Great Idea: Flashcards

The Bell Foundation logo

What are flashcards?

Flashcards are picture cards and can be used on their own or with word cards. There are various different types:

  1. Flashcards with pictures and words in the learner’s first language
  2. Flashcards with pictures and words in English on the front of the same card
  3. Flashcards with pictures on one side and English words on the other side of the card
  4. Picture-only flashcards with separate word-only cards to match

Examples of activities

Flashcards can be used for any age group. They are particularly useful for learners at the New to English and Early Acquisition stages. They are very flexible and can be used across the curriculum for a range of activities, for example:

1. Pairs:

Use a set of flashcards with images and a set with matching words to play pairs (also known as Pelmanism). This is the game where players place the cards face down on the table and take it in turn to pick up two. When they find a matching pair, they keep it and have another turn. The person who collects the most pairs wins. Learners could do a simple matching activity before they play, to consolidate understanding, with the cards placed face up. See the matching activity on Learning about Magnetism, where learners are asked to match a word with the corresponding image.

2. Sorting activities:

Learners sort the cards into categories/groups and explain their choices, their reasoning and the connections between the items. The items could then be sorted into groups, a table, Venn diagram or flow diagram for example. See the activity in Rich and Poor Tudors where learners sort word and image flashcards according to whether they depict rich or poor people.

3. Bingo:

Choose a grid size e.g. 3x3, 3x4, 4x4. Fill the grid with picture cards, word cards, or a mixture. Either select cards for the learners or allow them to choose themselves. Put the remaining cards in a bag or pile and take it in turn to select. The winner is the first player to complete a line/the whole grid. Learners could do a simple matching activity before they play, to consolidate understanding.  It is a good idea to model a relevant structure that the learners should say correctly in order to be allowed to put a card in the grid, e.g. ‘It’s a river’ / ‘They’re cliffs’, or ‘I like…’ / ‘I don’t like…’ See the bingo game in A Balanced Diet.

4. Connect 4:

A bit like Bingo, but for two players, played on one board of 8x8.  Players have a set of cards each, of different colours so it is clear who has placed each card onto the board, and have to make a line of four. See The Tempest Connect 4 where players match pictures of characters to information about them.

5. Snap:

With cards in two piles, players take it in turns to turn over a card. If the cards match, the player who shouts ‘snap’ (or the word / phrase being practised) first keeps the cards in the pile.

6. Odd one out:

Sort the cards into groups, with one ‘odd one out’. Groups identify the ‘odd ones out’ and explain their reasoning.

7. Barrier games:

Put a barrier between two learners (an A4 folder on its side works well) and they take it in turn to pick a flashcard and describe what is on it without using the word, while the other person guesses what it is. E.g. ‘It’s a four-sided shape with four right angles. All the sides are the same length.’

How flashcards work

  • Small sets of flashcards can be used for individual or group activities, or larger sets for display or for whole-class activities
  • There are numerous sets of flashcards in the resources on this website
  • To make electronic flashcards to use on a computer or tablet, free software designed to generate these is available, for example Quizlet

Top tip: Think about the language learners should use as they play and provide models. For example, when sorting flashcards into a table, learners can also be given cards with prompts on:

I think _____ goes in this column because…

__________ is the odd one out because the others…

Why are flashcards a Great Idea for EAL learners?

Flashcards are great for introducing memorising, revising and consolidating vocabulary. Research suggests that re-visiting vocabulary is important to aid acquisition (Schmitt 2008), and flashcards provide a natural way for learners to increase the number of times they encounter target words and phrases.

Flashcards are also useful for stimulating discussion through collaborative activities. The importance for language development of collaborative group work and providing real opportunities for communication has been established by many researchers, including Michael Halliday, Neil Mercer and Mikail Bakhtin. Working with a partner or in a small group allows learners to feel more confident, and the language is being used for a meaningful purpose rather than out of context, as recommended by Swain and Lapkin (1995). Gardner (2012) argues that collaborative learning is a feature of inclusive classrooms, and the benefits of group work are also supported by Cordon (2000). Kotler et al (2001) and Wong Fillmore and Snow (2005) also highlight the importance of social interaction and active participation in language acquisition.

Flashcards with pictures that the EAL learner can recognise help to provide a rich context which enables the EAL learner to access the curriculum and to build on their prior knowledge. This is based on research by Jim Cummins, particularly the Cummins Matrix, when he suggested that this enables the language demands of an activity to be reduced without reducing the cognitive demand. Flashcards can be used to turn a learning activity into a game, and increase the multimodality of the lesson.


Cordon, R., 2000, Literacy and learning through talk: strategies for the primary classroom, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Gardner, P., 2012, Strategies and Resources for Teaching and Learning in Inclusive Classrooms (2nd edition), Oxford: Routledge.

Kotler, A., Wegerif, R. and Le Voi, M. 2001, Oracy and the educational achievement of pupils with English as an additional language: the impact of bringing ‘Talking Partners’ into Bradford schools, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 4 (6), 403-419.

Schmitt, N., 2008, Instructed Second Language Vocabulary Learning. Language Teaching Research 12, 3: 329-363.

Swain, M. and Lapkin, S., 1995, Problems in output and the cognitive processes they generate: a step towards second language learning, Applied Linguistics 16 (3), 371-391.

Wong Fillmore, L. and Snow, C., 2005, What teachers need to know about language, Washington DC: Centre for Applied Linguistics.

Upcoming courses and webinars

Embedding EAL Assessment (Online Course)

4 June 2024
Online course

EAL Learners and Science (Webinar)

5 June 2024

How to Adapt Teaching for Learners Who Use EAL (Online Course)

17 September 2024
£45 – £67.50
Online course