(Don’t Make Me Say the F-Word) Flashcard-Free Vocabulary


Flashcard-Free Vocabulary-6

Children with hearing loss are at particular risk for deficits in vocabulary.  Even when children perform within normal limits when compared to hearing peers on other language measures, receptive (understanding) and expressive (using) vocabulary can still lag behind.  Limited ability to overhear conversation restricts a child with hearing loss’s ability to pick up incidental vocabulary.  Over time, these vocabulary gaps have serious implications in the child’s performance on school subjects like reading comprehension and standardized testing.

But many teachers of the deaf and speech-language pathologists try to stimulate vocabulary growth by using… don’t make me say the F-word… FLASHCARDS.  As well-meaning as they may be, in my opinion, parents and professionals who use flashcards for language growth are heading down the wrong path.  Why?

First, let’s think about what we know does work for teaching vocabulary.  Children learn vocabulary when it is contextualized, content-based, and constant (Thomas).  Children need multiple exposures to new vocabulary terms (children with hearing loss need about three times as much exposure as children with typical hearing), and many exemplars of the new word (dog cannot just be your dog at home, you have to learn that there are many types of dogs, pictures of dogs, dogs in books, etc.).  Additionally, vocabulary doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Vocabulary and syntax (grammar) work together, and children learn best when given full, rich, complete language models.

So why don’t flashcards work?

  • Flashcards are not developmentally appropriate.  I have heard stories from parents of infants and toddlers who have either purchased flashcards (some that even purport to teach a baby to read… don’t get me started) or been advised to use flashcards by their early intervention professionals.  If the goal of listening and spoken language intervention is to allow children with hearing loss to develop language in developmentally appropriate ways and in typical environments with hearing peers, I ask you, “What twelve-month-old is working on flashcards in her crib?”  For young children, we know that real objects lead to the greatest learning.  Two-dimensional drawings?  They’re at the very bottom of that list.

  • Flashcards limit generalization.  For children, it is very difficult to make the leap from printed image on a page to 3D exemplars of the vocabulary target in real life.  Sure, a child may learn the “trick” or labeling an object by matching the auditory code (for example, the word “dog”) with the pictured representation (whatever picture has been chosen for “dog” on the flashcard), but does that mean that he understands that a poodle is a dog just like a chihuahua is a dog just like a collie is a dog, etc.?  Usually, young children learn, “If I say ‘dog’ when I see picture X, my teacher is happy,” not a real, deep understanding of the vocabulary based on  life experiences.

  • Flashcards are de-contextualized.  Flashcards are just images on paper.  They aren’t connected with a real-life example, a life experience, a memory, an emotion, an adventure.  Those things stick on our minds… flashcards don’t!  Sure, I could learn a few words in Finnish (a language I do not speak) if someone drilled me with flashcards, but once I left the therapy room, could I use those words in a sentence?  Would I have any deep mental connection to those words?  Would I remember them a few days, weeks, or months later?  I highly doubt it.

  • Flashcards promote a drill-and-kill mentality.  No matter how many times you use them to play Go Fish or Memory, flashcards are, at their heart, a tool for drilling.  It is my opinion that listening and spoken language intervention for children with hearing loss and their families should be a joyous, participatory, experiential, real-life language interaction.  If a therapist pulls out the flashcards, to me, that means she’s reached the end of her rope in terms of thinking of creative ways to engage the child and parent in a language experience, and it’s time to recharge and try harder.

  • Flashcards don’t deal with abstraction.  Abstract vocabulary is difficult, if not impossible, to depict on a flashcard.  You may think that great picture of a boy ripping up his drawing perfectly illustrates your target word of “frustration,” but how is it more “frustration” than “tearing” or “anger” or “mistake”?  You might argue with me, “But the child will learn that that card is for ‘frustration.'”  Well… sure he will.  But that’s no different than learning “If I do X when I see Y, I get a treat” — pretty low-level thinking, and not the kind of deep engagement that leads to the level of vocabulary mastery our children need and deserve.  Flashcards to teach idioms?  Don’t get me started!  Sure the child may learn them, but we’re doing something wrong if we can’t introduce and teach those through everyday conversation.  Verbs?  Not a chance.  Drawings don’t convey motion so well, do they?  Prepositions?  Those are all a matter of perspective… one that cannot be shown by a flat image on paper.

  • Flashcards get stuck at the single-word level.  If you want your child to always speak in single words, by all means, forge ahead with those cards.  But… I doubt that you do.  We know that children learn new words, especially new verbs, when they are presented in context connected with a noun.  For example, a child learns “kicking” by hearing “The boy is kicking the soccer ball,” not by being shown four picture options on the table and told, “Show me ‘kicking.'”

