For decades, juniors and seniors in high school have used flashcards to learn words like “supine” and “archipelago” in hopes of lifting their SAT scores. In two years, however, that will end, when the College Board, which administers the SAT, launches a redesigned test. Because the exam “will focus on relevant words, the meanings of which depend on how they’re used,” the College Board thinks students will “no longer … use flashcards to memorize obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down.”
This is some reversal. The College Board has decided to kill off the two-headed monster—the double-sided vocabulary flashcard—that many would blame it for creating. But the truth is a bit more complicated than that. In fact, flashcards predate the SAT by more than century. They are a particularly modern invention, made possible by changes that occurred in technology, psychology, and education during the 1800s, though recent developments in these same areas were already pushing vocabulary flashcards toward a cliff before the College Board stepped in to deliver the last shove.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Flashcards are not vanishing altogether, not as long as pre-med students have to learn reactions for their organic chemistry final, Jeopardy contestants want to cram tens of thousands of facts into their head, and second-graders need to know their multiplication tables. Flashcards help people memorize a large quantity of data in a short amount of time; the downside is that most people retain what they have learned for an even shorter amount of time. With flashcards, you might learn enough individual words of Turkish, say, to get by as a tourist, but you won’t learn the full language with flashcards alone.
Which is not a bad metaphor for what the College Board is after: the elimination of vocabulary tourism. But what can the rise and fall of the flashcard tell us about the ways we’ve implemented language instruction and the ways that could soon change?
Tracing the history of the flashcard is not easy, in part because they are ephemeral by design. You make them, learn them, and toss them. As Steve Justice, a professor at the University of Mississippi, told me, there were almost certainly no flashcards in the Middle Ages because “writing materials were prohibitively expensive well into the 15th century.” In fact, the flashcard as we know it today was not prominent until the 1800s, when it became sufficiently easy and cheap to produce paper. That meant not just more books and newspapers but more wallpaper and cards.
The absence of flashcards in the pre-modern era should not be attributed to technology alone, however. The medieval model of memory had no room, so to speak, for flashcards. “Flashcards,” Justice suggested, “assume that the salient points in securing a memory are associating units of information in a reflex fashion,” while classical and medieval orators relied on a technique—known as the “memory palace”—that would first have a person imagine an architectural space and then populate it with images linked to each of his topics (from the Greek topos, or place). During the oration, he would mentally traverse the space, visiting and recalling his topics along the way. Whereas a memory palace is useful for memorizing that which is already deemed whole, flashcards are good at collecting the components of an atomized body of knowledge, like a language, and stuffing them into your head one at a time.
One of the earliest recorded flashcard success stories appears in the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. In 1810, James Mill began teaching his three-year-old son Greek using what we would now call flashcards. “My earliest recollection on [learning Greek],” Mill writes, “is that of committing to memory what my father termed vocables, being lists of common Greek words, with their signification in English, which he wrote out for me on cards.”
Predating Mill by a few decades was an even more precocious case of card learning, this time by a porcine pupil. In the 1780s, an animal trainer named Samuel Bissett toured Ireland with a pig that he had taught to do math problems and spell, using cards labeled with letters and numbers.
Bissett’s “Learned Pig” so upset one man that he attacked Bissett with a sword, which precipitated a mental breakdown and, not long after, death. The pig continued to work in theaters in England.
Neither the pig nor Mill was the typical card-learner of the 19th century, however. Cards found their inevitable home at that time in the classrooms of schools for the poor that were created by religious groups. Catherine Robson, a professor at NYU, explained that these schools were overcrowded and staffed, to the extent that they were, by underqualified teachers, who required simple teaching tools for students unable to purchase even one book. In Improvements in Education (1805), the educational pioneer and Quaker Joseph Lancaster proposed the reading card as an answer. An antecedent of the flashcard, the reading card was a blown-up page of a grammar or spelling book that was mounted onto a board and held up for a circle of twenty boys to learn how to read.
Even before Lancaster published his book, sets of cards in boxes designed for individual instruction in language, such as Mrs. Lovechild’s Book Of Three Hundred and Thirty-Six Cuts For Children (1799), were being sold in Britain, and, by 1803, were being reproduced in Philadelphia (pictured below). The cards were cut out and studied using a special frame that covered the word so the child could first pronounce or spell it himself and then check to see if he was correct. They had a “flash” element, even if the term was not yet applied to them.
