Flashcard it you should not


Yoda here again. A little problem with Luke Skywalker I am having. Wishes to use nuclear device instead of light saber he does.

Why would Yoda care? Why should we care about how the enemy is killed? Isn’t it better to kill a whole lot more Stormtroopers at once, anyway? And why should we care about how new vocabulary is learned?

Because we do not “learn” vocabulary in TPRS or CI. We help kids acquire it. Because we draw an important distinction between learning and acquisition, and that distinction is THE basic concept that makes TPRS and CI teaching work. Because TPRS is all about narrow and deep and slow, not broad and shallow and quick.

Some teachers who come to TPRS from legacy methods might have a rationale for why they stick to memorization of vocabulary:

I use flashcards as homework before a story so I can do more in a story. They do the flashcards and games online, then I use all the words in a story.

This description of practice just makes me shiver. I’m shivering with dread about the (high) probability that the story that comes out of this process is not going to fly. And that so often means that another teacher will conclude that “TPRS doesn’t work.” What are the red flags that make this likely?

  • The teacher is trying to “do more“. That means more words. No one would assign flashcard homework for kids to learn three words or phrases or fewer, would they?
  • It’s a task that is crucial to the success of the next day’s class activity. If students do not do that homework, they will be completely lost during storyasking in relation to the pace the teacher expects to be able to go with the others who did the homework — the ones who have “learned” the words already.
  • This hints that the teacher hasn’t really “gotten” the most basic principles of TPRS — teaching narrow and deep (doing less, not more, in a story), and acquiring, not learning (no memorization).
  • If the teacher hasn’t “gotten” the core principles, he is unlikely to be able to effectively present (all) those new words in a story. Again, there are likely to be a high number of new words before memorization by flashcard makes sense, so we’re looking at a situation where a teacher who is not very experienced at TPRS is trying to hit five, seven or even ten targets during a class period. I’ve been doing it for sixteen years and I doubt I could hit five — and my students show the best progress when I stick to ONE.

But there is great comfort in legacy methods like memorization. It puts the responsibility on the kids. It allows the teacher to focus on storytelling, not teaching new vocabulary.

The problem is that this comfort and convenience comes at a price. Many teachers might say:

I use the words in a story after the kids memorize them, so really, what’s the harm?

A couple of things.

The biggest problem with text-based memorization of vocabulary is foreign accent. And it happens faster than you might imagine.

Take a random kid from any 1st year class, or an average one from a 2nd year class, and give him a word in the target language that he’s never seen before. Chances are he will pronounce it by reading it the way the letters sound in English. The less oral input the student has had in the language in general, the higher the probability he’ll read it wrong. The legacy taught ones may have the sound-letter correspondence rules beaten into their heads, but it doesn’t mean that the rules get used in actual output.

By giving kids flashcards for their first encounter with new words, you’re practically begging for foreign accent. I call this “premature texting” — exposing new speakers of a language to text before the sound of the words (not just the “sounds of the language”) is firmly in their head. And this way of doing things is completely backwards to the way TPRS handles literacy: in TPRS, first we understand, then we read what we can understand. The corollary to this is that in the process of  coming to understand (not just being told once what the meaning is) language, we hear the language many, many times, so that there is a “French voice” in the head that is pronouncing things right. There’s no chance the “French voice” is a drunken American, because the student has not had to try to guess what a word sounds like simply by relying on the written form. It’s in the ear, first.

But isn’t it a time savings to have the kids do the boring stuff (learning the words) at home on their own, and then just using them in a story in class?

After having them work online at home I use all those words in the story. I found that my kids got bored if we took too long on circling questions. They just wanted to get on with the story!

This doesn’t sound like an issue with establishing meaning. This sounds like the problem is circling that is predictable and boring. In skilled hands, circling is just as entertaining as the “real story” — and often leads to multiple parallel stories or offshoot adventures. Circling is not, and should not be, a litany off a fixed chart.  “Who? Juan. Juan or Miguel? Juan. Miguel? No. What? Eats. Eats or buys? Eats…” It needs to be second nature to the teacher so that it can be organically threaded into the language experience, rather than carelessly tossed on top of it.

Circling can be boring and mechanical — but that generally happens when there hasn’t been enough training and coaching for a teacher to realize the importance of being totally unpredictable and of mixing circling in with other TPRS skills (or not enough practice to be able to be unpredictable and mix in with other skills). Gone are the good old days when we “parked” and didn’t do anything other than ask circling questions for a set period of time or number of questions. Watch someone who is very experienced at TPRS and you’ll be hard-pressed to really draw a line at where circling “is”. It’s more like a circling question, a dab of classroom management, a pop-up, comprehension check, circling question, personalized question-that-is-a-circling-question-structurally, pop-up a cultural idea, ask a fishing question, circle the new information with the old sentence…and so on.

And if you don’t circle — how are the kids going to get enough repetitions of that new language in unpredictable contexts so as to facilitate acquisition? Circling is the bread and butter of TPRS, and done well, I don’t know of anything that gets language (big language, not little pieces)  into heads better.

If they know the words first, things can go more quickly and they’ll stay engaged.

Keeping students engaged is a tool, not a goal. Making things go more quickly is not what TPRS is about. TPRS is about going narrow and deep. It’s about teaching in a way, and with a philosophy, that is totally at odds with almost everything else that’s going on in our schools today. We push no output before its time. We don’t go on until everyone “gets it”. It’s not about how much and how fast; it’s about how good.

So, what flashcard homework to establish meaning really is, is using a memorization-based, legacy methods tool to bring too many words in to a method whose strength comes from going narrow and deep. I can’t see where that can possibly be a good idea for students in the TPRS levels, particularly 1st and 2nd year.

More advanced users of a language can effectively use flashcards to memorize language and even be able to output it — in a way. (Remember that the danger of foreign accent from “premature texting” is not an issue at this stage.) When I am preparing for a technical conference (I’m a simultaneous interpreter), I will frequently memorize a list of 100 or so technical terms overnight, for use the next day. I can output them when I need to the next day, often with some support from notes. But I do not end up with anything close to those 100 words all in my long-term memory, firmly acquired. I’m just as clueless about the terms for the topic the next time, except for a handful of words that got used most frequently during the conference. The flashcards enable me to output them in time of great need, but does not lead to long-term retention of those words.

Only sustained comprehensible input can do that. Flashcards fail to deliver sustained, contextualized comprehensible input in an engaging way.



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