Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My son's flashcard routine

My 7 year old son is in grade 2. In the previous grade, despite his intelligence, he was significantly behind his class in handwriting, letter reversals, and spelling. He was getting extra help from his teacher, but he still had an uphill battle. So I decided to start a flashcard routine to assist. This solved the original problem.  Here is a description of the current routine, and how it has evolved to this point.

It will surprise nobody who has read Teaching Linear Algebra that I started with the thought of some sort of spaced repetition system to maximize his long-term retention with a minimum of effort.  I needed to help him with around handwriting, so I wanted to be personally evaluating how he was doing.  This seemed simplest with a manual system.  I therefore settled on a variation of the Leitner system because that is easy to keep track of by hand.

To make things simple for me to track, I am doing things by powers of 2.  Every day we do the whole first pile.  Half of the second.  A quarter of the third.  And so on.  (Currently we top out at a 1/256th pile, but are not yet doing any cards from it.)  Cards that are done correctly move into the next pile. Those that he get wrong fall into the bad pile, which is the next day's every day pile.

So far, so good.  I tried this.  Then quickly found that I did an excellent job of sifting through all of the words he knew and getting the ones he didn't know into the bottom pile.  But he wasn't learning those.  This lead to frustration.  Not good.

I then added an extra drill on the pile that he got wrong.  At the end of the session, we do a quick drill with just the problem cards.  Here is the drill until we get to 3 cards.  If he gets the card first try, or gets a card that came all of the way from the bottom since he last got it wrong, it is removed from the drill.  If he gets it wrong, I tell him how to do it, and put it back in the pile near the top so he sees it again soon.  If he gets it right after a recent reminder, it goes to the bottom to get a chance to come out of the drill.

After we get down to 3 cards, I switch the drill up.  If he gets a card wrong I correct him and put it in slot 2.  If he gets it right I put it on the bottom.  Once he gets all three right, I end the drill for that day.

After I added this final drill on the problem cards, the "not learning" problem disappeared.  He began learning, and saw his school performance improve.  His spelling tests went from under half the words correct to the 80-100% range.  Everyone was happy.

It is worth noting that at the end of grade 1 he took several tests, and we found that he was spelling at a grade 3 level.  We have no direct measurement proving it, but I guarantee that he spells even better now.

This happiness lasted until he got used to doing well.  Over time we had more piles.  In school he was being given more words.  I began adding simple arithmetic facts.  This meant more and more work.  Not fun work.  Sometimes he would make a mistake on a card that he had known for a long time.  Then he'd get upset.  Once he got upset he'd get lots of others wrong.  Over the next few days we'd get the cards moving back up the piles, then it would happen again.  The flashcard routine became a point of conflict.

Then I had a great idea (which I borrowed from a speech therapist).  The idea is that I'd mix a reward activity and flashcards.  We'd start on the reward, then do a pile, go back to the reward, then do another pile, go back to the reward, and so on.  The specific reward activity that we're using is that I'm reading books to him that are beyond his current reading level (currently The Black Cauldron), but in principle it could be anything.  With this shift, the motivation problem completely disappeared.  He enjoys the reward.  The flashcards are a minor annoyance that gets him the reward.  If he goes off track, the reward restores his equilibrium.  Intellectually he's happy that he's mastering the material.  But the reward is motivation.

With this fix in place, we lasted several months.  Then we developed an issue.  A couple of words were sufficiently hard that they just stayed in the bad pile every day.  So I made a minor tweak.  I had been doing his top pile, then his next, then his next, on down.  But instead I do his every day pile.  Then go into the top pile, next, next, etc.  But after each of those groups I try him again on the every day words that he hasn't gotten right yet.  Thus he is forced to get his trouble words right 2x per day.  This helped him master them and got them moving back up.

With that fix, we lasted until this week.  This week we had a problem.  His spelling test for this week includes the word embarrassing.  (And he can get a bonus for knowing peculiar.)  The problem is that this word has enough spelling tricks to get it right that he simply cannot get it in one pass.  We tried several times, without success.  I therefore have added flashcards like em(barr)assing for which he gets told, "The word 'embarrassing' starts 'em'.  Write the 'barr' bit."  With these intermediate flashcards he seems to be breaking up learning the whole word into manageable tasks, from which he can learn the word itself.  But I've also generated a ton of temporary flashcards, which may become an issue.  (I plan on removing those piecemeal ones after he successfully gets them in the every 8 day pile.  In a few weeks I'll know how well this is working)

