View Full Version : Flashcards and Games - Making them More Effective

July 28th, 2008, 11:49
Before I came to Japan to teach English, I taught mathematics to 7th-graders in America (or what would be Junior High School 1st-graders in Japan). Needless to say, there is a humongous difference between mathematics education and foreign language education; so, despite my teaching credentials, I really was jumping into the deep end on this one.

If your Elementary schools are anything like mine, you may end up creating all of the lessons and teaching the class yourself. Fortunately, with one exception, all of my JTEs will be rather supportive and keep the class under control and participate in the lesson.

One of the things I fell back on for my elementary lessons is what worked for me learning Japanese. I think we can all agree that wrote memorization is frankly boring, but there really is no way around it if you are to effectively learn a language. It’s pretty hard to put into practice words that you don’t know.

I try to make it fun for the kids though. I use funny voices, or radically change the volume of my voice. I start out by using a slow, clear voice to pronounce a word, and have them repeat it four times before moving on to the next card. When I put the card down on the small table in front of me, I make sure to set the next card next to it, then the next one on top of it. This has an effect of auto-shuffling the cards.

It is important that flashcards are not practiced in the same order every time. The goal, in using a flashcard, is to create an association in the brains of each student between the content of the card and the word they are saying. The last thing you want them to do is develop an association between the flashcard and the one immediately before or after it. They won’t always be in situations where the word they’re looking for happens to be in the context of a tiger and a monkey. They need to be able to picture a lion in their heads and say “lion,” without reference to the tiger and monkey flashcards that came before and after the lion one.

Another problem that this solves is that of our tendency to naturally remember the first few and the last few items in a series. Ever try to remember an eight or ten digit phone number without breaking it into smaller pieces? You remember that it began with an 8 and ended with a 9. The same problem applies here. If they feel like there is a beginning and end to the list (not that hard to do), they’ll remember the first couple and the last couple of cards you showed them, and forget the rest.

Once I finish saying each card four times, I go through the newly shuffled pile again, saying each three times, then again with two times, and then one. If I see that they need more practice, I’ll go another one and maybe another one.

I then make them all say each card once together without my help. This is a good way to listen for the mistakes. Kids will clam up and be afraid to speak individually, but as a group, they’ll loudly and proudly yell out “O-REN-JIIII” just as everyone else yells “peaches”. Or, if they get the word right, they might say “PEACH” when everyone else is using the plural. If you are hearing a lot of mistakes, or a lot of mumbling, you may need to go over the vocabulary a few more times. Make sure to make it fun. I like to tell them that if the Principal in the staff room can’t hear them, then they aren’t being loud enough.

Finally, I have the first two people at the two opposite sides of the class janken (do rock-paper-scissors). The winner gets to decide if go first or if their row goes last. You would be surprised at the number of kids who decide to go first, much to the chagrin of their row. I tell the row to stand up, and when they say the word on the card (the cards are continuously auto-shuffled whilst doing this), then they may sit down. This is an excellent way to find out who is having the problems and who is doing well.

This part is tricky though. The kids, especially younger ones, will tend to start crying at the drop of a hat, so it is best not to force them to stand there for minutes on end. Sometimes little hints can help if they aren’t getting it. Another technique I use is to count down on one hand five, long seconds. If they still haven’t gotten it, then I have the class tell them all together.

Also, be careful not to let them ask their friends. As often as not, their friends will inadvertently tell them the wrong answer. Then not only do they lose face for getting it wrong, but so do their friends. Try not to let the JTE be too pushy about it either. I had one JTE who insisted that every kid had to say the word, and would not let up. He was screaming and yelling at one kid who wouldn’t say it, and wouldn’t let me either give them a different card, or just move on to another kid. Sometimes, there’s nothing to be done about it.

Remember, you’re a language teacher, and the entire point of your being there is to help teach English (or whatever language you were hired to teach, be it French, German, or whatever). You’re not just there to play games, and it is important that your time spent there ensures that they come away from that lesson with at least a few of the vocabulary and a simple, related conversation.

In a similar vein, make sure that the games you play with the kids actually help them learn English. Think of ways to make them better for that purpose. For example, which serves the children better? Bingo, where you call the items, and they listen, and circle the items on their card, or Reverse Bingo, where each of the kids take turns saying the items themselves, in an attempt not to get Bingo, and get everyone else out? I would say the latter – they not only get the listening practice, but speaking practice as well.

