Welcome to the section on flashcards. Thanks to their ability to help you cram large amounts of information in a relatively short period of time, flashcards are one of the key tools of any learner’s arsenal.

This section focuses heavily on Anki, as, while there are many options out there, Anki is the only tool that offers the flexibility required to take full advantage of a spaced-repetition flashcard system. That said, the information here can be used for other systems.

Information online about the best way to use flashcards can be incredibly confusing. You will find basically every method possible recommended by someone—use pictures, never use pictures, study them all the time, only use them when you have free time, etc. As with everything in this guide, the advice that follows is based on the recommendations of the most experienced language learners I could find. There is a lot of variety, so keep an open mind as to what works for you.

We’ll begin with some general guidance, but will then move on to how to structure your Anki cards effectively.

Using flashcards effectively

Here are a few good tips for you to keep in mind:

  • Don’t learn too many new words at once—you will be fine to start, but reviews will quickly overwhelm you

  • Try to study consistently every day

  • Make your own cards of words you want to learn

  • Regularly delete or suspend cards that are too easy or aren’t working for you for any reason—you can always learn it later

  • Use phrases—I will cover this soon

Please note: Those who emphasise learning lots of words via flashcards usually recommend doing so for the purpose of enabling you to more easily use content. Keep this in mind if you end up using flashcards heavily. They are still a drill and a supplement—their purpose is to aid your use of the language, not as an end goal in of itself. Most learners only spend around 5-10% of their study time using flashcards, though there is a lot of variation due to different methods and preferences.

The 90 percent rule

As we have noted, flashcards utilise the forgetting curve to try to prompt you with a word just before you forget it. You will begin to notice that this doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes you will have already forgotten a word, forcing you to relearn it, but other times you will get the answer easily.

While you can improve your retention by setting Anki to show you your cards more often, this has the effect of slowing down your study, as you will see cards you know comfortably far too often. Conversely, if you set Anki to show you cards less often, you may find yourself forgetting lots of words before you see them again. The best spot sits in the middle.

The best middle ground is to aim to get about 90 percent of your cards correct. In the long run this will save you time.

Customising your cards

In this section, we’ll be looking at the best way to structure your cards.

Use premade decks or make your own?

In the Resources section I mentioned Shared decks, pre-made decks by community members. They are good to get you started, but fall short in a couple of ways. First, often the creators haven’t thought carefully about learning optimally, putting too much information on the card or putting the wrong kind of information on one side or the other. Second, there is no customisation for your learning needs, meaning the vocabulary or type of learning might not be optimal.

You can get around this by creating your own cards out of the content you find while using input or studying. This has the added bonus of the process of making cards helping you recall them. This is also high-effort, making it harder to build the required vocabulary.

Another option is to modify a pre-made deck you have downloaded. You can do this in the “Cards” section. This will be the best for building a large vocabulary.

Your final option is accept the deck as it is. Some decks are good and don’t need much customisation, so you might not consider the effort worth the time for now. You can avoid a lot of hassle learning about Anki. If the thought reading of all the information below seems like too much, you can take this option and skip to the next section.

Types of information

Next, we will look at the type of information you might want to put on the card, in addition to the word. We’ll then use this information to talk about some effective card types.


Cards can be used to learn single words, but they can also include entire phrases. There are single, ideally short, sentences or part-sentences that form a coherent unit of your language. Phrases will include some unknown element of the language for you to understand in context, such as a new word or grammatical form.

Learning phrases with their translation is useful for lots of reasons:

  • They can teach you key phrases for early communication or travelling

  • They help you use more complex but common constructions earlier in your learning

  • They provide insight into how the language is used

  • They provide context for how words are used and what other words tend to be used with them

  • They can teach you grammar by forcing you to absorb certain forms

  • They give you passive exposure to other words, cementing them in your mind

  • The help you understand how native speakers tend to express themselves

For these reasons I recommend phrases.

When you use phrases receptively, you are generating repeated exposure. This is great for giving you context for a words usage, but you are unlikely to remember the phrase well. When you use phrases productively, you build a strong recall of the phrase, which is useful when you want to remember a construction and use it yourself. This is less useful for building a large passive vocabulary because it is slower.

I recommend you use phrases only from your course, tutor, or trusted sites on the internet to ensure they are correct.


Often learners will replace their native language word with an image, or simply include it in addition to the word. There’s no slam-dunk evidence that images are superior to just the word, though some people report it helps their recall. The general consensus seems to be if you find it helpful, add images to your cards, but don’t expend too much effort as the time spent adding them may be less effective than simply studying.

Cloze sentences

Cloze sentences are phrases in your target language with a word or words blocked out. This can be replaced with an empty space or with the translation in your native language. Your objective is to recall the correct word in your target language. Anki has a card type for this.


Audio can be used on its own on the front side when you want to practise listening or it can be used on either side with text as a complement to help you learn the sound of the language.

Productive and receptive cards

Before we move to the next section, you need to understand the different ways you can review cards. There are two:

  1. Prompt with native language, answer with target language (productive learning)

  2. Prompt with target language, answer with native language (receptive learning)

Productive learning means you are trying to produce your target language. The key element of the front side of the card you are trying to learn will be in your native language, while the back will contain the answer in your target language. Receptive learning means you are being repeatedly exposed to words or phrases in your target language and asked to recall their meaning. Both are good, but we will cover which type of card to use and when a bit later.

Productive flashcards (meaning your native language on the front) is the more difficult of the two, and card review is generally slower as a result. On the positive side, productive learning is great for forcing your mind to absorb a word or phrase properly, meaning you tend to learn more thoroughly and in a way that lets you begin using that knowledge sooner.

