Why aren’t flash cards working for my child?Eduardo Fast Flash

Flash cards as they are traditionally used are the slow boat to China. Boring. It can take forever to get that information into the child’s long term memory, and many times those efforts fail.

The standard use of flash cards was put in place long before most educators knew anything about the neurology of learning, about the speed with which information travels the neural highway, about how a child’s brain prefers to learn. We’re now gathering information that will grow exponentially because of information and research being done through the marvels of medical technology. There is in fact a way to make flash cards work amazingly for our children with Down syndrome, DS/Autism, etc.

I’ve written about Fast Flash before, because it works with the brain instead of against it. (To see articles I’ve previously written on the topic, type “fast flash” in the search box on this page.) But what if you’ve read all those articles and it’s still not working for your child? What then? Let’s go over a Fast Flash checklist together:

Common mistakes I see:

  1. Is your type too small? That’s the most common mistake I see: when we’re developing the immature visual pathway, SIZE MATTERS. It matters big-time, pun intended. If a child/teen/adult is just beginning to learn to read, the type on the flash card needs to be a minimum of 1 inch high. Minimum. As the learner advances, you can use smaller and smaller type, but not in the beginning of this learning journey!
  2. Are you flashing too slowly? Aim for 2 cards per second, if you can. The slowest you want to go is 1 card per second.
  3. Is the child repeating the words as you flash the cards? Not. We don’t want the child to put effort into language or articulation; we want eyes on the cards.
    Perfect! We only want attention for Fast Flash!

    Perfect! We only want attention for Fast Flash!

    That’s it. One brain task at a time, please. If the child is even trying to repeat the words aloud, it’s a major tip-off that you’re flashing too slowly. The correct flashing speed will make verbalizing the word impossible for the student. Only you say the word as you flash it. That’s it.

  4. Is your naming of the word synchronized with the showing of the word card? What do I mean? I’ve seen parents calling out the word that they they can see on the back of a new card while the previous card (a different word) is still showing to the child! I encourage you to “name-as-you-land” the new card in your receiving hand. See what Fast Flash looks like for a video of this (click the “Fast Flash Demo” option in that article).
  5. Did you handwrite the words on the cards? Oops. Unless you’re a professional calligrapher, just don’t. Print the cards on a computer if at all possible. Why? Because if you use type, you’ve just made the brain’s job easier. Handwriting throws challenges in the visual pathway: letters are different heights, slightly different shapes each time they’re written, etc. Just don’t. You’ll make the task easier for your learner.
  6. Did you write everything in uppercase because the classroom is doing it?  Everything we do in teaching reading is done with an eye for the future; regardless of what a particular teacher may be using in the classroom, you use  lowercase for all words except proper nouns. That’s what the child will see in print all life-long. We establish appropriate patterns from the get-go.

Does it really work?

When I give workshops to educators and parents, I say, “Don’t believe me. Just do it.”

The response I get back is along these lines, this from a special educator: “I went back to work and told my colleagues that I was going to use large flash cards with no pictures, and use the Fast Flash method. They said, ‘Sure, like that’s going to work!’ Well, here it is 6 weeks later, and my entire special ed class has learned 15 new words solidly. I had been trying to teach them a short list of words for a year with no success. Now my colleagues are saying, ‘Wow! That really works!'”

All done! High five!

All done! High five!

Though Fast Flash has been around and working beautifully for nearly 50 years, it’s only now going mainstream with parents, and slowly finding its way into special ed protocol. Let’s work together to make it mainstream in the classroom, too–success works!

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  • Julie

    Hi Natalie! I didn’t realize I was making a mistake by hand writing cards! oops! Do you normally just print them onto a large sheet of card stock and cut the card in half, or how do you do that?

    • Natalie Hale

      A couple of easy ways…you can buy blank 5″x8″ index cards at any office supply store; you can do just as you suggested with a full-size sheet, print 2 words up and cut the paper in half afterwards; or you can take a look at Christine Hawkin’s comment about post card stock from Home Depot. Who knew?

      • Julie


  • Christine Hawkins

    I print them on post card stock that I get from Home Depot. Easy Peasy. 🙂
    Great post!

  • Carol Rivello

    Hi Natalie! Thank you for this post. Does fast flashing on a computer work as well? It is easier and cheaper for me to show her the words on the screen.

    • Natalie Hale

      Hi, Carol- You can try that. It’s better than nothing. Just follow the same guidelines: extremely large type in red; 5 cards in a group, flashed 3 times in quick succession, 2 words per second if you can do it. Clicking the mouse ought to be an easy way to get the cards moving that fast. You can work with 2 or 3 groups at a time, but keep the groups to 5 cards. Research says we learn/retain better from paper than screen, but go ahead and try it. Let me know how it works.

  • Maria

    Hi, Natalie, und thank you for the inspiring post! I have some questions. What to do if my child does not follow? I have often the case that I start and after three cards I loose his attention and the eye contact? Do we always has to prepare the flash cards in red? I thought this is for the beginning and then you move to black. What is the best font and size to use if I prepare the cards on computer?
    Thank you so much!

    • Natalie Hale

      Hi, Prikazka- I’ll try to answer your questions: first, about the length of the personal book…you said you have made 5 sentences. That’s perfect for a 4-year-old. Keep in mind that each sentence will be repeated, so there will actually be 10 pages of sentences (the first time the child sees the sentence alone on the page; after a page turn, the child sees the same sentence repeated, along with a picture now.) Secondly, about your child losing interest after 3 cards: check your speed! Are you showing each group of 5 cards three times in quick succession, calling out the name of the card and showing 2 cards per SECOND? Most parents show the cards too slowly, and the child loses interest. About the red ink: your child is still very young. Use red. On the computer, I’d suggest a font size of 140. Good luck!

    • Natalie Hale

      see my reply to your other comment

  • Maria

    Hi Natalie,
    Thank you for your answer! Well, the answer with the size came a bit too late. i already printed the cards in 100 and in red but 140 makes a huge difference so I think that I have to reprint them. May I ask one stupid question- if I use font 140 does this mean that I will print 3 words per A4 page? I am doing the cards on my computer and want to know what is best. I tried to print 4 on each page but I think it is not so good as there is no enough spare space above and below the word. What do you recomment? I read the comments above but as I am not in America, I cannot use them. Once again thank you so much!

    • Natalie Hale

      Your hunch was right: 4 is way too many; 3 words to a page at the most; you might need just 2, LANDSCAPE format, not portrait setup. Your child’s brain needs lots of WHITE SPACE around the word in order to visualize it properly. Very important. So use your best judgement to decide how many you can fit.

  • Beth Carey

    My son is still struggling with letters. He actually has learned sight words better. Any suggestions. He loves music and dvds

    • Natalie Hale

      I understand his struggle. Most important question: does he know letter SOUNDS? Don’t worry about letter names until later. Teach him the sounds. And yes, whole words are easier for him to learn because they have MEANING. Letters are abstract, with no meaning to him. Best app for teaching letter sounds, in my opinion: starfallABC app. (different from the site.) Once he’s got that, you can actually help him learn letter names by using Fast Flash as the teaching technique. I write about doing exactly that in one of my “Fast Flash” blogs. Search in the search box on my blog page! “Another use for Fast Flash.” And best of luck!