When learning vocabulary, especially with the use of SRS (Spaced Repetition System), it is interesting to use flashcards. A commonly encountered problem is how to formulate those for maximum efficiency.

How does learning vocabulary through sentences, thus giving context to the used words, compare to learning to recognize words alone? For example, the context may give away the meaning of the problematic vocabulary. Are there studies or expert opinions on one approach being preferable to the other at different stages of language learning? Or is it recommended that they be mixed for best results?

  • I'm afraid asking "Should I..." is too opinion-based. Can you re-word your question perhaps to ask for the benefits of a given method, or the drawbacks to the method?
    – Flimzy
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 6:18
  • A further question would be more efficient for ... (word recognition? ability to use the word [either to communicate or use it naturally]? ability to distinguish near meaning words?)
    – virmaior
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 6:26
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3 Answers 3


It's usually best to avoid dichotomies like "Is strategy X better or strategy Y better?". In most cases, strategies are not mutually exclusive but complementary.

With vocabulary learning, using just one strategy is probably the least efficient. This is because every strategy has certain strengths (certain skills it builds well) and certain weaknesses (skills it doesn't cover well)- and if you keep using one strategy, you'll be only focusing on the strengths (but with diminishing returns), and not addressing the weaknesses.

Using flashcards helps you establish word-to-meaning equivalences quickly, but it usually does so with a shallow meaning, ignoring the breadth of meaning that words usually have. It also ignores the contextual subtleties of the word, and the knowledge is not always retained long-term.

It's best to combine flashcards with other strategies that will help you see how the word is used in context, show you the variety of meanings it can have (and doesn't have), see what collocations the word has, etc. One way of doing this is by reading examples of the word and writing your own sample sentences. Another important thing is to be exposed to the word in natural settings - so it's important to read a lot so that you'll encounter the words you've learnt naturally.

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    Strategies need not be mutually exclusive, but that does not imply that questions such as is X better than Y should be avoided. You can still use both but ask which one is more effective, so you can spend more time using that specific method.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 11:52

Well, using flashcards you will learn words and build your vocabulary. However, learning vocabulary through sentences will help you learn how to use these words. In this way, you can learn a language more efficiently.

That is why learning vocabulary through sentences, giving context to the used words, is beneficial over learning to recognize words alone.

Since flashcards helps you memorize words and learning vocabulary through sentences helps you learn how to use these words, a combination of both will be very effective.

  • I agree to your comments in the context of learning vocabulary through exposition to a foreign language. However as a part of the RTS , it is easy to recognize some keywords in a sentence thus giving away its full meaning. Will the words be memorized as efficiently then?
    – Bougret
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 6:21
  • If you see usage of words in a sentence, then the words will be memorized as efficiently
    – A J
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 6:24
  • This answer would be much better if it was justified in some way. Why should we believe you? Can you cite literature (preferably peer-reviewed) that supports this position? Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 13:51

Or is it recommended that they be mixed for best results?

Of course, yes!

In many situation example is more worth then definition because brain able to build generalization from example but can't easily find example from definition ))

Without context it is very hard to get meaning of unfamiliar word.

Look for example to dictionary article:

learn [lɜːrn]
  To gain knowledge.
    * to learn English
    * to learn smth. by heart
    > I'll learn him!
    > She learned everything from me

Is it easy without examples or without definition? Using both works better!

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