Confessions of an obsessive language learner part 2- Be creative in the way you approach your studies.

by Russell Stannard in Blogs & Articles

Confessions of an obsessive language learner part 2- Be creative in the way you approach your studies.


In the last blog post I wrote about my experience of constantly teaching and studying languages for the last 32 years of my life. I mentioned a few ideas around studying vocabulary, listening and reading, working with a course book and recording yourself. In this second part, I want to focus more on concrete examples of the sorts of things I do, especially when studying vocabulary.

Flashcards apps

Flashcard apps (like Quizlet/Cram etc.,) are flashcard-based vocabulary revision tools. They are ideal for students to use because they can take the words they are learning from the course book, add them into the app and then do activities with them. Quizlet for example, allows you to play about six to seven activities with each set of cards. Cram also allows you to play a series of games with the cards you create.

Most students produce flashcards with the word in English on one side and the word in their own language on the other side. So a Spanish student might have:

L1 (One side of card)

L2 (Other side of card)

La Bicicleta


El Coche


When you first start a language, it is sometimes very difficult not to learn words in isolation but as soon as you can, it is best to always learn vocabulary within the context of a sentence. The way I do this when studying Polish is to try to combine words I already know with the new words I want to learn. So this way I am continually revising previously learnt vocabulary/language but also learning new words.  For example, let’s say I know the verb ‘to have’ and I also know the numbers. Let’s imagine you are studying transport. Then I would write out lots of sentences in English that combined using the verb have+numbers+transport. So for example,

I know=have/numbers

I am learning=transport

L2 ( One side of card)

L1 ( Other side of card)

I don’t have four cars.

Translation into your language

She has two bicycles.

Translation into your language

He has a helicopter.

Translation into your language

They have five large lorries.

Translation into your language

These are not particularly exciting sentences and they are not really examples of authentic English but when you first start studying a language, it is more about just processing and using what you really know. It means that I get exposed to the new vocabulary in context but I am also continually revising language I have previously studied. This is a MASSIVE help. As you progress through the levels this gets more and more interesting and you get more creative with making the sentences and they will probably sound a bit more authentic too.

Some people might disagree with translation but for me it does seem to help. It is not something I would encourage in the classroom but it is useful when students are working on their own. The apps normally have settings that allow you to practise with the flashcards in different ways. So for example when I study words in Polish, I start with a setting that let’s me hear the Polish sentence first and I then translate it into English. This is exposing me to the language. Once I get confident, I swop the cards around. So I hear the English first and then try to translate into Polish. This gets me processing the language and actually producing Polish. Most of the apps let you do this and it can be very helpful. The majority of apps also automatically generate the audio, so you don’t have to record anything, you simply create the cards and the audio is generated by the audio software.

Quizlet-Being more creative

You don’t have to work with translations with these apps. It is possible for example to do more creative things with these flashcard apps and hopefully make the activities a little more cognitive. One way I use the apps, is that I take sentences from the book (it might be sentences from a recent text I have written, for example) I make flashcards that have the complete sentence on one side but only the first and last word on the other side. This way when I study the words, I can start by hearing the complete sentence, then turning the card over and trying to reproduce the same sentence. This is rather like a drill but with a little bit more support. When I get good, I switch over. I see only the first and last word of the sentence and try to reproduce it, I then turn the card over to check if I got it right. In this case the app is working like a feedback system as it shows me the correct answer and of course I hear it too. I really find this helps me as I say the sentence and then can immediately hear if I got it right or wrong.

One side of card

Other side of card

I drive the my car at weekends.


In the mornings, she checks her emails.


Driving to work, he normally listens to the radio.


Say and check

I really like using the flashcard apps this way, where I produce a sentence and then see if I got it right by turning the card over. For example, this works really well when focusing on irregular verbs in English. I have sentences in the present and then on the back the same sentence in the past like this:

One side of card

Other side of card

I drive my car to work.

I drove my car to work.

He gets up late.

He got up late.

I smoke when I drink.

He smoked when he drank.

This way, I can read and hear the sentence in the present simple and then I can try and reproduce the sentence in the past. I can then turn the card over and listen/read the answer and see if I have got it correct. Polish has a number of irregular verbs and this has worked really well for me.

I tend to take the examples from the book I am studying in class, so that I am working with sentences that I have already read or come across in the book. This really helps me as it often gives more context to the sentences I am studying as they come directly from my course book or from the readers I have. I recently tried this idea with a song. So I took sentences from the song and practised them and then later went back and listened to the song again and I understood much more. That really worked well.

I have tried other combinations. For example I create flashcards where I have one half of the sentence on one side and the other half on the other, so neither side has the complete sentence. Again, I am simply looking for ways of making the activities more cognitive and engaging to do. So for example, if I was practising the present simple, I might make a collection of cards like these

At the weekends_____________________.

____________________we play tennis.

She drives_______________.

_______________________a large lorry for work.

Most evenings____________________.

____________________he watches the TV.

These might seem rather odd sentences but again, when I work with these flashcards, I find myself really processing the language. It feels like it has more cognitive depth than simply learning individual words.

Doing this with pieces of paper

Making flashcards like this in flashcard apps is great because I can pull out my mobile phone and study the words whenever I want. However you could do all these exercises on pieces of paper just as easily.  There are advantages with the apps because you can hear the sentences as well as see them written but working with paper still helps (remember most apps generate the audio separately). The secret to vocabulary learning is being consistent and working with a limited number of words. I tend to focus on about seven to ten words at anytime and I will often go back to old sets of flashcards I have made to revise them. Hearing words in context is better in terms of developing your listening skills too. Interestingly these ideas are applicable to all levels. My Spanish is about C2 level and my Polish is about A2 but in both languages I use the ideas I have outlined above.


So what are the key things to remember? Firstly, flashcard apps such as Quizlet and Cram, etc., are a great way to revise vocabulary. Students can take words they have learnt in their course books and use the apps to review and play with this vocabulary. Secondly, it’s always best to learn vocabulary in context and even better, combine new vocabulary with previously learnt vocabulary. This can be tricky with lower levels as language is limited but as students improve and their vocabulary expands, reviewing vocabulary in context becomes much more natural. Thirdly, being creative and using the different tools and settings that these flashcard apps offer, keeps things interesting for students. For example, many of them have audio which is a great way to get instant feedback. My fourth point is don’t be afraid of translation - it can really help students get to grips with learning a language and most importantly, get students producing the language. Finally, be careful with the quantity of new vocabulary you’re learning. The secret here is limiting the amount of vocabulary but revisiting it.

About the author

Russell Stannard is the founder of www.teachertrainingvideos.com and a NILE associate trainer where he runs a ‘Flipping your Classes’ course and works on the MA course. He is the winner of 3 educational awards including the Times Higher ‘Outstanding Initiative in Technology’ and the British Council ‘ELTons Innovation Award’. Russell writes regular columns in the English Teaching Professional and has published widely in the area of feedback, collaboration and the use of screen capture. He is truly an international speaker, having presented in over 40 countries around the world.

by Russell Stannard in Blogs & Articles