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Exploiting hand-held flashcards

One of the features of my new book Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher (published by Routledge in late August and available for pre-order from Amazon) is the focus I place on the nuts and bolts of individual lessons and lesson sequences. Several chapters include tables describing in detail how teachers and pupils can interact during oral lessons. I hope this will be of particular use to trainee teachers (as well as more experienced practitioners, of course - I have to say that!). Plug over.

I adopted a format of three columns with Teacher Cues, Student Responses and Commentary. The Commentary column has allowed me to include tips of the trade and to elaborate a little on the interactions being suggested. You might have your own which you think are better.

The tables are not meant to be prescriptive of course, but they should be useful in making clear that interactions need to be planned, thorough and smartly sequenced. One common mistake is to not do enough examples and to not exploit a resource or activity to its maximum, thus not allowing memories to become embedded. PGCE students should find this stuff very useful and instantly usable.

When training teachers I often point out that one of our skills is to provide a "twist" to a lesson by altering the activity somewhat, making the new task seem fresh, yet essentially repeating and recycling target language, and building on the previous task. This can occur within a lesson but also be carried over to the next lesson when you might do a nearly identical activity again to provide more "retrieval practice", to coin a fashionable phrase.

Some theorists are disparaging in their views about this type of "skill-building", but my view is that learning best occurs when there is both meaningful input and frequent opportunities to interact and practise in a structured way. So below is a table from the book which is the first in a series of three about exploiting the traditional hand-held flashcard. You could do essentially the same with flashcards on PowerPoint, but hand-held cards have the advantages of novelty (these days) and portability (e.g. they can be given to pupils, flipped over, pinned to a board or wall).

In my tables I often specify whether I think the activity is best done with hands up or hands down ("cold calling"). In the early stages of a teaching sequence I would tend to go with hands up to allow students to take in the new material at their own speed to some extent. Once the whole class is confident I might move to a mix of hands up and no hands up. On the whole I still favour hands up with occasional use of no hands up. (I'm not too keen on random questioning since this deprives us of the skill to match the question to the student, a vital part of differentiation.)

The topic is places around town with beginners. Comments are always welcome.

Here is the cinema.
Here is the park.
Here is the market.
 – all 12 items. (Do this all twice.)
Listening and watching.
Students just listen as you just say each word. Students need time to just hear and take in the new sounds. No need to force any repetition.
The cinema.
The park.
The market,
etc – all 12 items.
The cinema (x2).
The park (x2).
The market (x2).
Choral repetition, focusing on accurate pronunciation, exaggerating vowel and consonant sounds a little. No need to rush. You could vary the repetition style by whispering.
What’s this? It’s the cinema (x2).
Listening and watching?
Allow students to hear the question and the answer.
What’s this? (show a card) (x12).
Hands up.
 It’s the cinema, etc.

Elicit answers from volunteers with hands up. Get other individuals to repeat the correct answer. Get the whole class to repeat correct answers.
Either/or questions,
e.g. Is this the cinema or the market?
It’s the cinema.
You can create a comic effect by stressing the right answer in each pair or by refusing to accept their option, e.g. No, it’s not the cinema!
Hide all the cards. Ask in English how many the class can remember.
Hands up.
The cinema, etc
Elicit suggestions with hands up. Try to obtain all 12 items.
Ask in English who can list all 12 on their own.
Hands up.
The cinema, the park, the café, etc.
You can prompt the student by giving the first sound or syllable of a word. If a student is struggling encourage others to help out.
Play “hide the flashcard”. Tell the class they have to guess the hidden card.
Hands up. Students make guesses.
You can add comic effect by pretending with a facial expression that they’ve got the answer right, then say no!


  1. Hi Steve, I can't seem to find parts 2 and 3, do you have a link to them?

    1. Hi. The other two parts are in the book. Sorry if that wasn’t clear!


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