It remains unclear, in fact, when precisely the term “flashcard” or “flash card” came into currency. The Oxford English Dictionary cites 1923 as the first use; however, in 1905 a guide to teaching reading and a guide to teaching arithmetic, both published in California, suggest using “flash-cards.” In 1908, a copyright was filed for a set of “word flash cards.” By the 1920s, flashcard sets for phonics, spelling, and mathematics were being sold commercially in magazines. And by 1932, they were well established enough to inspire the first scholarly analysis of their effectiveness (results were not clear). After World War II, when paper rationing came to an end and the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite stirred fears that American students were falling behind, game companies like Milton Bradley seized on flashcards. The Ed-U-Cards Corporation sold this 1966 set designed to reflect the “new math” reforms developed by educators in the ‘50s.
The growing importance of the SAT and other assessment exams provided another strong impetus to incorporate flashcards into the studies of children from an early age, despite the fact that much of the leading research on the subject shows that flashcards are not particularly effective as a way to learn vocabulary.
The power and the problem with flashcards lie in the way they reduce knowledge to static particles, which, in some cases, is just fine. As Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, pointed out to me, flashcards are “great for the discrete fact.” A chemical reaction is a chemical reaction, no matter the context. But what about a word like “reaction,” which has several meanings, depending on the context? Can a flashcard attend to the surprising richness and shifting nuances of a word like “reaction?” Or does a person need to encounter it in its various environments—the neurological, the chemical, the dermatological—in order to appreciate its multifacetedness?
What’s at issue on the question of vocabulary flashcards is what we fundamentally believe a word to be. If, like the founder of behaviorism, John B. Watson, we believe that “words are but substitutes for objects and situations,” then the flashcard is a good way to learn not just about words but also about the world. The source for this model of thinking about education and language is Lockean psychology, which saw the mind as a blank slate waiting for impressions and which encouraged teaching methods, like flashcards, that emphasized repetition and recitation in order to make sure these impressions stuck.
If, however, we think of a word as less a token than a tool, then the flashcard is deeply inadequate. George A. Miller, a founder of cognitive psychology, argued in “On Knowing a Word,” that a “person who knows a word knows much more than its meaning and pronunciation.” They also understand “the contexts in which a word can be used to express a particular meaning” and possess “the ability to exploit context in order to determine meaning and resolve potential ambiguities.” The neat one-to-one correspondence of the flashcard fails to capture the intricacies of what Vocabulary.com refers to as “words in the wild.” The challenge for teachers and students today is how to reckon with this model of language and of learning and move beyond flashcards.
In the same way that card learning addressed the needs of the 19th-century classroom, a digital technology might do the same for a 21st-century one. Paper dictionary definitions are restricted to a few citations, at most, to illustrate various word meanings; online dictionaries, on the other hand, can provide access to large collections of example sentences from a much broader range of sources. Dictionaries embedded in e-readers and tablets also make it easier and faster to look up words on the fly, exploring their meaning in the moment and, presumably, increasing the odds that we will understand and remember the word and what it means.
The recently released Vocabulary.com app contains what may be the first significant improvement on the flashcard model of learning in 200 years in the form of a game, which starts off with a question that might ask you to fill in a blank in a sentence or find a synonym. But what happens next is crucial. The difficulty adapts to each individual user based on her performance. By the time I quit my first session, after some 300 questions, I had learned several new words, including “esurient” and “palter.” The game uses repetition to aid retention, quizzes users on multiple meanings of a word, and provides access to “words in the wild,” so users can better appreciate the meanings of a word.
The traditional flashcard will no doubt live on in areas where cold facts need to be memorized and regurgitated, but the days when “esurient” was written out one side of a 3x5 piece of paper and its definition on the other are coming to an end. By the way, if you don’t know what “esurient” means, and you’re reading this using, say, Google’s Chrome browser or Apple’s Safari, just highlight the word and right click. Choose the “Look Up” option. Just like that. In a flash.