The Secret Life of ESL Flashcards: How to Transform Them Into Fun Classroom Games
Things that happen in a flash are usually pretty exciting.
Think about it.
A flash of lightning, a flash in the pan, The Flash…
So why should flashcards be so boring?
Most of us associate flashcards with late-night study drills. For many ESL students, they’ve provided some of the most routine, un-immersive experiences possible.
But that’s a shame, since flashcards are so versatile and have incredible potential as diverse, creative ESL classroom games.
We’ll show you how, with five of our favorite ESL flashcard games. Several of these can be adapted for different learning goals and different proficiency levels (in other words, not just vocabulary memorization).
Let’s get flipping!
How to Prepare Flashcards (from Most to Least Crafty)
Flashcards are easy to make, whether you’re a crafty creative type or a left-brained Elmer’s-glue-phobe. Here are some different methods for making custom flashcards for your classroom.
Index Cards with Words or Pictures
Index cards are some of my favorite classroom resources. They’re so versatile and inexpensive. And they’re great for making flashcards.
Index cards are also a super go-to when you want every student to have their own set of flashcards. Students can make their own without any special equipment or resources.
It’s easy to write vocabulary on one side of the card and definitions on the back. But have you tried gluing pictures from magazines to your index cards? Or even using family photos if you’re doing a family unit with your students? These can help build visual associations with new words, supporting memory retention.
If you have a picture bingo game around, you can even cut apart a board and stick those pictures on your flashcards.
Having pictures on your cards is particularly useful for lower-level students who may not have an extensive lexicon. They’re also good for eliciting words from more advanced students when you want to work on their productive vocabularies rather than their receptive vocabularies.
If you’re looking for an easy way to store your index flashcards, try punching a hole in the corner of each one and threading each set onto its own binder ring. Then hang them from pushpins on an empty bulletin board and let your students use a set during independent study periods.
If you have a laminator at your school or as part of your personal stash, a simple piece of paper can become a flashcard. Creating your cards this way has a few advantages.
You can create just about any type of card you can think of. Typing your words in overcomes the terrible handwriting obstacle (and if your writing looks anything like mine, the struggle is real). You can also copy-paste myriad pictures available online through image searches and clipart.
Using paper also allows you to make your flashcards any size you choose. You might even consider making one flashcard the size of an entire piece of paper, or what I like to call “Giant Flashcards.” You’ll see two activities below where 8.5 by 11 or A4 are the perfect paper sizes.
You might even consider creating a template in your word processing program so you can easily plug in new material for different classes or lessons.
Adapted Playing Cards
I’ve actually made flashcards out of regular playing cards. I simply printed out labels with the words and definitions I wanted on the cards and stuck them to the faces of the playing cards.
Since these cards are designed for play, they’re especially sturdy—so they’re great for fast-paced games or games where students have to handle the cards a lot. Again, we’ll point you to games like these below.
It’s also a good method to use if you want to keep your flashcards from one year to the next. It’s slightly more of a financial investment, but you’ll only be making these cards once.
If you only need your flashcards for one activity, try using sticky notes. They aren’t as versatile as the cardstock or laminated variant, but they’re the perfect size and cost next to nothing.
For two-sided cards, have students write the “answer” or hidden material (like a word’s definition) on the sticky side, so the cards stay in place while they’re playing.
Online Flashcard Creators
For maximum efficiency, try an online flashcard creator. These tools are great for standard flashcards that you’ll print on regular paper and cut out. Some of them even allow you to paste pictures on the cards.
Popular online flashcard creators include Flashcard Machine, kitzkikz and Study Blue.
5 Surprising Games with Flashcards for Your ESL Classroom
Now that you have your flashcards ready to go, it’s time to have some ESL fun. Here are some activities that your students will love.
You know that popular magician’s game where there’s a ball under one of three cups, and you have to follow the cup with your eyes to remember where the ball is?
Your students will have fun trying to trick one another with that game, but instead of a ball under the cup there’ll be a flashcard.
You’ll need three cups and a set of vocabulary flashcards for every two players. This is where those index card flashcards come in handy. One player puts a card in one cup and does their cup switching as best they can. When they stop, their partner chooses a cup and looks underneath it.
If they find the card, they don’t automatically win. They’ll have to prove they know the word—they should provide the definition on the other side of the card, and you might also ask them to pronounce the word correctly, give a synonym or antonym or use the word in a sentence.
