Happy Cheetah Reading

Flashcards: Friend or Foe?

When my son was learning to read, several of the eleven programs we tried included flashcards.

Popular Usage

I don’t know how much you’ve thought about flashcards. When I studied for a major exam recently, I made about a hundred flashcards to help me remember certain details. I don’t know, in retrospect, if those flashcards helped, but it made me feel more prepared. I knew, at least for a time, what to do for a person with a really dry mouth. Thinking back . . . I’m not sure I remember much more than that.

And I remember using flashcards as a child to help memorize the math facts. Those memorized facts are helpful. Of course, I always found the most difficult part of math to be the word problems, where I had to know how to solve the problem first. The basic computation, like “six times eight is forty-eight,” seemed easy enough to figure out.

I think I probably used flashcards in high school foreign language, but remember little besides Mi casa es su casa — which I didn’t learn in class anyway. Immersion is usually best for foreign language. I heard a man tell the story of how he learned Mongolian, while living in Mongolia. He would learn a phrase, and then have to go and use the phrase fifty times with random people in the street or market. So it seems that speaking in context is a good way to effectively learn a foreign language.

But other than these passing thoughts, I really didn’t have much opinion on flashcards.

My Son’s Progress

With my son, some of the programs we tried included preprinted flashcards. Those were nice. I liked the orderly colors and the cute box to store them in.

At least one program taught how to make specific-to-the-student flashcards, using clever mnemonic devices that I thought would surely, surely work. (I mean: different colors! Phonetic sounds to prompt as needed! What could be better?!)

Of the different options, the clever handmade cards did help my son slowly improve in his flashcard abilities.

But — and this is the surprising thing — this improvement never seemed to translate over to his actual reading.

What the Research Shows

Interestingly enough — my experience is not unique.

Dr. Karen Holinga, a reading specialist, said that she regularly sees parents come in with their children who are struggling to read. The parents will bring in a stack of 300 flashcards and say, “Watch!”

And the children will dutifully and quickly work their way through the stack. Perfect reading, all the way.

But then when these students are supposed to read a story that uses those exact same words . . . the children can’t do it.

What is going on?

It turns out that there’s a simple, scientific reason why flashcards don’t work.

Research shows that the brain stores flashcard words and story words in different parts of the brain.

Flashcards are itemized knowledge. But stories are in context.

As Dr. Karen says, “the research shows that all new information has to be linked to other meaningful information! If new information is not connected, the brain has no way to store, retrieve, or apply the new information.

“This is why a student might be able to accurately read through 300 flashcards, but not be able to read those same words on a page. The flashcards are disconnected bits of information, while words on a page are in context of a story. The brain needs the context of a story to easily retrieve the information.”

When you read a story, you are reading words in context, words that naturally have connections.

Stories are the best way to learn new words.

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