Five Quality Flashcard Activities and When to Use Them
The benefits of using flashcards in the ESL classroom are well-documented. When teachers use flashcards, they typically provide their students with three learning pathways: visual, kinesthetic, and audio (assuming that the exercise requires the students to say something related to the flashcard).
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Joseph O. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Reasons to use flashcards
In addition to appealing to a wide range of learning styles, flashcards are very multifunctional. They can be used to teach simple things such as basic vocabulary words, advanced grammar structures like complex sentences, and many things in between. Flashcards are also flexible - teachers can use the same set of cards with a wide variety of levels by simply changing the desired outcome or the amount of prompting a class receives. Moreover, flashcards are scalable. Teachers can refer back to previously-used flashcards and expand upon them to teach new language or grammar concepts.
Below are five flashcard activities that are flexible enough to be used across disciplines and levels, and have been largely successful when I have used them myself.
Charades add value to an ESL class in several ways. It’s a different, physically-involved activity that encourages friendly competition, which can increase the bond between classmates. The basics of how to play Charades in the classroom is the same as the classic party game. Many students have either played the game before or can understand how to play quickly. This makes Charades a viable activity for all levels of learning. Charades can be used to teach many different types of vocabulary or grammar concepts. In my experience, it is ideally suited for teaching continuous verb tenses and function-based language (occupations, adjectives of emotion, etc). Charades provide a lot of flexibility for a teacher. For example, at lower levels, it may be better to have the teacher act out the flashcards, but once the students are capable and comfortable enough, they can become the actors as well as the contestants. This flexibility also makes Charades an appropriate activity for both the Engage and Activate phases of instruction.
Perhaps the most widely-known flashcard activity, Concentration possesses many of the same benefits as Charades: a low barrier of understanding, multifunctionality, and flexibility. Like Charades, Concentration is useful when teaching a multitude of desired outcomes. I believe this activity has a particular value when students must combine two things that go together rather than matching two exact copies. Forming compound nouns, multi-word expressions, or complex sentence structures are all examples of this. Of course, in these cases, it is necessary to categorize and divide the flashcards into two groups. For example, when a teacher is playing Concentration with an Advanced Grammar class that is learning how to form conditional sentences, he or she will want to keep the cards with conditional clauses on them separate from the ones with result clauses. Unlike Charades, Concentration is best used as a Study phase activity.
3. Heads Up
This game has become quite popular in American culture. It started as a segment on the Ellen Show and has since been developed into one of the most successful gaming apps in history. There are various ways to configure this game based on class size, but here is how the activity typically works best: First, the students are divided into teams (3-5 students per team). One person is chosen as the “guesser” and sits facing his or her teammates. A timer is started, and the guesser puts a flashcard on his or her forehead, so the teammates can see it but the guesser cannot. The teammates try to get the guesser to say the word or phrase on the flashcard by verbal clues only. Once the time is up, the next team repeats the process. Once each student has been the guesser, the teams add up how many correct guesses they have accumulated.
Because it relies on the verbal skills of fellow students, Heads Up is best-suited for Intermediate levels and above, and is most effective when teaching new vocabulary. When this is the case, Heads Up can be a more entertaining and more active alternative to Concentration.
4. Complete the Cube
Each student has a blank 3x3 grid, with 3 red, 3 yellow, and 3 blue spaces. The teacher places stacks of red, blue, and yellow flashcards around the room. The basic idea of the activity is for students to mill about the classroom and ask classmates questions that are prompted by flashcards. Each color should be its category - for instance, each color could represent a different verb tense. The first student to check off all nine squares is the winner. This activity is a wonderful way to practice particular language structures using both receptive and productive skills. It is also an extremely flexible activity, as the teacher can develop colored cards to fit nearly every language task at every level.
Slap is a game where students sit across from each other with a pile of flashcards in front of each of them. There is a criteria card in between the players - for this example, "..." is a noun. The two students simultaneously flip over the top card in their respective stacks. Let’s say student A flips over a card that reads, “interesting,” and student B’s cards reads, “schedule.” Both students should slap their hand on top of the “schedule” card as quickly as possible. This activity is generally only used in the Study phase. I have found it most useful when drilling parts of speech, prefixes, and suffixes, or pronunciation. Be warned, Slap can create a bit of chaos in the classroom!
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The above activities, and using flashcards in general, will not be the ideal solution in all cases. There are benefits and drawbacks to any ESL activity, and teachers should be mindful of those before deciding what activity to use, and how to best set it up. Having said that, I have experienced how each of the above activities can be a stimulating, effective way to help students learn a particular concept of English.
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