Learning to Read with Flashcards
When children learn how to read, flashcards are thought to accelerate the word recognition process, especially when it comes to sight words or words students can identify without first sounding out the letters. In such cases, students don’t necessarily need to know the full alphabet in order to recognize sight words. But would it make a difference if they did?
In a co-authored article published with the journal Reading and Writing, Professors Katharine Pace Miles, Karen E. McFadden (both from Brooklyn College), and Linnea C. Ehri (The Graduate Center, CUNY) sought to understand the correlation between a child’s prior “language proficiency and literary skills” and flashcard learning.
The researchers examined 81 kindergarten students from four Northeast public schools. They tested the students on two types of words: content words that have concrete meanings, and function words that have “little substantial meaning on their own.” They further divided those words into two more complicated sets — those presented in complete sentences and those presented in isolation, i.e., without that helpful context.
Results showed that knowing more of the alphabet helped students identify the more difficult function words in isolation. “This suggests that is it important to consider word type and students’ underlying skills in order to best target instruction,” the researchers wrote.
Since schools tend to categorize children into native and nonnative English speakers, Miles, McFadden, and Ehri were also curious about whether those labels impacted learning. It turns out, they didn’t. The broad category of nonnative English speaker failed to take into consideration that some children are proficient, while others haven’t yet had the same exposure to the language. The researchers recommended modifying nonnative categories to differentiate between proficiency levels.
Ultimately, the researchers found that flashcards are useful, but they may not be “a sufficient method of instruction” for all students. Given that kindergarten students range in their knowledge of the alphabet, “Kindergarten teachers need to be aware of the complexity of literacy development and how students’ literacy profiles may interact with their high frequency word list instruction.”