App Review: Flashcards – The Best App for Learning Vocabulary

flashcards nile low resDo you want to learn foreign language vocabulary faster, and not forget it?

This article will show you how.

What follows is a review of my favourite spaced-repetition flashcard app, which I’ve used to help me learn eight languages.

Learning New Vocabulary

What process do you go through to learn a new word?

Do you write it down? Where?

How do you revise it later? How long does it take you to learn it?

How many times do you have to see it before you know it? And how do you know when you really have learnt it?

All relevant questions if you want to get the bottom of vocabulary learning. Alternatively, if you just want to get the damn words learnt and leave the science to another day, just use a well-endowed piece of software to set it all up for you!

All About Flashcards

They are, of course, one of the most basic study tools there are. Write the known information on one side of a piece of card, and the unknown information on the other.

For example, the word “sleet” on one side, and the Chinese character “霙” on the other. You can then test yourself on everything by flipping the cards until you know them well.

Physical flashcards have worked for centuries, and naturally still do. However, they’re cumbersome to use as you have to manually determine the order of the cards yourself.

What technology has brought to the table is SRS – Spaced Repetition System. What SRS does, in a nutshell, is to control the frequency that certain cards appear and reappear.

As one proponent puts it:

A technique that ensures nearly perfect recall with minimum possible investment of time via computing optimum inter-repetition intervals.

In other words, you learn stuff quickly and save time. Manifest this in an iPhone and a killer app, and you’ve got a portable learning machine. An no excuses left!

What Does An SRS App Do?

I use the app Flashcards Deluxe on iOS and Android. I have no affiliation with the following product – I just think it rocks!

There are an awful lot of features on this app, most of which you probably won’t need. Here are the most important features to get you up and running:

  • write the flashcards out yourself or download pre-made decks from within the app from 4+ million options on Quizlet or FlashcardExchange. Note: other people’s stuff isn’t always good – vocabulary is likely to come in isolated words and many things will not be relevant to you – but nevertheless it could prove handy in the early stages. I recently learnt a short list of Cantonese adjectives, for example, that someone else had made and saved me lots of time.
Write both sides of the flashcard

Write both sides of the flashcard

  • As you review the vocabulary, you indicate how well you know the word with a swipe (up: very well; left: somewhat; down: not well).
Swipe the flashcard in the appropriate direction

Swipe the flashcard in the appropriate direction

  • The app then uses SRS (or Leitner system, if you prefer) to determine when to bring that card up again to best implant it in your long-term memory. The SRS is completely customisable, so you can control how many new cards to introduce at one time, how often to bring them back etc.

Spaced repetition system in action

  • You can attach photos and audio clips to flashcards  (again, within the app) as a memory aid.

Attach audio clips and photos

  • Select which side of the card to bring up first – so you can start with recognition (eg. French-English) and then move to production (eg. English-French).
  • Track your study time in detail
See a record of your studying

See a record of your studying

  • Have multiple sides to flashcards (useful in Japanese, for example, where you might want to have both the kanji and the furigana on separate sides)
  • Assign categories (eg. verb, noun, expression), types and statuses to each card so you can filter what you want to study

Assign categories, types and statuses to each card

How To Study Using SRS Flashcards

Here are some tips for getting the most out of the features such an app has to offer, based on what has worked for me.

  • Dig out your notebook and transfer vocabulary you need to learn onto flashcards on the app
  • Don’t write single words on flashcards – implant them into full sentences and learn the sentences as a whole (here’s why).
  • Attach relevant photos flashcards if you can – visuals give the memory something else to latch on to. (Learning the word “delicious”? Take a picture of the food you’re eating.)
  • Similarly, use the voice memo function to attach a recording of a native speaker saying the sentence. You can do this in a language exchange, for example.
  • Experiment with the SRS settings. You could, for example, lower the number of new words that are introduced in one study session.
  • When learning a large amount of vocabulary, begin with recognition only – displaying the target language flashcard first. Only having to recognise the word is easier than the other way round.
  • If you use transliteration or phonetic transcription (eg. for Japanese or Chinese), use the 3-sided function to write the original script on a third flashcard

Overall

espresso learn languagesFor the price of an espresso, you get a very powerful learning tool indeed. Transform all those spare 5-minute slots in your day into power study sessions by digging your phone out of your pocket and reviewing that vocab that just won’t stick.