That brings us to the current state of his flashcard routine.  He currently has hundreds of spelling words and basic arithmetic facts learned.  373 of them learned sufficiently well that he reviews them less than once per month.  But I am sure that I'm not done tweaking.  Here are current issues:
  1. One week is not enough.  Every week he is given a new set of words to master.  But as anyone who has done spaced repetition knows, a week is not very long to master material.  Spaced repetition excels for memorizing a body of data over years, not one week.  On most weeks he is given a set of standard words to learn, and a set of words for bonus points.  With the bonus words he usually gets over 100% on his tests.  But we don't stop, so now he'd do substantially better on last week's test than he actually did last week.
  2. He's only learning what I know that he needs to.  This week I reached out to his teacher and said that I am doing flashcards with him, and looked for feedback on more ways to use them for his benefit.  She pointed out a number of things he can improve on, including common words that he has wrong, grammar, poems he is supposed to memorize, and geography that he is supposed to learn.  The flashcard routine can help with these issues in time, but I had not been aware that he needed it.  Better late than never...
  3. Work is climbing again.  Currently every day I add 2 cards.  Plus every week I add a spelling test of unpredictable size (this week 27, of which he already knew one).  This is increasing the size of the bottom piles, and the work has been increasing.  It is manageable, but I'm keeping my eye on it.
  4. This takes my time.  At the moment that's unavoidable.  One of the issues that we're still working on is handwriting, so there needs to be a human evaluation of what he's doing.  But still I'm taking an hour per day with this.  I think it is an hour well-spent that we both value.  However in a couple of years if his sister needs similar help, what then?  In the long run I'd love to offload the flashcards to a computer program, but the idea of a reward activity has to be in there.  All of the flashcard apps that I've seen assume that doing flashcards is itself a fun activity.  That will not work for my son.  Maybe I'm being too picky.  But I've developed opinions about what works while fine-tuning my son's system.  If there is something that fits that, I'd love to find it.
If you've wound up building a similar or different system to help your children learn, please tell me in the comments.  I've borrowed ideas from all over, and would be happy to try anything reasonable that gets suggested.


Unknown said...

I don't have a kid; but have just started university, and searching for an efficient way of studying, and I think I'll try and adapt this routine for my own use. Thanks for the very useful post!

dan said...

Have you looked at Anki and Ankiweb?

It handles a lot of the mechanics for me with flashcards in learning Koine Greek.

wabby said...

After reading this, I'd love to know how you helped your son learn how to read.

I have a five year old and I'm working on a flashcard system to complement what his kindergarten is doing.

nwallman said...

Thanks for posting this! Just last night I went to my own son's Parent Teacher Conference and came away thinking I need to start a flash card routine. Then my routine of browsing Hacker News led me here. Going to use your lessons learned to come up with my own routine.

Anonymous said...

You should take a look at You can build your own flash card sets and they are experts at flash card based learning. Many of the insights that you've learned through trial and error have been crafted/perfected on the website!

I've used it to learn Mandarin and have done pretty well for myself... 1,000 words in a few months.

Ben Tilly said...

@dan: I looked at them briefly back when I was starting. My need for manual review of what he was doing lead me away from trying to automate it. I am still working on handwriting issues, and don't want to have a computer present, so Anki does not seem like a fit yet.

If Anki could be integrated into some kind of reward activity (like an audio book), it would be a perfect thing for him to graduate to once I am entirely happy with his handwriting.

@wabby: I briefly did a similar thing with just word recognition in kindergarten. It worked, but did not last. As in the first iteration of the current system, it was work and the reward of having learned was not enough to motivate doing it every day.

Alex said...

I've taken to using flashcard apps on my iPhone for my graduate studies. It keeps me from having huge piles of flash cards, don't have to write anything out by hand, and the program I'm using allows me to put the front and back in excel spreadsheets and import the data in. Might be helpful in your intermediate step cards!

If you have access to a tablet device, I'd suggest using that as there is more real estate (and if you're entering the flashcards on the device it's a hell of a lot easier).

Just some thoughts, well done! Love seeing parents so actively involved in their child's learning process.

dan said...

@btilly - fair enough. It is pretty cool what you're doing. :-)

I was home-educated, and find all the concepts of learning and all that really interesting. My mum has a website with quite a lot of links and resources for parents who are really involved in their childrens' education (it's aimed more at home-educators)

There may be something there you find interesting. Or look up other home-educators in your area (some of us aren't too weird! :-) )

Harrison Grieve said...

This is a brilliant technique. Whenever I hear something like this my brain always goes crazy trying to figure out how it could be automated. With that said, I had a question: Do you think that the benefit of the reward system comes from the reward itself, or the fact that the reward provides that parent-child interaction that we already know has huge benefits psychologically?

In my opinion, this is probably the most important aspect of the system such that it's obviously much harder to automate if the reward is the interaction, rather than the reward itself.

Aaron Collegeman said...

