The absolute best way to practice flash cards with elementary students

I will show you my favorite way to ask kids to practice with flash cards.

But first, some logistical tips that I’ve picked up.

Tip #1: Everybody gets a hard plastic case.

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Tip #2: Everyone gets one and only one color of flashcards. I repeat, DO NOT LET YOUR KIDS MIX COLORS OF FLASHCARDS. CHAOS WILL ENSUE AND THEY WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO FIND THEIR CARDS IF THEY GET MIXED UP WITH SOMEONE ELSE’S DECK.

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I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING AND, YES, SOMETIMES KIDS WITH SAME-COLORED CARDS END UP PRACTICING NEAR EACH OTHER AND, YES, THEIR DECKS GET MIXED UP. IT’S HONESTLY NOT THAT BIG A DEAL, BUT I’LL DO WHAT I CAN TO PREVENT CONFUSION RIGHT UP TO THE POINT WHERE I’M TELLING NINE-YEAR OLDS THEY CAN’T PRACTICE WITH A FRIEND BECAUSE THEY HAVE SAME-COLORED FLASH CARDS.

Tip #3: If kids have a hard time with a card, let them write little helper problems at the bottom of a card. Put them in pencil so you can erase them when you don’t need them any longer.

Tip #4: Have kids make their own cards, but don’t have make solving all the problems a pre-condition for making all the cards. In other words just give them the answers with the problem. The whole point of this is to practice with feedback, so don’t be shy about giving out answers at first.

To illustrate, I gave out this sheet to my third graders:

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OK so that’s the logistical tips. Now, on to the best practice set-up with flash cards.

The thing to remember is that there are all sorts of problems involved with asking two kids to practice together, even though it’s very fun to practice with a friend.

Meaning suppose that you’re doing what I call forward practice, i.e. you’re looking at the problem.

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How do you make sure both kids get something out of that exercise? Inevitably one kid goes and yells out the answer in excitement before the other one has a chance to finish thinking. This I think can make kids feel less than their partners, mathematically, and also can make the activity a waste of their time.

So you tell everyone to make sure they each have a chance to raise a thumb or some sort of other check-in to make sure both partners are ready to check the other side, but these are third-graders we’re talking about and this isn’t something particularly easy for them to remember. So you remind them, again and again, and the practice starts to feel exhausting and not as much of a fun game any longer.

That’s an advantage to what I call backwards practice, which is looking at the ‘answer’ and then trying to think about what problem is on the other side. So here’s 48, what’s the problem? Jeopardy style.

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And this is better, because there are multiple answers and both partners can contribute…but honestly it’s got the same problems as forward practice when it’s done with partners.

Which brings me to the best way to practice with cards but also one FINAL logistical tip.

OK here it goes: one partner does forward practice, the other does backward practice with the same card, held between them.

Here is a picture illustrating the basic dynamic:

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And you probably don’t realize the best part about this, which is that IF I SHOUT OUT MY ANSWER IT DOES NOT TAKE AWAY MY PARTNER’S CHANCE TO THINK.

Here is that best part of this best way to practice, illustrated via dialogue.

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Card: Kid A’s side says 6 x 8, Kid B’s side says 48.

Kid A: I am an excellent Radiohead album. Also, 48.

Kid B: You are excellent. Also yes that is in fact what my side of the card says. Good work. Now, does your side say 12 x 4?

Kid A: No it does not.

Kid B: Hmm. Can I have a hint?

Kid A: You’re right that there’s multiplication. Also it has an 8.

Kid B: Oh, OK. How about 6 x 8?

Kid A: Now you are correct.

***

Tip #5: Have the kids write with pencil on their cards so that the numbers don’t bleed through to the other side of the notecard, thereby ruining the best way of practicing with flash cards.

(Though a few inventive children have found that if you insert a card into the translucent decks it obscures the backside while leaving your side visible. Children are genius.)

***

There are two other interesting ways to practice that I’ve come up with. I won’t spend much time explaining them because they don’t deserve it; they aren’t the best.

  • Place a bunch of cards out in front of view, and try to pick a few that get you as close to some target number (e.g. 100) as possible.
  • Pick the same three cards from two different decks (two different colors, please!). In one set place the problems facing up, with the other place the answers facing up. Try to match them.

But both of these require more set up or more clean up or more time than the very best way, which I’ve already detailed extensively above. That is all.

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One thought on “The absolute best way to practice flash cards with elementary students

  1. You are right – this is totally THE BEST! Thank you for sharing. I don’t like flash cards that much – because I usually did it the “normal” way of looking at the problem. But this is GENUIS! And so simple. Thanks, Michael!

    Like

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