How to Make Vocabulary Flash Cards

Making Flash Cards as a Part of Your Learning Process

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 in 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).

Making the cards by hand will help you remember 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!

Incorporating Color

One way to enhance learning is to incorporate color into the card-making process. If you are using flashcards to study a foreign language, for instance, you could use pink for feminine nouns and blue for masculine nouns. You could also use colors to indicate regular and irregular verbs in foreign languages. Color coding is especially helpful for students who are visual or tactile learners.

If you find that writing out the answers is the most beneficial part of the process for you, you can simply repeat the process of printing the list and writing the answers.

Computer Generated Flash Cards

You can use 3x5" cards and write the words out by hand, but you can also get your computer to generate cards. Students can type a list to create question cards, print them in Microsoft Excel or Word, then cut them out, and fill in the answers by hand on the back side. Tactile learners benefit by using this process, as writing the answers actually becomes part of the learning process.

  • To create cards in Microsoft Word, simply use three columns and a large font size. You can highlight your individual words or questions to change size and color.
  • To create cards in Excel, create a table three columns wide. You can tab from one column to another to input words or questions. You can highlight columns to change font size or to print.
  • Cut up poster boards to make very large cards. These come in many colors, so you can use the colors to create specific meanings.
  • If you want to use your cards repeatedly for the entire school year, you may want to laminate them.

Assemble Your Materials

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

  • 3 X 5 index cards (or your computer-generated ones)
  • Highlighters—at least four different colors
  • A keyring, ribbon, or rubber band
  • A dictionary or Dictionary.com
  • A list of vocabulary words you have to know
  • A hole puncher
  • A pencil

The Front of the Flash Card

If you're using 3x5 cards, write a vocabulary word, and only the word, neatly on the front. 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 Part 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!

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 Back

On the lower left-hand side of the back, write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word. 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.

On the lower right-hand side, 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.

Making Your Pack

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.

Once you've created a vocabulary flashcard 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.

Studying with Cards

You can keep blank index cards on hand as you take class notes. When you hear an important term, you can write the term on a card right away and add the answers later, when you study. This process encourages you to reinforce the information you hear in class.

Finally, when studying with flashcards, make a small check mark on the corner of those you get right. When you have made two or three marks on a card, you know you can put it in a separate pile. Keep going through your main pile until all cards have two or three marks.

Flashcard Games for Study Groups

  • For classes that require you to memorize many definitions, such as social studies or history classes, you may want to gather together to create a master list of flash cards using the glossary in the back of your textbook. If possible, use color coding to indicate for which chapter each term is relevant.
  • Make a matching game with your cards for your study group. Make separate cards for the questions and the answers, leaving the back sides blank. Place the cards face down and turn them over, one by one, trying to find matches.
  • Make a competition with your cards by forming two teams. Assign a scorekeeper to hold up cards and keep track as team members call out the right answers. This would be a good way to get parents involved!