You can also play a different version of this game using flashcards that have fill-in-the-blank sentences or grammar rules on them. The player who finds the card will just have to demonstrate that they know the material on the card in some way.
If they get it right, they get to keep the card.
Play for a certain amount of time (10 minutes usually works) and the player with the most cards at the end of the game wins.
You know in horror movies, when the creepy music builds and the protagonist is hiding behind a cabinet, until finally the monster jumps out and sends your popcorn bowl flying? That’s the kind of excitement this game generates.
For each game of two to four players, you’ll need a set of flashcards as well as five additional cards—three that say “Alaka” and two that say “Zam!” This game works best if your flashcards are only one-sided. They can have a single vocabulary word, a verb tense or a even a grammar rule.
Players lay all the cards out in a pool on the table. On each person’s turn, they select one card. If it’s a regular flashcard, they must pronounce the word, give a correct synonym/antonym, definition or complete whatever other task you’ve chosen.
If the player is able to do the task correctly, they keep the card and add it to their personal pile. If they do the task incorrectly, however, they must return the card to the draw pile.
If a player draws an “Alaka” card, they can randomly choose three cards from an opponent. If the player can demonstrate that they know what’s on each card, then can keep them. (If they have to give a synonym or antonym for their cards, their responses should to be different than the ones the original player or any other has given. This will help build their vocabularies even further.)
If a player draws a “Zam” card, that player can exchange their stack of cards with that of an opponent.
Play until all the cards are gone, and the player with the most cards at the end of the game in their hand is the winner.
Playing by Ear
Can you really use flashcards for a listening game? Yes, you can! Grab your giant flashcards and give one to each person in class.
You can use one-sided or two-sided vocabulary cards for this activity, but keep in mind students will be listening for specific words or phrases, so make sure the information on each card is minimal.
Then play a song or movie clip that uses the target words. When a student hears his or her word, they should stand and hold their card above their head.
This game makes listening skills relevant and creates some personal motivation for students to listen carefully. They’ll have fun not only keeping an ear out for their own words, but also policing their classmates who might just miss a chance to show off their own giant flashcard.
For highly-targeted practice, you can write your own sentences to read aloud in class. If you want students to listen for certain verb tenses that are written on their flashcards, this is a good way to listen for those specific conjugations.
Here’s a pronunciation-focused game where those playing card flashcards come in handy. This is a fun game to have out for free learning periods when students can choose their own activities.
You’ll need two players for each game and two sets of flashcards labeled with vocabulary words. You should also indicate a target sound for each word, either by marking it at the top of the card, using color coding or any other method that works for you.
Do this all on one side of the card and keep the other side blank. Students will start the game with the blank sides facing up.
Players turn over their cards together. If the two cards share the same target sound, players should slap their opponent’s pile. If the first person who slapped is able to give the correct pronunciation of the word, they win both cards and add them to their hand.
You can have students play for a certain amount of time or until one person has all the cards.
For a more advanced grammar adaptation, put fill-in-the-blank sentences (with blanks for verbs) on the flashcards. Students should slap if their cards require the same verb or are in the same tense, and then should be able to fill in the sentence with the correct conjugations.
If you come up with your own adaptation, note that players will only see one side of the card for this activity, so make sure they don’t need any information from the other side of the card to give the correct answer.
Living Board Game
This is where those giant vocabulary flashcards come in handy. Lay them out on the floor to make a game path around your classroom, including a green “start” space and a red “finish” space. Your students won’t need playing pieces, since they’ll walk along the game path toward the finish space.
Have students roll a six sided die (if you want to make a giant die to add to the fun, here are some good instructions). They’ll then walk that many spaces along the game path.
Once students land on their space, they’ll need to use the word on that space correctly in a sentence (if your cards have vocabulary words on the giant flashcards), correctly fill in the blank (if they’re fill-in-the-blank sentences), identify the correct verb tense or whatever task the flashcards are designed to elicit. If they can’t, they return to where they stood previously.
The game is over when someone reaches the finish.
This is a great game for practicing parts of speech if you include multiple forms of the same root word.
Sure, you could have pairs of students sit across from each other and read words off of flashcards, but why when there are so many other fun ways you can put those cards to use? Your students might have such a good time, they’ll forget that they’re learning in the process.