  • Flashcards are a game of chance.  If a child is dealing with a list of vocabulary terms, each one on a flashcard, and then given four options on the table and told, “Touch ‘driving'” — he’s pretty quickly going to figure out how the game the system when cards eight, nine, and ten hit the table mixed in with cards he’s already chosen and known not to be the word in question.  I don’t want my children to learn words by chance, or to get them only by process of elimination.  Sorry, that’s not good enough for me because it’s not good enough for them.

  • Flashcards don’t always target what they say they do.  Commercially available flashcards (see more on those particular offenders below) do not have the specificity or deep thinking behind their development that they say they do.  For examples, I’ve seen many flashcard decks that say they target, for example, “medial /t/” (“t” sound in the middle of words), but then include a target like “Batman.”  Well, “batman” does have a “t” in the middle, so A for effort, but when it’s presented next to an “m,” it becomes a /tm/ blend, and no longer a medial /t/.  I wish I could say this is a rare occurrence, but it’s not.  Parents and professionals who are duped into buying these materials and then use them without careful vetting may be working really, really hard on targets that are not even helpful to their child.

  • Flashcards support “big business,” not families.  Educational media is a big business.  Using flashcards in therapy promotes the idea that good therapy can be bought and can make families feel that they, too, need to give more money to the big speech-language-education companies for their child to succeed.  These companies don’t have your and your child’s best interests at heart.  Their catalogs are full of products (beyond just flashcards) that have no basis in evidence and are not best practice.  Why do they continue to sell these things?  Because someone will buy them, and that’s enough.  They may seem warm and fuzzy and all pro-speech-language, but at the end of the day, they exist for one purpose: to make money.  I’m not contributing to that, and I would encourage you to think twice about it, too.

So maybe you’re convinced to step away from the flashcards now.  But what next?  We can’t just forget the issue of vocabulary development entirely, or throw away the flashcards and hope it happens on its own.  Here are some tips for growing vocabulary the flashcard-free way:

  • Ensure great access to sound.  Children learn a lot by overhearing — by some estimates, 90% of a what a young child knows is learned incidentally.  If a child with hearing loss is wearing anything less than optimally-functioning technology, this very important overhearing will be completely out of reach.

  • Read, read, read.  Read, and then read some more.  Read to your child well beyond the age that she is able to read to herself.  Read books with language slightly higher than your child’s current expressive language level.  Don’t just stick to the words on the page — go beyond and discuss the characters’ names, motives, actions, and more.  Books are a wonderful way to introduce odd or unusual vocabulary that may not come up as often in everyday conversation, but is nonetheless very important for a child with hearing loss to have in her repertoire.

  • Make your voice interesting.  When teaching a new word, use the techniques of “parentese” and “acoustic highlighting” (for example, changing the pitch, emphasis, volume, or rate of your voice) to call attention to the target word and make it both more audible and more interesting to the child.

  • Teach vocabulary with real experiences.  Children learn best when they can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste something new.  We all do!  If you want vocabulary to stick — that is, to last beyond the lesson and become part of that child’s word bank forever — you’ve got to bring it to life.  If you’re teaching something abstract, bring it to life through books, take a video trip around the world using YouTube, or use wonderful descriptive language to help the child conceptualize something new.

  • Use the words in complete sentences.  Our goal is that the child, no matter how young, will some day speak to us in complete sentences.  As such, we’ll model them for her from the start.  Using new vocabulary in complete sentences also allows the child to hear the word in context, learn how it relates to other grammatical structures, and place is as part of mental map.

  • Put the key word at the end of your sentence.  Children tend to remember the last thing they hear the best.  Model good language by using a complete sentence, but place that key word at the end to really make it stick for the child.  For example, if the key word is, “banana,” you could say, “Oh!  I’m going to eat a banana.  Would you like a banana?  This is a really good yellow banana.”

  • Give lots of exposure in multiple contexts.  Again, we know that children with hearing loss will require about three times as much exposure as their typical peers to catch on to a new word or concept.  Talk, talk, talk, and also help the child learn multiple examples of what you’re trying to teach.  If your key word is “shoes,” show many different types of shoes (in real life, in books, at the store, at home, etc.) and talk about all of the different kinds.

  • Keep it moving.  For very young children, we know that, in addition to “parentese,” “motionese” also helps.  Hold the object that you’re teaching (let’s say a duck).  Move the duck as you talk about it.  (See my duck?  This is a yellow duck.  I like this duck)  This ties in so well with listening and spoken language techniques by keeping the child’s attention on the object of joint reference, not the speaker’s face.  This encourages listening over looking AND boots vocabulary acquisition: a win-win!

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