Picture Cards for Learning Vocabulary

I use picture cards for learning vocabulary.  Who doesn’t know the logos from McDonalds, Lego and Apple?  Pictures are a very powerful marketing tool, so I think it makes sense to use them when learning vocabulary.  I try to encourage my pupils who are learning a foreign language to use them as well.  Most of them have major deficits which prevent them from speaking their foreign language.  I understand this, because I also have a foreign language that I never learned well enough to use. We’re all in the same boat!  To use picture cards to learn vocabulary takes a bit of preparation, but it’s fun too. Below are the steps I use to make them. Let’s get started!

Step 1: Making the Picture Cards

First, find an image to connect with each word you’re trying to learn.   A good place to get CC0 (free domain) pictures is pixabay. Here you don’t have to worry about copyright infringement issues.  The picture must make you think of the word you’re trying to learn.  This word-picture association is really important, more important than the translation.  Just to give an example, this is a picture of the “start” from a game I created for one of my classes. The picture has to mean something to the learner, otherwise there’s no learning effect. I tell learners to pick an image they would like.

A good place to start.

On the front side of the picture card is the picture and on the back is the new word to be learned. My foreign language is Japanese, and the Japanese word for this picture is 始める, which is obviously “to start”. The translation into the learner’s native language is an option, but sometimes it can detract from learning the new word.

I use a template (below) for my picture cards, because I can insert digital pictures and print them out in sets. Templates vary, but I made this one with PowerPoint, using its “insert table” function. I explain how to do this in “Make Flashcards in PowerPoint” 

You can also create a flashcard template in Word, but you can manipulate the pictures (resize, place one on top of the other) in PowerPoint better.  I print the template out after I’ve inserted the pictures and I make notes and draw on them.  You can type your new words on another template you use for the back. If your printer supports duplex printing, you can print out front/back at once.


Step 2: Try to Recall the Word from the Picture Cards

Unfortunately, many of my pupils stop with this step. Wait a few days and try to recall the word (and spelling) by looking at the picture. If you can’t recall all of it, you have to work with the word a little bit longer.  Ask yourself what the hang up is.  Is it time for a memory aid? Is the picture the right one?

Because I’m learning the kanji, this phase is the right time for me to work with the characters. Learners who are dealing with languages with latin alphabets don’t have to worry about this extra bit.  What I do is, I draw the different kanji parts. I associate each part with its primitive taken from “Remembering the Kanji” by James W. Heisig. For Japanese language learners, this is still a standard.)  However, I continue to associate the word with my picture from step 1.

Here’s an example of how I learn kanji.  For 始める you have the primitives “woman”, “elbow” and “mouth”.

(c) bzzlingua.com

So now I have to connect this with the spoken word (pronunciation) and its meaning. (Nobody said Japanese was easy!)  I can only say out of my own experience, the longer you work with the picture and the word, the more it “sticks” in your memory. My story is that a woman helps someone along (or the other way around) in life.  A new beginning?  With a kiss.  I don’t need more than that.  Sometimes you’re lucky and the elements of the kanji are super recognizable (like “woman”) – but most of the time that’s not the case.

Step 3:  Check your Progress

In this step you repeat the times you look at the picture cards and check your progress.  Speaking as an old Anki-user, I’ve rediscovered the paper picture cards/flashcards. The advantage of the paper picture cards is that you don’t need a battery, and you can learn in places where mobile devices aren’t allowed (like some doctors’ surgeries here in Europe). I have a progress bar on the back of each picture card and I put a little checkmark if I can recall the word and the kanji completely. It’s very important to have shorter learning intervals at the very beginning. I look at my cards every 2 hours, if I can. The time takes to look at it doesn’t have to be long, but the it has to be concentrated learning time. No watching TV, kids!  As you become used to the word, you can have longer intervals of a day or two.  How often you learn during your day depends on a number of factors. You can’t be too busy and you can’t be too tired.

This is a page where I show how I use my picture cards.  I don’t recommend this for everyone. It’s like a recipe from the Internet: try it, see what it tastes like, and then change it up if you want!


Have you already learned some vocabulary but don’t quite know how to use them?  You might like my post on sentence mining!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* The confirmation to GDPR is mandatory.

I confirm