How to make better language flashcards by combining writing practice with spaced repetition
Write, get your writing corrected by native speakers, and turn your mistakes into flashcards
Writing is one of my favorite ways to actively study German. It is great for vocabulary building and grammar practice, and in the absence of speaking opportunities, it is the only way to get practice with production skills. But beyond simply being a great way to practice on its own, writing is a key component of how I use flashcards and spaced repetition to learn German. In this post, I break down how to use writing practice to get more out of spaced repetition systems like Anki.
TLDR: Combine Anki or another SRS with writing practice for better flashcards
By integrating an SRS into your writing practice, you can learn and remember the grammar, vocabulary, etc. that you struggle with most and avoid wasting time studying things you already know. Simply write in your target language, make mistakes while writing, get your writing corrected by a native speaker, and turn your mistakes into flashcards to use with an SRS like Anki. If you use Anki, a simple and fast way to make “mistake cards” is to make cloze deletions based on the corrected sentence.
Spaced repetition is a well-studied learning method, and a large body of evidence backs up the claims of the many language bloggers and internet polyglots who tout its benefits. Most modern language learning tools are based on a spaced repetition system (SRS) under the hood, so if you’re using Duolingo or Memrise study a language, you’ve already have gotten a taste of what spaced repetition is about.
When used well, an SRS like Anki can be incredibly helpful because it helps you to move concepts from short-term into long-term memory very efficiently, which is exactly what serious language learners need. But using an SRS doesn’t mean that you can abandon other study methods. I’ve had the most success using Anki when I combine it with other study methods—especially writing.
Three rules for a healthy flashcard diet
The tricky thing about using an SRS like Anki is that it needs to be fed properly. If you use your SRS consistently, you’ll remember pretty much everything in your decks. This open-endedness makes SRSs flexible enough to help you learn everything from German verb forms to the bones of the hand, but comes with a downside: Anki doesn’t care about what you learn, it just cares that you learn. If you study an unhelpful deck, you’ll learn unhelpful things.
What a healthy flashcard diet looks like will be different depending on your needs. But regardless what you’re learning, good flashcards will tend to adhere to two basic principles: novelty and relevance.
- Novelty: Flashcards should teach us something we don’t already know well
- Relevance: Flashcards should teach us something useful
- Simplicity: Flashcards should ask clear “questions” with straightforward answers (See: minimum information principle)
Adhering to novelty, relevance, and simplicity will help you get more out of your SRS whether you’re a beginner learning your first words or a veteran of the B2-plateau like me who needs to focus more on grammar, usage, and more obscure vocab. Incidentally, you can apply these “rules” just as well to topics other than language. So go memorize your amino acids or whatever else you’re procrastinating on by reading this post.
But how to make sure your deck is novel, relevant, and simple?
I know that there’s a bit of a split among the langosphere giants when it comes to whether it’s best to make your own flashcards or use pre-made decks to save time. And then of course there’s the anti-flashcard crowd, but I don’t negotiate with terrorists so I won’t address any of their points here. I’m no polyglot, but my unqualified opinion tends to fall on the make-your-own-flashcards side of the debate, if only for one reason:
Making your own flashcards is a good way to make sure you’re learning novel and relevant cards.
There are some great ready-made flashcard decks out there that, depending on your needs, might already check all three boxes for you. This is especially true for beginners, who often need to learn the same set of core vocabulary when they’re just starting out. But once you’ve made a bit of progress, the relevance and novelty of ready-made decks falls off fast unless you have a good way of filtering through them. It is very easy to waste time “learning” things you either don’t need or already know when using decks made by others.
This is why making your own flashcards can be so helpful. When you make a deck yourself, you have more control over your flashcard diet.
The chicken-and-egg problem of making good flashcards
Unfortunately, making good flashcards presents something of a chicken-and-egg problem. Simplicity is usually pretty easy to recognize in cards. If you can’t tell what a flashcard is asking you or the answer is complicated enough that you keep getting parts of it right and parts of it wrong, then the card isn’t simple enough. But what about novelty and relevance?
Novel, relevant cards teach us things that we need to learn but don’t know yet. But if you don’t know much about something, how can you know whether it is relevant or not? And worse, if you don’t know that a certain word or grammar concept exists—even if it might be very relevant to you—how can you know to put it on a flashcard?
Language teachers and courses exist to address these problems. Their job is quite literally to decide what novel information is most relevant for learners at various stages.
But language teachers and courses can be expensive or inaccessible. And often, the kind of de-facto “relevance” imposed by quizzes and sets of vocabulary and grammar topics grouped by chapter/module doesn’t align well with real relevance—you could easily end up learning the names of 15 family members you don’t have instead of picking up a grammar concept that could move you closer to your specific language goals.
