Listening to Ron Koertge read his delightful poem, “Coloring,” I was reminded of just how much joy even high school students still take from participating in “art projects.” One of the projects my students (even seniors!) always seem to enjoy is creating their own flash cards for reviewing and studying new vocabulary words. Since it’s difficult to give up a lot of precious class time when there’s always so much to teach and only so many minutes to teach it in, what I’ve found works best for me is to dedicate 20 minutes or so at the beginning of each week to explaining the process and allowing students to work on their miniature masterpieces during class at the start of the school year, but to gradually taper off on the amount of in-class time given to this activity as the weeks pass, and encouraging students to keep up the practice on their own (out-of-class) time. Nonetheless, the practice of making vocabulary flash cards also makes a good “sponge” activity – a nice way to wrap up the last 5–10 minutes of class in a productive, fun, and word-centered pastime.
Making vocabulary flash cards is pretty straightforward and requires only a few materials, but there are a few tricks and tips for assisting with language acquisition that I’ve learned through the years which students have found rather helpful. For example:
- Instead of copying the dictionary definition onto the card for rote memorization, it’s important for students (especially English-language learners) to actually practice working with the language, so translating the dictionary definition into their own words is preferable:
- It’s also important for students to allow the mind to translate the word into an associative picture. Since many of the vocabulary words at this level are abstract, a literal representation may be quite out of the question. Therefore, an associative one is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged. For example, for the word ameliorate, one student thought right away of hot tea and chicken soup (i.e. comfort foods):
- Because students are trying to incorporate the new vocabulary words into everyday speech situations, it’s also important to let them experiment with generating sentences that use (or attempt to use) the new words correctly in context. However, the key word here is practice. Students’ initial attempts may require monitoring. Some student-generated sentences may be a bit “rough around the edges” and in need of gentle editorial suggestions for revision. Moreover, inspecting students’ flash cards periodically at the outset may prove to be a natural tool for assessment, so that you can quickly gauge the level or difficulty/ease of their language acquisition:
- Finally, it’s important to allow students the opportunity to creatively and playfully engage with language, so that the mind is allowed to do what it does best (i.e. work associatively) and each student’s learning is owned. This does take some time, but the payoff is well worth the investment:
- All you need to get started is a stack of 3 x 5″ index cards, highlighters in four different colors, and crayons, markers, or colored pencils. Alternately, students may want to cut-and-paste pictures or computer-generated clipart onto their vocabulary flash cards. Instruct the students to:
- Write the vocabulary word and its part of speech (i.e. noun, verb, adj., or adv.) on the front of the flash card, centered in the middle.
- Also write out the vocabulary word’s part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, or adverb) in the upper right-hand corner on the front of the card.
- Using a different color highlighter for each part of speech (i.e. all nouns one color, all verbs a second color, etc.) highlight the part of speech in the upper right-hand corner. For example, you could make all nouns yellow, all verbs pink, all adjectives green, and so on.
- On the back of the card, draw (or cut-and-paste) a picture that expresses the meaning of this word for you. It may be associative, or even abstract; it doesn’t have to be a literal representation. You may also choose to include more than one picture, if you’d like.
- Underneath the picture(s), write the word, the part of speech, and a definition in your own words (as opposed to copying down the dictionary definition).
- Complete your vocabulary flash card by thinking up an original sentence that uses the word correctly in context. Write your sentence on the back of the card beneath your definition.