There are many ways to learn words, which is good, because there are many different learning styles. Some people like vocab books like the fantastic Direct Hits series. Some people just make it a habit to write down and learn every word they encounter that they don’t know. Still others, like myself, try to grow their personal lexicons in the long term by using a thesaurus to avoid the repetition of words in their written work.

But one of the most common methods of vocabulary augmentation is the flashcard. It’s tried and true, just like mom and dad used to use when they walked to school uphill both ways in the snow chased by sabre-toothed tigers.

I see a lot of people struggle with flashcards. They know that flashcards are supposed to be great, but although they recognize the words they’re supposed to know when they see them, they just can’t seem to make their definitions stick. If this sounds like you, read on.

The three-pile flashcard system

For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming you’ve already either created your own cards, or purchased a set.

  1. Go through the entire pile of cards. Any word you know (and I mean know—like you can recite the dictionary definition quickly and accurately) put in a different pile. That’s your KNOW pile. Any words that don’t go into the KNOW pile go into the DON’T KNOW pile. Easy so far, right?
  2. Set a daily goal for yourself based on the size of your DON’T KNOW pile and the amount of time you have to learn it. You should give yourself plenty of wiggle-room in this goal. So if you have 8 weeks until your test, and 250 words you don’t know, set a goal to learn 40 words per week. That way, you’ll finish early (or won’t fall too far behind if you miss a day). And if you add words to your list as you go, you won’t have to stray from your plan to absorb them.
  3. Here’s the part most people don’t do: On Monday through Saturday, try to learn your 40 words for that week. Once you’ve convinced yourself you know a word, put it in a third pile: the PENDING pile.
  4. On Sunday, test yourself on the words in your PENDING pile. If you can recite the definition of a word without hesitation, you can put it in your KNOW pile. If you can’t, you leave it in your PENDING pile or, if you really don’t know it, put it back in your DON’T KNOW pile.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’ve moved all your cards into the KNOW pile.
  6. Test yourself on every word in your KNOW pile. If you can’t recite a word’s definition in 5 seconds, put its card back in the DON’T KNOW pile, and begin again.


This system is only going to work for you if you’re honest with yourself. If you don’t know a word, admit you don’t know it. Otherwise, when it appears on test day and you don’t know it as well as you should because you let it languish in your KNOW pile when it didn’t belong there, you’re going to be sorry.If, however, you stick to the plan assiduously and concede when you don’t know words, you’ll be in good shape come test day. Good luck!

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