This isn’t to say that there’s no place for teachers or textbooks iny our learning plan. There probably is a place for them. Their place just isn’t dictating 100% of the contents of your flashcard deck.
Write in your target language and turn your mistakes into flashcards
It would be absurd to sit down and attempt to plan out the content for your cards in advance. Not only would you risk getting caught up in the chicken-and-egg problem, but you’d probably also waste a ton of time. Flashcards are just one tool for language learning and, ideally, making them shouldn’t be a chore that siphons time away from language learning.
No, instead of playing teacher and attempting to design a custom curriculum for yourself, it’s much easier to simply let your flashcards emerge organically as you use your target language. And the best way I’ve found to do this is to write.
Write, get your writing corrected by a native speaker, and turn your mistakes into flashcards.
Writing preserves our mistakes clearly in text. When we set down a book or finish a show in our target language, we aren’t provided with a printed-out list of words and phrases that we didn’t understand while reading or watching. And while speaking in a new language is notoriously intimidating, it is also more forgiving than writing: when we speak, our mistakes disappear as soon as we stop speaking. But whatever we write has the potential to stick around—mistakes and all—for as long as the paper it was written on or file it was saved in exists.
This can make writing intimidating, but it also makes it incredibly useful. Because writing records our mistakes, we can use writing practice as a kind of compass that points towards the grammar and vocabulary you need to learn or review and allows you to avoid wasting time wandering through topics you already understand well.
Combining writing with an SRS allows your flashcards to emerge organically. Your decks will grow with you, naturally reflecting the way you use your target language and the topics you need the most help learning. If you made a mistake on something, odds are that you don’t fully understand it yet. Novelty, check. And the fact that you tried to use it at all indicates that it would have been useful for you to know better. Relevance, check.
Tip: Use cloze deletion to quickly turn mistakes into flashcards
The most helpful format that I’ve found for “mistake cards” is also one of the easiest to make: cloze deletions. Cloze deletions are essentially fill-in-the-blank questions. The front of a card has a sentence or other text with some element(s) removed and replaced with a placeholder […]. The back of the card is the whole sentence without deletions.
Getting your writing corrected by native speakers is easy these days. Here are a few different places to look for corrections. Most are free!
- LangCorrect (free). Correction exchange, usually fast feedback. My go-to.
- Language subreddits (free). I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with r/German. There are writing-specific subs for some languages as well, like r/WriteStreakGerman.
- Twitter (free). Certain Twitter communities are full of language learners that are happy to help with requests. Check out #langtwt to find people interested in language who speak your target language.
- iTalki tutors (cheap). Many will proofread outside of lesson time for a low price per page, just ask.
- Teachers (only if you’re in a course already). If you’re taking a class, just use your corrected writing assignments to make flashcards.
When it comes to actually making cards out of mistakes, I usually use cloze deletions. Thes are a sort of fill-in-the-blank style flashcard that is very quick to make. Here’s an example of a mistake card I made recently based on corrections from LangCorrect:
Note that I clozed both adjective endings here. If I had only clozed one, the card would ask a different “question” than it does currently. The mistake I originally made was knowing whether Wort was neuter or masculine, not whether the adjective endings of gut and deutsch were the same. Since I didn’t want to give myself too much of a hint by leaving the -es ending on one of the two adjectives, I clozed both endings.
I mention this just as an example of how you might think about creating your own cards. Be sure to test the mistake you actually made, not a mistake you didn’t (even if the card would be a tad simpler that way).
Example: How I combine writing practice with Anki to make better German flashcards
In case you’re interested in seeing a concrete implementation of this idea, here’s how I’ve integrated Anki into my writing practice:
- Each day, I try (often unsuccessfully) to set aside 30 minutes to write in German. I usually respond to a prompt I find online, or just complain about something that upset me recently.
- Then I submit my writing to LangCorrect for corrections by native speakers. I usually correct 1-2 submissions by English learners while I’m at it to give back and improve the chances that my writing is corrected quickly.
- Sometimes, I meet with a German tutor on iTalki during the week and we correct a written homework assignment, so I get writing corrections that way as well.
- Once I get corrections back, I go through them and turn each correction into a flashcard. This is as simple as copy-pasting the corrected sentence into an Anki cloze card and clozing the bits I screwed up. If necessary, I add a hint or translation to the card, but usually the sentence provides enough context on its own.
That’s it. It’s so simple that I wonder now how I managed to write this much about it. That’s blogging for you.