Make Vocabulary Flash Cards

Yes, students are STILL using these old standbys.

student reviewing flash cards
(Phillip Nemenz/Getty Images)

So you have a vocabulary list a mile long and are wondering how to learn the words, right? Flash cards are always an easy way to get some of those vocabulary words stuck inside your head where they need to be when the big test rolls around. And yes, there is a right and wrong way to make a flash card (or at least an effective and ineffective way). 

This process works well for remembering Greek and Latin roots, too.

Learning Greek roots is a great way to learn vocabulary, by the way. You can learn five or six words just by learning one root!

Assemble Your Materials

There's nothing worse than starting a project without everything you need. Gather these supplies:

  • 3 X 5 index cards
  • Highlighters - at least four different colors
  • A keyring, ribbon, or rubber band
  • A dictionary or
  • A list of vocabulary words you have to know
  • A hole puncher
  • A pencil

The Front of the Flash Card

Write a vocabulary word, and only the word, neatly on the front of a 3 x 5 card in pencil. Center the word both horizontally and vertically, and be sure to keep the front of the card free from extra markings, smudges, or doodles. Why? You'll see why in a minute.

The Upper Left Corner of the Back

On the reverse side, the information side of the flash card, write a definition for the word in the upper left-hand corner. Make sure you write the definition in your own words.

This is absolutely key. If you write a dictionary definition, you will be less likely to remember what the word means!

The Upper Right Corner of the Back

Write the part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.) in the upper right corner of the back. Make sure you understand what the part of speech means before writing it down.

Then, color-code it. Highlight that particular part of speech with one color. Make all the nouns yellow, all the verbs blue, etc. When you make another flashcard with another part of speech, you'll use a different color. Your mind remembers colors really well, so you'll start to associate color with the part of speech, and you'll have an easier time remembering how the word functions in a sentence.​​

The Lower Left Corner of the Back

Use the vocabulary word in a sentence you will remember. Make the sentence steamy, hilarious, or creative in some other way. If you write a bland sentence, your chances of remembering what the word means go way down.

Example of a memorable sentence: My pompous ex-boyfriend used to think he could get any girl he wanted, until he met my friend Mandy, who didn't even know he existed.

Example of a non-memorable sentence: The king, whose pompous heads-of-state were trying to dethrone him, decided to flee the country to save his own life.

The Lower Right Corner of the Back

Draw a small picture or graphic to go with the vocabulary word. It doesn't have to be artistic—just something that reminds you of the definition. For the word "pompous," or "conceited," maybe you'd draw a stick person with his nose in the air.

Why? You remember pictures much better than words, which is the reason you can't write anything on the front of the card besides the vocabulary word—you'd remember the design and associate it with the definition instead of associating the word with the definition.

Repeat the Process

Create a new card for every one of your vocabulary words. Not only does the entire process help you remember the word—those kinesthetic movements can teach your brain when just seeing the word cannot—you'll also end up with a handy-dandy way of quizzing yourself on the words, too.

Punch a Hole in the Middle of the Right Sides

Once you've created a vocabulary flash card for every word, punch a hole in the middle of the right side of each card and then hook all the cards together with the key ring, ribbon or rubber band.

You don't want to lose them all over your book bag.