You might be too busy studying to remember to enjoy all the progress!

Flashcards are hugely powerful, but you need a good language learning strategy to make the most of them.

To learn more about my complete method for learning and memorising vocabulary, you might like this…

Image: melaychie

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

Got a question? I'll answer it on the podcast! Just click here!

Also connect with Olly on Facebook, Twitter and Google+
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  • Jenia

    Dear Olly,

    Thanks so much for your blog. It is very inspiring!
    My question is how to find those phrases which I will write into the app. Where do you take them from? Do you have a phrase book or a study book or take it from the movies and songs you learn in the target language?

    I am living in Germany and want to study Hebrew.

    Best,
    Jenia

    • Hi Jenia. Thanks so much for your kind words!

      The answer to your question is… all of those things! 🙂 I use a lot of different sources of input when I’m studying – textbooks, phrase books, conversations, movies, songs etc. Then, with each new word/phrase that comes up, I’m thinking to myself: “How important is it for me to learn this right now?”

      For example, as a beginner, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over learning a low-frequency word like “seatbelt“, but I would make a big effort to learn a useful verb like “choose“. If I’m watching a movie and keep hearing a character saying the same phrase over and over, it’s probably worth trying to learn. If I’m doing a lot of language exchanges with someone, I’ll make an effort to learn phrases that will help me in the conversation, like “could you say that again?” or “what does that mean?

      To think of it another way, you write down useful language in a notebook whilst you’re studying, right? What I do these days is, rather than write it in a notebook, I’ll just put it directly into Flashcards. That way I can study it wherever I am, and whenever I have 5 minutes free.

      Does that answer your question? This post and this video might help you in deciding what to prioritise in your studying.

      Good luck and hope to hear from you again!

      • Macca Tech

        Hi Olly,

        I found your blog via a google search, and it is very interesting – particularly your last reply to Jenna. I have exactly the same thoughts as you about language-learning (e.g. being selective about what you learn, choosing a translation that works for you, using an app instead of a handwritten notebook). That’s why I created an iPhone app that does exactly what I need! It might be interesting to you too (and your readers): it’s called Vocab YOU. There’s a free version with a word limit for you to try out. Check out my website: http://vocabyou.com

        All the best,

        Francis

    • Mark Maiwerd

      Jenia,
      If you haven’t already, check out wordreference.com where you can get access to vocab in context based on a word’s various meanings. I find it to be indispensable.
      Best to you!

  • shawn

    Hi Olly, learning Spanish. What is a good number of vocabulary i should aim to learn on a daily basis via flash cards? Thinking of tackling a frequency dictionary, first 1000 words with sentences. Any thoughts?

    • Hey Shawn. This is an interesting question. The answer is…. it depends! Is there any particular reason you want to use the freq dict? Personally, I can’t think of anything I’d less rather do than work my way through a frequency dictionary. However, I know it works for some people. If you’re a beginner I’d say it’s much better to work with dialogues from a text book, because everything’s contextualised and you can still extract useful vocabulary from the dialogues and stick them into flashcards (like this).

      If you’re going with the dictionary approach, then the only way you’re going to know for sure is by experimenting. In the language teaching world, a rule of thumb is that 7-12 items of vocabulary can realistically be taught in one lesson. Of those, you might expect 5 to get learnt. So you could aim for, say, 7 vocabulary items per day. A different approach would be to bombard yourself with vocab, accept that you’ll forget most of it, but aim for the high exposure.

      Try a couple of different approaches and keep experimenting. Let me know how it goes!

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  • nuttty

    You try this app

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=air.MemorizeCommonEnglishWords

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=air.MemorizeCommonEnglishWordsPro

    It’s the cool app.

    This app will be help you to memorize most common english words.

  • Nice review! I actually put all of my flashcard material on Memrise but I used this app prior to discovering Memrise.

    • Hi Shannon, Memrise is great too, although I find it a bit too “fluffy”. I prefer the no-nonsense drilling style of basic flashcards. However, people learn in different ways and what’s important is to find the right one for you.

