Flashcard Exchange and the Leitner System

Azulejo 19I find that having a good variety of techniques for learning a language keeps my interest and motivation high. It also keeps my mind on the ball and I can build up a portfolio of methods that work well for me.

I’d heard about flashcards but had never used them for anything in the past. Once I started learning Portuguese however, I was curious to investigate their effectiveness. I had randomly seen a news item on television about using flashcards with young children to teach them French and thought it might be something useful to know about.

Flashcards are a way of testing yourself. At its most basic it can be a piece of card with a word written in English on one side and its corresponding Portuguese word on the other side. You look at the English word, say the answer out loud, flip the card over and check whether you got the answer right or wrong. If you get it right you put the card to your right, if you get it wrong you put the card to your left (or wherever you want to put them!). If you have a hundred words to learn, you will soon build up a simple picture of the words you do know and the words you don’t just by looking at the piles.

Some people carry little packs of flashcards when they are studying and use spare moments to flip through the pack – useful when you’re waiting for a bus. However, with technology, the use of flashcards has taken another turn and can have many bells and whistles added to aid your learning. As a bit of a tech girl, I like to find digital alternatives so I set out to do some exploring.

At first I tried a couple of free software downloads where you can create your own flashcards but often they were missing certain aspects that I wanted or seemed fiddly to use. Eventually after a lot of searching I discovered Flashcard Exchange.

Now I’d be the first to say that this site doesn’t look hugely attractive but it is very functional and easy to navigate – sometimes you just need something that does exactly what it says on the tin! The site is dedicated to the use of flashcards for all different subjects, not just Portuguese.

You will need to register to use the site and you can set up a free account. I had this for quite a while before I upgraded. The reason I wanted to upgrade is I wanted to use the Leitner System (explained below) and felt it was worth the one time fee of $19.95. And before you ask, no this site does not offer an affiliate scheme so I’m telling you that the money is worth paying because it is, not because I’m trying to make a fast buck 🙂

So, back to the free account for a moment. With that, you can set up your own flashcard sets or use those created by others. There are literally hundreds of sets of cards that have been created for Portuguese learners. Make sure you check whether they are Brazilian or European and also whether or not they are correct!

When you click on a set, there are several different ways to work with it. You can view the list of cards to get a feel for it first. You can study in sequence or randomly (which is better) and you can choose whether to see the Portuguese or English side first. The site times how long you take to answer all the questions and shows you this at the end along with how many you got right. I find this very useful as it shows me not only how many I’m getting right but also how quickly I’m getting the answer. It is good to practice thinking quickly in your target language. That said, I would concentrate on getting the answers correct first and then building up on speed.

Another nice little feature is playing ‘Memory’ instead of doing the normal flashcard session. I used to play this as a child using two packs of playing cards. I’d lay them all out in rows after shuffling them then start by turning a card. I’d then flip another card and see if it was a pair (both of the Ace of Spades from each pack for example). If it was a pair I removed the cards. If not, both cards were turned face down again in their place and I’d start again flipping another two cards in an attempt to find a pair. After a while you start to remember where cards are so you can pair them up – hence the name of the game.  I’ve found this a really great way of learning a language and use this function quite a bit at the exchange.

Card sets can be printed out or downloaded and you can build up a list of your favourites. I mentioned above that I had paid for the pro version of Flashcard Exchange in order to use the Leitner system. This system was developed in the 1970’s and is a more methodical way of working with flashcards. Studies have shown that in order to remember something properly, it needs to move from short term memory to long time memory – and we need to be able to access it on demand from our long term memory! I find that my short term memory is pretty good but long term is awful. I can go to a movie and thoroughly enjoy it but a few days later I would be hard pushed to tell you what any of the characters were called! The Leitner system is extremely useful for strengthening your memory muscles.

Originally Leitner (the psychologist behind the system) had 5 boxes and a set of flashcards. The set of flashcards were in box one. He’d go through the set trying to answer correctly. If he got a card correct, it went into box two. If he got a card wrong it stayed in box one. He’d then take the cards he got correct from box two and try to get them all into box three. When he got a card wrong it always went back into box one. The idea was to repeat this process until all cards were in box five.

A successful completion is when you have all your set of cards in box 5. Once you have done this, it’s time to start working on your memory further.

A few days after successfully completing one round, it is time to test whether or not these words have really stuck. You put your cards back into box one and repeat the process up to box 5 again. Once you have completed this, you leave it perhaps four or five days and repeat. Then you leave it a week and repeat, then two weeks and repeat, then a month and so on until the cards you are learning are fully in your long term memory and easily retrievable.

Using the Leitner system on Flashcard exchange is great because it sends you an email reminder of when you need to do your next round. I’ve found it to be excellent for testing my learning and it really does improve my memory.

I’ll add a last couple of tips. You can choose how many boxes you want in each of your card sets. I started off using 10 boxes but it seemed to make the process very slow. Five boxes is enough. The next thing is to have a manageable amount of cards in a set. I think 20-30 is plenty although I do have one which is the 100 most used words in Portuguese. I like having them altogether but it does make for a very long session when I’m studying them!

Unfortunately sound files cannot be added to the flashcards although you can download files as PDF’s and get your adobe reader to read them to you if that appeals. Whilst this is a feature which I think would be helpful for those of us learning languages, the site doesn’t suffer too much from not having this resource. It’s still great for learning vocabulary.

The site is designed and run by Culley Harrelson who maintains everything. I think he has provided one of the simplest and best learning resources on the web.

Here’s the link again Flashcard Exchange


2 comments for “Flashcard Exchange and the Leitner System

  1. John
    December 30, 2011 at 9:36 am

    I found another one
    http://superflashcard.com/
    This site is rather organized and up-to-date. Hope this info may help!

  2. matty
    December 30, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Applying Leitner system to studying with flashcards is a way to optimize memory ability and we should take advantage of it. From your article I searched and found some website using Leitner system and flashcards. It appears helpful. You should visit and try another website: app.superflashcard.com/

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