Let’s take another look at flashcards

Teacher with two little boysFlashcards for years have been dismissed as a superficial tool for teaching reading, but a study by Annette Tan and Tom Nicholson, University of Auck-land, New Zealand, shows that the cards bolstered poor readers’ comprehension, as well as their speed and accuracy.  Earlier studies of flashcard use have found little effect on reading comprehension. Fleisher, Jenkins and Pany in 1979 used flashcards to train fourth- and fifth-grade poor readers. Students were trained to recognize single words on the flashcards and then phrases. Students then read passages, answered questions and recalled what each passage was about. Improvements in accuracy and speed did not result in better reading comprehension.

New Zealand Study

The New Zealand study followed the work done by Fleisher et al., with some important exceptions:

*Students received more training.

*The reading passages were easier to understand.

*Students were given some explanation of the meaning of the words on the flashcards.

*Phrase training was more intensive, using short sentences as well as phrases.

The sample of 42 students were identified as below-average readers by their school in a low-income suburb of Auckland. Their reading rates, comprehension and reading accuracy levels were measured by the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability. Phonemic awareness was tested using the Roper Test. Students were also assessed with the Bryant Test of Basic Decoding Skills. Using the results of these tests, three matched groups were randomly selected, each of 14 children, ranging in age from seven to ten.

All students attended five 20-minute sessions in which they read stories appropriate to their grade level, first receiving training on a few of the more difficult words. After reading the passage, students were asked eight explicit questions drawing details directly from the story and four implicit questions requiring more comprehension of the text. The researchers gave students up to four points for comprehension and up to four points for recall of six or more details.

The first group learned target words through single words printed on flashcards. If a student was unfamiliar with the word, he was shown a two-word phrase using the word. By the end of the 20-minute training session, students were able to recognize each target word in approximately one second.

The second group learned the target words in phrases or sentences on the flashcards. They achieved the recognition rate of 90 words per minute in the 20-minute training session. In the control group, students listened to and discussed the target words for most of the training session but were not given the same practice in rapid word recognition. Then they were given a randomly ordered list of the words and were asked to read them as quickly and as accurately as possible, but did not use flashcards.

Study Results

Tan and Nicholson found that the effects of flashcard training extended beyond accuracy. The trained pupils learned the list words so well that they were able to read these words more effectively in the selected passages. The authors say that the difference lay in the “overlearning” of the words, similar to the overlearning techniques of successful Olympic athletes who practice and master isolated motor skills before going on to more integrated activities.

For implicit questions, the group that learned target words in phrases on the flashcards performed best. In passage recall, the two groups that learned the target words on flashcards did better in recalling both substance and details. On all measures of comprehension, the two flashcard groups outperformed the control group.

In the final analysis, it is hard to single out the effects of reading accuracy from the effects of rapid decoding on comprehension. But children in the two training groups read the target words better in the passages than the children in the control group, so it seems that emphasis on accurate and quick word reading (and overlearning) is more important than accuracy per se.


Why did Tan and Nicholson find the differences in comprehension when Fleisher didn’t? The authors theorize that because the poor readers in their survey had learned to read using the whole-language approach, which emphasizes comprehension, the students could have been more likely to focus on understanding the passages they were given to read. Also, the quick word-recognition skills they learned during the study could have immediately benefited these readers, who did not have extensive training in phonics before. In addition, the passage given to the New Zealand readers was not as difficult as that in the Fleisher study. And finally, all pupils received some training on the meaning of the target words, which aided their comprehension of the passage.

In both phrase and sentence training and single-word training, gains in speed and accuracy of word recognition along with comprehension were significant. This is underlined by the fact that children in the control group, who received instruction in meanings but not in rapid decoding, scored much lower in comprehension.

In the growing body of research on the teaching of reading, it is already acknowledged that word recognition is one process that must be taught to beginning readers. It usually takes years of practice. If the recognition of words is not auto-matic, the extra effort and time taken to figure out words detracts from comprehension.

Flashcards can increase skills and increase the interest of poor readers. Flashcards that include phrases or sentences using the target words are most effective in implicit questions, while single-word training appears to be a more effective way to speed up reading. More study needs to be done to determine the advantages of each form of training. Phrase training may turn out to be simply more effective for 8-to-9-year-olds, for example.

Flashcards alone cannot teach comprehension. But they can teach letter-sound relationships and phonemic awareness so that with practice and overlearning, students can make progress in reading. As readers break through the code of sounds and meaning, they will read more and faster, gaining the practice that will enable them to become good readers. The recognition of gains made through fast and accurate word recognition goes beyond flashcards to other learning strategies. Com-puter programs, withtraining in word recognition and practice in reading and rereading selected passages, offer similar benefits. Between the seemingly outmoded flashcard and the newest computer program, poor readers can learn to decode words, speed up their reading and improve comprehension.

“Flashcards Revisited: Training Poor Readers To Read Words Faster Improves Their Comprehension of Text,” by
Annette Tan, Tom N icholson, Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 89 N2 p276-88 June 1997

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