What a difference a Challenge makes

I noticed my students falling asleep when we were learning new vocabulary from flash cards. I thought, “I know this can be boring, but come on! is it really that boring?”

So I started experimenting with different methods. Here’s what I found.

  • Reading the words slowly at first and checking pronunciation is good for students to catch “how to say the words”. However, it is a pet peeve to many students when teachers harp on the pronunciation (e.g. checking the pronunciation of one word like 10 times or having them repeat each word 3 times and running through the cards twice. Just to give you a sense of what that really means, 10 words at 3 times a piece, going through the cards twice, means the students are repeating what you say 60 times!!! Yawn.)
  • Many students like the challenge of trying to say the words quickly, so after running through the pronunciation, I like to run through the cards fast, getting the students to repeat each word about once at a quick speed.
  • After that I like to tell the students, “Quiz time!” and I ask them to read the words themselves. Again, I run through the cards rather quickly, keeping a steady pace.
  • Then it is fun to do a little “sneak peak” of the card and ask students to guess what they saw. You can quickly flash the card and ask them to guess, or you can pull out the card slowly and try to get the students to guess the words based on just a small fragment of the word (e.g. just the “h” from the word “host” or just the “and” from the word “understand”. As far as I know, it works wonders for all levels of JHS. However, it does also depend on the mood of the class.
  • When you go down the lines, and ask each student to read one word, that can also be boring, since the challenge is so minimal. It is good to up the ante from time to time. For example, have the first line of students read one word each. But then the next line has to read 2 words each. For the final student you can ask the students how many cards the last student should read. If it is a high level student, encourage them to do all the words.
  • I am also a fan of kinetic learning, so for each of these steps, I like to change my position in the room. Usually it looks like this: Step 1 (pronunciation) front left hand side of the room; Step 2 (speed drills) front right hand side; Step 3 (quiz time) middle of the room, behind the teacher’s desk.

In conclusion, a fast pace and a little challenge can wake your students up and get them to learn more. If you see many sleepy students during your vocabulary drills, you might want to reflect about your pace and how much of a challenge you are presenting the students.

This method only reflects the procedure for teaching the English side of flash cards. I usually leave it to the JTE to run through the Japanese. I wonder, what techniques do you use for flash cards?


  1. When I first started as an ALT, the 1 year JTE showed me how she wanted me to present the vocabulary: the 2,1,0 repetition method. They repeat after me twice, then once, then they read them on their own.
    After the students became used to the usual progression of the class (and life in JHS in general) we began to change it up by showing them the Japanese word and having them say the English or having a flashcard relay race. The JTE and I divide the target vocabulary cards and the students into two groups. I show one card to each of the students on my side of the class, as does she on her side, and we see which side of the class can say them the fastest.

    • I like that idea — the 2,1,0 repetition. I think you’ve discovered something else interesting as well which can be applied to other activities. That is, varying the pattern just a little bit can be incredibly interesting. It can also perhaps re-engage students. Thank you for the comments!

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