-phrase for developmentally inappropriate teaching methods.  Even I use it that way.  But like many teaching approaches, it is important to separate the objective, the content, and the method.  You might be surprised to find flashcards may not be as evil as you thought.

The Objective

Flashcards are often used for enhancing quick recall of information, particularly to match symbols to their meaning.  Recognizing letters and numbers by their names, recalling sight words that have to be learned rather than decoded.  These objectives are not heinous in themselves.  Rapid recognition and recall is necessary, and requires practice.  (Stick with me here.)

Flashcards are used for recall and recognition.  Review.  That is quite different from teaching.  Concepts that are practiced through flashcards must be taught in another way to build connections and meaning, otherwise, the rapid recall is useless.

The Content

Flashcards range in content.  Sight words, colors, numbers sure, but as high school and college students we all used flashcards to study Spanish verbs or vocabulary for Anatomy class.  The key is in determining appropriate content for your objective and your audience.  Just as college students don’t generally need to be learning their colors, babies don’t need to review sight words.

The Method

Now here’s where my realization began.  Flashcards are often synonymous with the “drill and kill” method.  But as I’ve mentioned before, the same content can be taught with different methods.  If you’re a proponent of play-based learning, there are ways to incorporate a play approach and learn the same recognition and recall skills in more appropriate ways. 

Here are some ways you may already be using (or may choose to use) “flashcards” with a play approach.

  • Bingo: Cards may match numbers, letters, and pictures in a fun and engaging approach to recognizing symbols. (Here’s an example from Teach Mama.)
  • Card Games: Remember the card game war?  I loved it as a kid and now I use what is essentially a pack of number flashcards to play it with my kindergartener, who probably doesn’t even realize it’s a great way to incorporate number recognition as well as value comparisons.  We’ve also played “Go Fish”, matching upper case to lower case or grouping numbers or letters together.  Uno is another fun card game that kids happily play as a fun alternative to color and number drilling. (Check out an assortment of card games for young children at Preschool Express.)
  • Dance: Scatter numbers, letters, or colors on the floor.  Turn on some fun music and dance or march around.  When the music stops, pick up one to identify and place in a basket.  Continue until it’s all picked up.  Hap Palmer’s Marching Around the Alphabet is designed for this activity, but any music will do.
  • Active Games: Incorporate concepts into fun games like Twister (substitute color cues for other concepts like letters, numbers or sight words for older children–“Right foot on a triangle”), arrange terms or concepts across the room and hop from one to the other as you call them out in a hot lava game, or pin cards onto shirts and play red rover calling for numbers, letters, or shapes instead of using the children’s names.  (No Time for Flashcards has a fun shaky game here.)

Though you may despise the kill and drill format typically associated with flashcards, there are other methods based in play that can teach the same concepts.  The key is to keep it fun, active, and engaging, and to remember that these activities help with recall and recognition.  The real learning comes from meaning and connections built from experiencing and applying the concepts in real and meaningful ways.

What area some fun twists you put on the flashcard approach?

Top photo by Tory Brown.
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Filed under Article, Learning through Play and Experience, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Do You Use Flashcards?

  1. Stacey

    I used to use wooden number and letter puzzle pieces for scavenger hunts. I would hide the pieces (either numbers or letters) in the playroom and the kids would have to search for them. I would either hide them all and they would bring it to me and fit it into the puzzle and tell me what number or letter they had OR I would only hide certain ones and they would need to find the right ones and check it off their scavenger list. I guess you can use flashcards the same way.

    • notjustcute

      Great activity! I certainly wouldn’t trade the puzzle pieces for flashcards, but it would be a good activity for people looking for a more active spin when given flashcards to work with!

  2. Our speech-language pathologist gave us our first set of flash cards. They were actually groups of three to four cards each that, when placed in the correct sequence, told a story. We used them to encourage Jade to tell stories — the first time, we’d tell the story to her, and then we’d use cueing words to get her to tell the story back to us. Her epilepsy caused a severe language delay, so anything we could do to get her to talk was a good thing. She has always loved books and storytelling, so the cards were a good way to encourage talking. (And now, we practically can’t stop her — hooray!)

  3. Thanks for great ideas. I wrote a post on my use of flashcard some time back. Here’s the link.

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