Receptive flashcards (meaning your target language on the front) are faster, but generally help more with understanding than producing your target language. This can be great for getting you using content quickly.

As you will see soon, my recommended flashcard structures include both types.

Card types to use

In order to figure out what you should choose, you need to think about your learning objectives. You’re probably using your cards to learn one of a few things:

  • Improve your understanding of content by increasing your passive vocabulary
  • Memorise key phrases
  • Build your grammar knowledge
  • Speak better by improving your active vocabulary (niche)

Unless you are learning for a very good reason, I would mostly avoid learning words productively. Learning words productively for their own sake is a very niche activity, as there are so many words you are unlikely to even use the few you manage to learn. You are 10-30 times more likely to hear or read the word first, giving you the opportunity to learn how it is used in context.

If you have audio, any time there is a word or sentence on the front, you can replace it with audio on the front of your card to practise listening. You can add it to the back of your card to help you learn to hear the language.

The many different types of information you can add to your cards make for a large number of possibilities for your flashcards. Pretty much any can work (some better than others) but they will do different things. To make your life easier, the following sections contain the few card types I think work best.

Build your passive vocabulary

Single word: The front will contain only your target language word. On the back, place the word’s definition with a phrase to help you see it in use.

Beware: This card type has the disadvantage of being out-of-context. Since words have multiple definitions, you might not learn to recognise it well. To help with this, we have the Single phrase card.

Single phrase: The front contains a target language phrase. You might want to highlight the word you need to learn or have it separate above the phrase. The rear side will have the translation of the phrase or the key word to your native language. Your goal is to understand the word and the phrase in context. The rest of the phrase should be understandable to you.

Beware, while this solves the context problem of the Single word card, it creates the problem of making it possible for you to easily get the card right purely from the context without learning the word, meaning you risk not learning the word properly and failing to recognise it when you see it in the real world.

The above two options both have trade-offs, with neither clearly superior. On net, I recommend the Single phrase type, but be careful to choose sentences that are not too helpful, and consider adding a second or third card to learn the word in different contexts.

Memorise key phrases

Key phrase: The front side contains a phrase, and the rear its target language translation. Try to produce the whole phrase correctly. This is ideal for very common phrases (such as “I’m not sure” or “how do you say…”) or phrases you need for travelling (“Where is the bathroom?” or “How much is this?”). Keep them as simple as possible; Larger sentences can be said correctly in a variety of ways and there’s little point to memorising only one.

Build your grammar knowledge

Cloze grammar card: Use the Cloze word card types, replacing the key word of a sentence you already understand with its unchanged form. For example, if you wanted to learn Spanish verbs, you might create a Close word card to learn the form “está”, which is the conjugated (changed) form of “estar”:

¿Dónde {{c1::está::estar}} el baño?

This will replace the conjugated form with its base form, and your task would be to guess the correct conjugated form.

Grammar phrase: This is the same as the key phrase, but it is chosen for a particular grammatical form. The front side contains a phrase, and the rear its target language translation. Try to produce the whole phrase correctly. You may wish to bold the key form. Not all sentences need to have a grammatical form; sometimes the way sentences are structured can be quite different, and it helps to have a kind of index of sentence structures to help your brain get used to how the language works. On the whole, learning large amounts of this type of card can be very effective.

Build your active vocabulary

Remember, this is a niche type only used for key words.

Cloze word card: Use the cloze card types, replacing the key word of a sentence you already understand. For example, if you were learning the Spanish word for bathroom, your card field would look like the below:

¿Dónde está el {{c1::baño::bathroom}}?

This will show “bathroom” in the place of “baño” until you reveal the other side of the card.

Word phrase: The front side contains a word with a phrase to help with context, both in your native language. Alternatively, you can simply highlight or bold the relevant word/form. The rear side can include information on the word/form, such as its translation/s and/or a definition. Mark the card correct if you manage to produce the correct word or form in your target language. You can attempt to get the phrase correct if you want, too, but mark yourself correct even if you don’t get it all. This helps you learn to produce a word or form’s translation, while the phrase helps with context and gives you exposure to the language. This type of card is useful for learning grammar and words you need to use soon.

I recommend you choose at least one productive and one receptive card type, and single sentences cards can meet all your needs. This combination has the bonus of keeping your flashcard decks simpler to manage.

Build your passive vocabulary with a sentence card, using a sentence you understand but for one key word which is highlighted or shown above the sentence. The other two useful activities, memorising key phrases and building your grammar knowledge can also be done with a single sentence flashcard.

Key tip: Keep your flashcards simple
Learning something new takes focused effort, so you can only really memorise one thing at a time. Flashcards work best when there is only a minimal amount of new information. The key information in your flashcard should be either one new word or one grammatical form. If you use a phrase in support, that phrase should ideally not contain any other new words or forms, though this can be acceptable if context makes its meaning obvious. Avoid using phrases that are long or consist of multiple sentences.
If you have lots of information you want to learn, split it into multiple cards.

Dual-sided cards

Anki allows you to create dual-sided cards, meaning creating one card actually creates two: one target language first (receptive) and one native language first (productive). This has two flaws: 1, as I noted, receptive flashcards are easier, so it is difficult to make a two-sided flashcard with the right difficulty, and 2, you will have double the cards for your word/form, so it may be too easy overall or simply too slow. You can get around this in part by simply suspending the receptive card later on as it becomes too easy.

Anki settings

Anki settings can be a lot to get your head around. For help understanding the most important options I recommend this section of this video for a good recommended set. Once you feel you understand what the options do, feel free to tweak the settings. I will only add that I recommend you think very carefully before changing the Interval modifier, as this can have a drastic effect on your cards.

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