This is an article I wrote for my students and their parents. I find that quite a few people don't really know how to use vocabulary flashcards well. Holding them up and guessing is not the best strategy, after all. The article is all printed up nicely and saved as a PDF if you would like to download and print it for for your students too. Download it here: How to Use Vocabulary Flashcards to Best Effect.
Make Your Own Cards
The first step is to make the flashcards yourself. The process of making them will help you review the words and their meanings. Use heavy cardstock or construction paper. Index cards will work too if you don’t have cardstock or construction paper. Colored index cards work best for a couple of reasons: 1) You won’t be able to see the writing on the other side of the card, and 2) You can organize the cards by color according subject or difficulty.
The best flashcards are those that use pictures or definitions in Spanish instead of an English translation. (There will not be any English on our quizzes, tests, or exams!) However, some words defy our ability to express them easily in picture or definition form. In those cases go ahead and use English on one side of the card. Spanish should be on the other side of the card and, in the case of nouns, the word el or la should be included.
Go from General to Specific
To go through the flashcards, you should begin with the entire stack and look at the Spanish side of the cards. As you go through, take out the cards for which you already know the answers then go through the stack again. Keep doing this until your stack is very small and you feel like you know all the words. Shuffle them all and go through the big stack again to make sure.
Generate the SPANISH Word
Next go through the stack with the English (or picture) side up and see if you can generate the Spanish words. This is much harder but is a better indication if you really know the vocabulary or not. Again, remove the cards you know and keep going through as the stack gets smaller and smaller.
Use the Word in Context
The last, and most important, step is to see if you can use the word in a sentence once you know its meaning. For example, if the vocabulary word is el pingüino (penguin), knowing that it means penguin in English is a good first step. But since our vocabulary assessments do not have English on them, knowing how to use it in a sentence is crucial. You might create a sentence like El pingüino vive en Antárdida (The penguin lives in Antarctica.). This shows an understanding of the word and moves you toward the essential step of being able to use the language to express thoughts and ideas.
I hope you and your students find the advice useful.