Which is better? Fruits Basket where the middle person simply says a few words, or God forbid, just screams “Fruits Basket,” or a Fruits Basket game where the kids must ask the middle person a question and the middle person must answer? I go a step further, actually, with Fruits Basket. I rule that in order to get everyone to move, they have to list off all of the items individually (No “Fruits Basket!”), and that if they only use one item, they cannot use their own. Lately, I’ve added a rule that if someone uses one item, then next must use two, and the next three until all of them must be said.

This might seem overly complex, but the children generally get it quickly enough. Furthermore, they have a lot more fun than when the middle person just says one thing (their own), then the next does the same thing, again and again. Finally, I like to keep my item a secret, and see if the kids can guess it at the end of the game based on when I move. They get it right often enough, and everyone felt all the more clever for it.

July 28th, 2008, 12:24
Rin's advice about shuffling the cards is spot on! With elementary students, you can "accidentally" drop the cards, hand out a set with pictures rather than the words, and have the students race to find their "pair" with the dropped cards.
Having flash cards in sets by theme or opposites also works well - hot/cold, happy/sad etc. Starting with pictures for elementary kids until they are comfortable with pronunciation, and then moving on to cards with the words printed also works well as you can show them the picture as a hint.

August 1st, 2008, 23:00
Sadly, I have no such ability, though I really wish I did!

I always try to make colorful cards, but a good rule of thumb for stationary cards is not to let them be too busy. There really doesn't need to be much on the card, and it's advisable to avoid actual pictures of things. Human brains actually process abstract, simplified images better than photos, and photos run the risk of having a bunch of background stuff that busies them up too much. There was an experiment done where a picture of a fighting fish was held up to a fish tank with a real one in it. The fish utterly ignored it. However, when they held up a simplified picture of a fish, the real one went nuts and attacked the glass.

Another reason for this is that a photo may actually cause the kids to think that you are talking about that specific kind of thing. If you say that a photo of a catfish is "fish" they might end up asking what you call a "maguro" in English. However, an abstract, general image of a fish will be unmistakeably fish in general.

Oh, and for those of you who, like me, cannot use PowerPoint in the classroom, I almost invariably laminate my cards. A4 paper is the perfect size to make manageable, yet big-enough cards that can be easily seen by all the kids.

Chances are, your school isn't going to gripe if you use their laminator, and they'll almost always have a box full of sheets for you to use. I just get on the office computer and print out what I need to, then laminate them.

A word of advice if anyone does go this route:

Lamination sheets come in different thicknesses (measured in microns), and laminators have a knob or button for setting the temperature or speed. This is important. Typically, the laminator will have a chart that points out what setting is to be used with which sheet thickness. My schools never have the 150 micron sheets, and that's fine, since a stack of ten to twelve of those gets heavy. I always see the 100 micron sheets, and the laminator should be set to handle those. If you set it too high, then it will start to melt the sheets onto the rollers and they can easily become jammed. If you do have 150 micron sheets, if you set them too low, they won't melt together sufficiently and will separate.

Another thing with lamination. I see teachers do this all the time and it drives me nuts. They'll laminate something and then cut the excess lamination around the paper so close that it separates and air and moisture make their way into it, ruining a perfectly good sign or card. You'll often see a tiny ridge of air trapped in the lamination. It's best if you have to cut excess lamination off, to leave about three to five millimeters beyond it.

Finally, round off the corners of any cards that the kids will handle. They have a nasty habit of stabbing themselves with the corners, which can be rigid and sharp. You might also want to tell them ahead of time that they need to be careful not to fold the cards. They can bend to a fair degree, but once folded, they're completely ruined and no amount of re-running them through the lamination machine will save them.

August 2nd, 2008, 09:45
You guys are great. Thanks for the advice!! :D

October 28th, 2008, 01:04
For those of you without powerpoint of a laminating facility, here's a good tip. Buy those transparent A4 hard plastic wallets from the 100 yen shop. Get about 15 of them. Then, whenever you make A4 flashcards you can exchange them into the wallets to keep them safe, and file them the rest of the time. Saves a lot of hassle laminating too.

Another tip with flashcards is draw them yourself...poorly (or well if you're one of those Otaku anime practicing JETs!). The kids love seeing my less than good but very Western drawings and, as long as what you've drawn is clear, it gets a much bigger laugh and much more interest than cookie cutter Microsoft clipart or whatever.