  • Hi Olly,
    I’m a language teacher in Munich, I find your blog always very inspirative and I always suggest your blog to my students to find their way to learn the new language.
    Thank you very much for your “indirect” help
    Greetings from Munich
    http://www.studio-navivo.it

    • Hi, that’s great… I hope your students find it useful!

  • The[Eye]TDepartment

    Regarding your e-book, I noticed that you said that the memrise smartphone app requires internet access. This is only partly true. Courses can be downloaded over wifi/ cellular network connection, and then used offline. This service is free of charge. Just thought you should know 🙂
    Your e-book was really interesting and incredibly useful. Many thanks!

    • Hi – oh, that’s great! Thanks for letting me know!

  • VocApp.com

    If you want to create your flashcards automatically from the text (e.g. it will extract the most important words from article, translate them, add pictures, mp3 pronunciation, and so on), you have to try https://vocapp.com – it’s free:)

  • Emery Lafond

    For managing yourself words you wana review , http://www.vocateacher/en/Revision is quite good

  • Gauri Verma

    Thanks to share.!! recording app

  • Jonathan Shai Jacobs

    Hi Olly,

    Maybe people asked you that questions a billion times, but… Why flashcard deluxe and not Anki? I know I should try both but like Anki cost 20€ on iphone I wanted to have a good reason not to use it 🙂

    • Basically because Anki has a horrible user interface and is incredibly confusing for most people

      • Jonathan Shai Jacobs

        So, even if I don’t think Anki is that horrible, I agree that flashcard deluxe is a much better app! I still use Anki with Readlang it’s a good match

    • I agree with Olly, the interface is what you expect from ‘free!’ software, ie it’s not very good. Flashcard Deluxe is also a bit awkward to get to know it but once you do it’s great. Don’t bother importing other people’s lists though as they often have mistakes. Create your own.

  • Karene

    If you like to study old fashioned style, I would recommend to use My Learning Assistant iOS app.
    http://www.my-learning-assistant.com/en/
    They give you access to an unique feature: Paper list mode. You can display the 2 columns and then use a virtual paper to cover one column. Same as I was doing at school. 🙂

    You can also use quiz, flashcard and write the answer.

  • Mattiwos99

    This is a great article. What I’ve always been looking for is an app that will make use of a smartphone’s ability to throw up alerts on the screen – wouldn’t this be a great way to test oneself? At random times of the day you would be asked to remember the definition of one of your vocabulary words. Does anyone know if such an app exists out there?

    • That’s a cool idea. I know there are people working on flashcard apps, so maybe they’ll include that feature!

  • uuandem

    I’ve found two tools really useful for my Spanish study. Coffee Break Spanish podcast is awesome for practicing listening to Spanish. And I use FlashcardsMate (http://www.flashcardsmate.com) to run my flashcard tests. It has built in support for Spanish verb conjugation testing – which is handy for those annoying irregular verbs.

  • StDiko

    The quote to tweet is not correct.
    Repetitio est mater studiorum – is the right order of words. Just saying.

  • Theodore Mitchell

    For spaced repetition software with lots of great features, check out my free iOS app, Gridded. It’s good at pulling together multiple sources to create a consistent library. Say, for example, in one deck you have the prompt “to laugh” matched to the response “rigoler” and in another deck you have “to laugh” matched with “rire”. You can ask Gridded to “Resolve Conflicts” and combine these into one with response “rigoler,rire”. It also has in-app translation powered by Bing and lots of great import and export options.

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/gridded/id1046419120?ls=1&mt=8

  • Flashcards are a great way to study. I like this one: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=b_on.com.e_cards

  • Lester Senk
  • Milissa Wasserman

    Learning German. I’m looking for an app that will take a list of vocabulary words and build a paragraph or more with them. I find that when attempting to read the German newspaper I come across words that I have been studying and it immediately burns the definition in my brain. Yes, I can build my own sentences but then I already know what to expect. I find the “element of surprise” seems to work better. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Milissa

  • Oleh Sliusar

    Which good web (PC) alternative of this app do you know?

    • Probably Quizlet or Anki are the most popular.

    • L-Lingo is the best, if they have the language you want. And why do they need my email to see a video?