I love this. My daughter is currently 3, but I spend a little bit of time every day thinking about the role I will have helping her learn. Most of the activities we do together now focus on vocabulary and enumeration, and some Spanish (English is her first language, but her mother is bilingual).

I would love to work on this app with you, if you reach that point. I'm an accomplished Web developer, but I'm beginning to prototype mobile apps, and hope to have one in circulation by next year. Personally I think pre-selected YouTube vids would offer a wealth of simple, short, and in some cases, educational rewards.

Casey said...

Awesome post Ben. We have some similar issues at home in regards to spelling and handwriting. Taking a scientific/mathematical sounds like a great step in measuring my sons overall progress in these areas. Thanks for the post, Hope you're doing great. Lot's of over here still miss you!

Ben Tilly said...

@Harrison Grieve: I believe that the benefit is the fact that it is a reward. But I have obviously not tested it.

@Aaron Collegeman: I'm not seeking to develop this myself, and my life will not let me consider a project like that for a couple of years. But if you develop something effective, I'll be happy to be a customer.

I think that different kids will want different rewards. An audiobook would work for my son. Casual games like Angry Birds could work for another kid. Yet another might like youtube videos.

@Casey: Good luck. It was just untenable for me to have the child care responsibilities, the commute, and a full time job. I'm now working part time, doing stuff that I enjoy more, and creating easily measured value. Much better for me overall.

Note, at Google I worked with another Casey, whose wife I was responding to in another forum, so it took me a bit to figure out which Casey you were.

Joe said...

I have used Mental Case ( for Mac, iPhone, iPad only) to prepare sets of flash cards for memorizing facts (anatomy, pharmacology, etc.) for my medical school training. I found I benefited significantly from merely generating the flash cards on my own, which is reflective of my learning style. I have used the learning strategies embedded in the software to review material, which includes a way of scheduling flash card appearance dependent upon prior ability to recall. Although it uses a spaced repetition approach, it has different strategies, e.g. for long-term retention vs. short-term cramming.

Unknown said...

Using flashcard app on our mobile is great. Im now using it everyday when I teach my daughter learn Maths. I can create flashcard quick on my laptop and teach my daughter.We can play really active games on the app to review the flaschards. The app I use is Superflashcard

Unknown said...

I taught my daughter how to read the summer after kindergarten. In kindergarten, they learned about 30 sight words, but I think the focus was learning the alphabet and the sounds that each of the letters make, as well as how to print all the letters.

Btw: I read Why Johnny Can't Read, and got a lot of my ideas from that book...look it up, it's a great book.

I started off making sure my daughter knew all of the letters of the alphabet, could reproduce all the consonant sounds, could make all the short vowel sounds, and could print all of the letters (upper and lower case). When I was sure she knew all the sounds, then I started teaching her how to put the sounds together reading CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant words: e.g. cat, dog, hat, bat, etc). I started with the A's, then the E's, then the I's and so on.

After about two weeks (3 to 4 times a week), when she was fairly comfortable reading short 3 to 4 letter words, but her sound blending was a bit choppy, so I created a set of flashcards I called her "sounds" cards. Each card had a letter combination that created a sound that I wanted her to learn. Sample cards would be: bl, cl, st, nd, spl, cr, ab, nt,ing. We made maybe 30 or so cards, and kept adding to them. At the end of the summer I think she probably had 150 of those cards with different letter combinations.

These cards helped with her sound blending immensely, but better than that, it helped her learn how to spell words that she had not been introduced to yet (by sounding the letters out the letters of the word).

Of course this didn't help with correctly reading/spelling oddball words that followed special phonics rules, so we created another set of flashcards for those sight words.

So she had two small binders of index cards: one for her sounds, and one for her sight words. And I would bring them with us everywhere, and I would have her pull them out whenever she had a free moment (like when at a restaurant waiting for our food, or standing in line in the grocery store, or sitting in the car while we drove somewhere).

She's just finishing 1st grade now, and she's never missed a spelling word all year. Now that I'm learning a lot about SRS (spaced repetition software), I'll probably set up a couple of decks for her to review this summer!

Unknown said...

I forgot to mention that while she was learning to read these CVC words and practicing sounding out the letter combinations on the sound cards, she was also printing them. So if we were at home, I would sit with her and do some flashcards, then after I would dictate some words (or sounds) for her to write down...kind of like a spelling test. We probably did "tests" like this once a week. I would always throw in a word that I knew she didn't know, but should be able to sound out. Most of the time, after I said a word...that she didn't know, she would give me that "huh" look, but I'd tell her to just sound it out like the sounds in her sounds cards. I'd say, 8 out of 10 times she was able to do it correctly.

Anyone else do anything similar with their kids?

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