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How to Use TOEFL Flashcards (Almost) Painlessly

Studying with TOEFL Vocabulary Flashcards

When it comes to studying, flashcards are a hot topic. Some people swear by them, and others wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. Even educators and researchers can’t seem to agree on what, if anything, flashcards can do for us.

The problem boils down to whether memorized language is actually useful to us or not. Today, most people who study language acquisition believe that it’s not—they say that students who learn language by memorizing words have trouble actually using the language.  

Because this belief is so popular among educators today, “flash card” has become almost a dirty word. A lot of you are probably grateful to hear this—after all, nothing is more boring than going through a six-inch stack of cards with words on the front and definitions on the back. But there are some ways to make flashcards work for you instead of against you.

Here are some tips to get you on the right track. Not all of these will work for everyone, so feel free to pick and choose and experiment until you find what works best for you.


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Use colors

As a native English speaker, I used to have a hard time remembering the grammatical gender of nouns in German. I decided to use the pink ones for feminine words, the blue ones for masculine words, and the yellow ones for neuter words. When I was using these words in class, I didn’t have the flashcard in front of me, but I still associated the color with the word, which helped me to choose the correct gender. Of course, English learners don’t have to worry about gender, but you can apply this principle to any concept you have trouble with: make irregular verbs a different color from regular ones; use different colors for different spelling or pronunciation patterns; or different colors for different topics.


Don’t bite off more than you can chew

It’s tempting to make and study 50 cards in one day when you’re feeling energetic, and then not touch them again for a week. But that’s not a very good system for your brain; slow, consistent study is much more effective. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 3-7 words a day (absolutely no more than 7. Seriously).


Split up your study sessions

It’s great to divide up your vocabulary by topic, but sometimes you need to mix and match. Otherwise how can you be sure you really know the difference between isle (geography) and aisle (architecture)? I mark the edges of my cards so that I can combine and sort them as needed. Usually I use tally marks or slashes, but you can use colors or stamps—whatever makes you look forward to studying!


Learn chunks instead of words

Copying vocabulary words is really easy—I say it’s too easy. Most of us are guilty of filling out flashcards on autopilot while watching TV, listening to friends talk, or daydreaming. By finding or inventing phrases and sentences that use the words, you not only encourage your brain to pay attention to what you’re doing, but also you learn collocations, test out rules and new ideas, and, if you’re creative, make up mnemonics that will help you recall the word later. If you get most of your vocabulary words from reading, watching TV, or talking to people, great. Your example sentences will write themselves. The rest of us have to be a little more creative. Try, Wikipedia, OED online, or write your own example sentences (be sure to have a native speaker check that you’re using the words correctly—if you don’t have a friend who will do it, try a website like


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