When I was first training to be an ESL teacher (many years ago!), using flashcards with young ESL/EFL learners was limited to choral drilling exercises to learn vocabulary – which was, frankly, not much fun for anyone involved! The idea of only using flashcards to teach vocabulary in this way seemed very limited to me – and also seemed to contradict other modules on the course that stated children learn most effectively through play.
Thank goodness we now know better!
The versatility and incredible potential of using flashcards with young ESL/EFL learners, can add enormous value to their English learning. If used in fun, interactive ways they can be a great tool to introduce, practise, recycle and extend vocabulary in enjoyable and motivating ways.
Don’t just take my word for it!
I asked my young learners to vote on their favourite classroom activities. Amazingly (and with great relief, otherwise I’d have no blog to write!), 10 out of the 15 activities they chose involved flashcards. So, here’s the list of the 10 most popular classroom activities, as voted by my 6-11 year old students. They can all be easily adapted for different learning goals/proficiency levels, including online classes (where visuals are so important).
Top 10 Favourite Flashcard Activities
1. Simon Says
Once they can recall most of the words in a topic set, i.e. transport, use them to play a game of ‘Simon Says…’. For example, ‘Simon Says … ride a bike / sail a boat / drive a car…’. Show the flashcard as you say the words, as a prompt. The children must repeat the words and do the action (unless you don’t say ‘Simon Says…’). Children can sit down if they are ‘out’ and help monitor the rest of the class, until you are left with a winner. Alternatively, they can play against you, so each time they are correct they get a point and each time they make a mistake, you get a point. This action game works well with most vocabulary sets, for example:
Clothes: Simon Says put on your hat / shoes / coat / gloves, etc.
Food: Simon Says eat an ice-cream / hamburger / yoghurt / pizza, etc.
Animals: Simon Says be an elephant / snake / monkey / crocodile, etc.
Make Bingo boards – either using pictures, words or a combination of both. (Provide counters for the children to cover the words called out, so the boards can be used multiple times.) Encourage the children to take turns as the ‘Bingo caller’ to help improve their pronunciation too! For an online version, you can create and send Bingo boards to the children ahead of the class or ask them to make their own boards for the topic(s) you select. (If they don’t have counters at home, be creative! We’ve played games using replacements such as Lego bricks, pasta bows and cheerios!)
3. Pelmanism / Pairs
Using two sets of picture cards, lay them out on a grid. Quickly revise the vocabulary. Turn them face down. In small groups, children take turns to turn over two cards and say what is on those cards. If they match, they get to keep the pair – if not, they turn them back over and the next player takes their turn. This is a great memory game whether using same-topic cards or a selection of different topics mixed together. For an online version you can display the grid of cards so all the children can see them. Number the back of the cards so children take turns to select two numbers, which you turn over for them.
4. Kim’s Game
Place up to eight picture cards on the board/table/floor and quickly revise the vocabulary. Ask the class to close their eyes as you remove one or two cards. When they open their eyes can they tell you which cards are missing? Add a further element of excitement by using a fun timer. With younger children you may need to put a cloth/towel over the set of cards as you remove the selected items – as they usually can’t help but peep!
One child thinks of an object that they can currently see. They say: ‘I-Spy (with my little eye) something beginning with…’ and then give the first letter of the word. (For younger children you could use the colour of the object or some other simple distinguisher.) The class takes turns guessing objects that match the criteria given. If a student guesses the object correctly, they win the round and they get to choose the next object. Repeat the process for as long as desired, with scoring if you want to add an element of competition. For online classes children can choose things visible in their homes or you can prepare a simple montage of flashcards for the vocabulary you wish to practise.
6. Mystery Bag / Box
In class, children really enjoy taking turns to pull a picture card out of a ‘feely bag’, naming the item on their card (and keeping it if they can correctly name it). They can be encouraged to make simple sentences too, e.g. It’s a green jumper. / It’s a long, red scarf. The winner is the child with the most cards at the end. Add multiple copies of flashcards if you have bigger groups. This game can be even more fun if you have access to realia, for example toy animals or food items (you can often pick sets up cheaply at charity shops or online stores).
For online classes, you can adapt this game to have several pictures or items in a feely bag/mystery box that you describe to the children and they try to guess what they are. Start simply, with words they know from one topic (e.g. an apple, egg, chocolate), but enjoy playing around with different topics and crazy objects too (e.g. last week my class of 6-year-olds had to guess ‘smelly sock’, ‘rainbow’ and ‘Mr. Potato Head’! Their giggling made it worth the effort.) Older children can take turns to create their own Mystery Boxes for the class to guess.
Players take turns to pick a card and then draw it on the board. The first child to correctly guess what’s being drawn wins a point and takes the next turn drawing. To add more excitement, the class can be put into small teams to race each other. This also works well for older children if played as Hangman, so they are revising spellings and letter names too. Both games can be played equally well during online classes, the children just need paper and pens.
8. Vocab Relay Race
Split the class into two teams. Place a selection of up to 20 picture cards at the furthest point away from the teams’ starting place – one set per team – face up and spread out. You (or one of the children) call out words on the cards, and one member of each team races to their card set, collects the correct card and races back to hand it to you. The first child back, with the correct card, wins a point for their team. Continue until all team members have had at least one turn. A similar game can be played online by emailing the set of cards to each child before the class, so they can colour and cut them out. You then call out words and the first child to find and raise the correct picture from their set wins the point.
9. I Went To The Shops…
Depending on the level of your students, you can give each of them a picture/word card before the start, or let them choose their own. Going around the class, children take turns to say the item they bought at the shop – adding an extra item each time. For example:
Child 1: I went to the shop and I bought bananas.
Child 2: I went to the shop and I bought bananas AND a chicken…
Continue around the class to see how many items they can remember in sequence. You could allow them to show their picture/word card to other students, if they need help to remember the order.
This works well for other topics too, limited only by your imagination! For example:
Wild animals: I went to the zoo/on safari and I saw …
Farm animals: I went to a farm and I fed …
Clothes: I went on holiday to Spain and I packed …
10. Ten Questions / What am I?
One child chooses a picture/word card and the rest of the class have to ask yes/no questions to guess the item. (You can set a maximum number of questions allowed.) Model questions on the board first, for example, for the topic of food: Is it a fruit? Does it have a skin/peel? Do you need to cook it? Is it red/yellow/green…? Would my dog eat it?!
The first child to correctly guess can be the next chooser of a card and take the ‘hot seat’. If you send the selected cards to the children before the online class, this game can be played in exactly the same way. You can have question cues on your screen to support younger children.
Summary and helpful resources
In summary, using flashcards with young ESL/EFL learners can be really effective and fun. They’re quick and easy to make and offer great versatility for introducing, practising, recycling and extending vocabulary – in the classroom, online and at home.
If, like me, you have limited drawing skills (and don’t like clipart) the Osito ESL Picture Card Pack might be your saving grace! The pack contains 15 x 12 sets of vocabulary picture cards, including the topics of Food, Animals, Clothes, Weather and Transport. That’s 180 fabulous pictures you can use to create attractive, motivating materials to support your young learners.
It’s worth adding that research shows when using flashcards with young ESL/EFL learners, they should only be used for short periods of time and in lively, interactive ways. You can, of course, support the learning with further repetition through action songs, cartoons, stories and games. YouTube has some super free resources to support you and parents/carers. Try out: Oxford University Press ELT (songs), Maple Leaf Learning, Super Simple Songs and the Singing Walrus!
Please share how you’re using flashcards with young ESL/EFL learners in your online teaching – in the comments below – so we can all help and support each other during these crazy, challenging times.