Skip to main content

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!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

GCSE and IGCSE revision links 2018

It's coming up to that time of year again. In England and Wales. Here is a handy list of some good interactive revision links for this level. These links are also good for intermediate exams in Scotland, Ireland and other English-speaking countries. You could copy and paste this to print off for students.

Don't forget the GCSE revision material on of course! How could you?

As far as apps for students are concerned, I would suggest the Cramit one, Memrise and Learn French which is pretty good for vocabulary. For Android devices try the Learn French Vocabulary Free. For listening, you could suggest Coffee Break French from Radio Lingua Network (iTunes podcasts).

Listening (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher)