Everything you need to know about SRS flashcards

What is an SRS flashcard?

Flashcards are study tools used to help remember small pieces of information. You put a question or prompt on the front of the card with the answer on the back and you test yourself. Look at the prompt and see if you can recall the answer from memory.

Now with smart phones and tablets, we can easily get access to SRS flashcards apps wherever we go, but what does SRS even mean?

SRS stands for spaced repetition system. They are electronic flashcards and have timers set for when you should review your cards. Initially the time starts off very short, and every time you successfully get a card right, the interval until your next review increases.

This is based on the forgetting curve. Let's say I learn a new piece of information and instantly review it. When I first learn a new piece of information I will forget it very shortly after, so the system pulls it up for review in 10mins time. Every time I get it right, the time between review increases as every time I review or relearn that piece of information the memory gets strengthened.

This process of reviewing and relearning over extended periods of time is how flashcards work, and a good way of getting information into your long term memory.

The idea is the cards you remember easily, you review infrequently. This means you focus the majority of your attention on the cards you have the most trouble with, making it an incredibly efficient way to learn.


But what about learning things out of context?


One of the biggest so called drawbacks I hear with flashcards is that you are learning out of context. This has been popularized with apps such as memorize or duo-lingo which is probably why flashcards can get a bad stigma.

The fact is that a lot of SRS apps out today, are input based meaning that we can choose what we put in. Because we control what we put in, we are only learning out of context if we choose to learn that way. By adding whole sentences, instead of words or phrases we can capture the context it was in, and use it to learn more effectively.

Most SRS flashcard apps are incredibly customisible, you can even add pictures and audio along with the text as well.


How to use them effectively


As I said before, flashcards are input based making them incredibly versatile, so how best you use them completely depends upon what your current goals are. So here, I will outline four ways I have used flashcards in the past, along with the benefits and drawbacks of each type.


Native to target language


In this set up we put our native language on side 1 of the card, and our target language on the back. Like I said before, capture entire sentences to make sure you learn from context.

When you see the prompt in your native language on side 1, you practice recalling the sentence in your target language from memory. This cycle of prompt followed by recall is a good simulation for the sorts of things you will have to do when you first start conversations, and is a very good way of activating your vocabulary to be able to use them in conversation.

The downside to this method, is that generally there is a lot more than one way to say a particular sentence, so you could be correct and just have said something different than what's on the answer side of the card.

Because of this, I recommend this type of set-up is extremely useful in the early stages of language learning when we are struggling to activate our vocabulary enough to speak, but once your vocabulary starts to grow in the upper beginner and intermediate stages, I think it starts to lose it's value.


Sentence mining

This is probably the most useful type in the long term, and it is something I have used to help me learn to read in Chinese.

What I do here, is have the target language on side 1, and practice reading the cards, and then on side 2 I have the English along with some audio. In the case of Chinese, I have also added the rominization to help with the pronunciation of each character. I mark the card as right, if I can get the readings right as well as knowing the meaning.

Because this is input based, it is a good way to build up your passive vocabulary. And past the intermediate stages I think this is the most important aspect. Let me explain.

When we start to get comfortable with speaking, we can start to paraphrase words, and talk our way around things without remembering what a specific word is. On top of this there are multiple ways to say the same thing, so although you might know one yourself, a native speaker could potentially say the same thing in 4, 5 or even more different ways. Nothing will stop a conversation faster than if you can't understand what the other person is saying. What's more, due to the nature that there are billions of other people on the planet and only one of you, we spend a lot more time listening and reading than we do speaking. 

This is why I put such an emphasis on building up our comprehension in the language, and sentence mining is a good way to do that. When you are engaged in interesting content, listening or reading, if you come across a sentence you want to know, but don't understand, then add it to your deck.

On top of this, once your deck starts to get quite large, you effectively have a big bank of example sentences you can look at wherever you go. If you want to see how a word is used in different contexts, you can search your deck and come up with all of the different examples where it is used and compare.

This is a good way to help build up your passive vocabulary and comprehension of the language. The downside to this method, it it doesn't practice activation, so you might end up understanding words when they are used, but not be able to recall them when it comes time to speak yourself.

Another disadvantages is that making the decks from scratch can become time consuming and cumbersome.


Learning a new script

This one should be fairly self explanatory. In languages such as Greek, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and so on, they don't use the same Latin script as we do here in English. This means if we want to achieve a good level in the language, then we have to learn how to be able to read and write.

With languages where there is a different alphabet, such as Greek or Thai, I recommend learning the alphabet first, as you will just end up slowing yourself down further down the line. But for the Chinese languages and Japanese, it becomes a bit more tricky when each potential new word has it's own character. In this situation there is a case to be made for learning to speak at a decent level first, before moving onto the Characters.

That being said, if you want to reach a high level, this is extremely hard to do if you can't read and write, and flashcards are an incredibly useful tool to aid with this.

I simply put the sound of the letter/character in the Latin alphabet, accompanied by the general meaning in the case of characters, and put the character itself on the back. If the sounds are hard to spell out in the Latin alphabet, then it can also be a good idea to add audio onto the flashcards as well.

When you see the prompt on side 1, practice writing the new character/letter out by hand. You can do this either by carrying around a small practice book with a pen, or by finding some sort of app or draw pad on your phone. In general I prefer using pen and paper if I can, but having the option for both is really useful, in case you get caught in a situation where you can't have a book with you and would like to practice for a few minutes.


Listening and transcribing


What we have on this set up is just the audio on side 1 of the flashcard, and the target language as well as the English translation on the back of the card. When we hear the audio on side 1, practice writing out the sentence by hand, and then compare it with the answer on the back.

This is good for two things. One, it helps you listen, and two, it helps you practice writing full sentences out by hand. While the listening practice is fairly limited as text to speech is usually pretty slow, it can still be a helpful addition to your study tools and help you get used to writing out sentences in full if you are dealing with a new script such as Japanese or Russian.


What apps would I recommend?

My personal favorite app is Anki. This is because it is incredibly customisable, easy to use and you can sync across all devices. This means I can add cards on my PC, and then sync across to my phone. If I spot a mistake or want to edit something when I am reviewing on my phone, I can change it there and then and then sync back to my PC.

This makes it very easy to make changes, and allows your the flexibility of changing between devices.

Anki is free on Android and PC, but unfortunately for Iphone users it costs £20 on the app store.

If you are looking for a slightly cheaper alternative then flashcards deluxe is also a very clean, easy to use alternative for only a few quid. If you are looking for a free alternative then quizlet is also quite good.




SRS flashcard apps are incredibly useful and a good solution to the old problem of having a big notebook of things to remember, but never knowing when to review them. In addition to this you can carry around a bank of words and phrases you want to learn and take it wherever you go.

If you are out and you hear a word or phase you want to learn, you can make note of it in your cards, and then add the rest of the information and finish making the card later when you have time.

What's more is because they are on your phone, it allows you to utilize "dead-time" here and there just reviewing a few minutes at a time throughout the period of a day.

The SRS system makes learning more efficient, allowing you to focus on the words that you are having the most trouble with.

This is a great supplement to have in your arsenal but is still no substitute for spending time with the whole language, listening and reading, and practicing speaking with people in real life.

Do you like flashcards, or do you prefer other methods? Let me know in the comments below!