If you’re learning Spanish and use flashcards to work on your vocabulary, you might run into a problem that most of us have had.
Learning a language requires thousands and thousands of words, many of which require many flashcards each! When you sit down to quiz on your Spanish flashcards, how much do you have to review to call it a good day’s work? And how do you know which things to quiz on a given day?
In this article, I’ll demonstrate a reliable system for scheduling your Spanish flashcard review. It doesn’t require any fancy technology OR hours of elaborate planning.
Best of all, if you follow the system, you’ll never have to be overwhelmed by how much Spanish you have to review on a given day. You’ll be able to get thousands of new words and phrases into your vocabulary very quickly, with just bite-sized chunks of review in any given study session, without feeling guilty about all the Spanish flashcards you’re NOT reviewing.
This system does take a little time to set up, but the satisfaction and peace of mind is very worth it.
Spaced Repetition Schedules
If you’re a language-learning nerd, like me, you’ve very likely heard of the concept of spaced repetition. This is a method for reviewing things less and less often as time goes by. For example, if you’ve just learned the idiom no está de más, which roughly means “it couldn’t hurt”, you don’t need to review that flashcard every day for the rest of your life. Instead, you might review it tomorrow, then two days later, then four days later, then a week later, then at increasing intervals until it’s permanently in your long-term memory.
I talked about the advantages of this in the first article in this series, How To Become Fluent in Spanish Using Flashcards. In a nutshell, research shows that reviewing something less and less often puts it more quickly into your long-term memory, plus it saves you tons of time that you might otherwise waste trying to review all your Spanish flashcards every day.
Here’s a visual of what a perfect spaced repetition system might look like. The dates at the top indicate what days you’re reviewing something, and the items on the left are just random ideas for what your Spanish flashcards might be.
To help understand this, let’s follow the life of one particular flashcard. After you first learn no está de más, you’ll review it the very next day, and then two days later, four days later, and so on. Now go to the top and pick a random day to know what you’d review that day. As you can see, even though you’re learning a new word every day for two weeks, which comes to 14 flashcards, on any given day, you don’t have to review more than 4-5 flashcards.
Of course, this is kind of silly. Most of us don’t want to learn just one new word or phrase every day; on average, you probably want to learn 5 or 10 new words a day, or up to 30 if you’re ambitious. Here’s what this review schedule would look like for a busy Spanish learner:
Now we’ve run into the biggest problem with spaced repetition: The schedule itself is a LOT of work. If you try to keep a schedule like this for every Spanish flashcard you learn, you’ll probably end up spending more time on the schedule than on learning Spanish! This chart is a nice visual to demonstrate how spaced repetition works, but it’s not a sustainable way to manage your study.
Of course, there IS software that you can use to automate a lot of this, but that has its drawbacks as well. The online quizzing platforms that are available right now, such as Anki, have very clunky and unfriendly interfaces. Plus the formatting of the flashcards is generally limited. If you read my article on How To Make Spanish Flashcards, you know that I recommend creating visually interesting cards like this:
Plus I personally like to be completely offline when I’m doing my quizzing. In my opinion, too much of our lives now involves staring at a screen, and I don’t need another reason to be in front of my computer or on my phone. I find that I’m much more likely to look forward to my quizzing if it’s offline, with actual physical flashcards, sitting in a nice place away from my computer and phone.
So let’s use a system that doesn’t require fancy scheduling OR any digital presence.
You’ll need a few things to get started. Pencils and index cards, obviously. I recommend buying way more index cards than you could possibly need. I’m no fan of clutter, but these cards take up practically no room and they’re useful for countless purposes. If you want to make sure you can always learn new Spanish vocabulary without delays, it’s better to have too many cards than too few.
You’ll also need a way to store and sort these cards. I use simple index card filing box and manila tabs. The products I’ve been using are linked below.
Optionally, you can also get erasable markers to label your filing boxes, as well as larger card filing boxes to hold several collections of index cards. This will be more important when you’re up to several hundred flashcards in your system.
Start with an index-card-sized box with five manila tabs, labeled “Level 1”, “Level 2”, “Level 3”, “Level 4”, and “Level 5”.
Put a small collection of Spanish flashcards in front of all the tabs. (If you don’t have Spanish flashcards on index cards yet, create just 10 or so, using the tips I gave in the previous article.)
Finally, in front of all of that, create an index card with a basic schedule on it. Set up your schedule just like I’ve shown here, but of course change the dates based on when you’ll be starting. So if you’re starting your flashcards on Monday, April 5, change all the dates in the lefthand column by one week.
This schedule will sit in the front of the index card box, in front of everything else, so that it’s visible even from inside the box.
Finally, go through your Spanish flashcards and choose some that you know pretty well, and move those behind the “Level 1” tab. This means they’ve entered the review system. (If there are any you don’t really know comfortably, leave them in front of the “Level 1” tab, outside the system.)
Now let’s talk about how to use this system for learning Spanish permanently.
Basic Review Schedule
As I just mentioned, once a flashcard has been placed behind the “Level 1” tab, it has entered the system. It’s about to go take the exciting journey of becoming a permanent piece of your long-term memory.
From now on, any time you learn a Spanish word, drop it into this system, behind the “Level 1” tab. If it’s a new word that you haven’t learned yet, you can create a flashcard of it and drop it in front of the “Level 1” tab, basically outside the system. As soon as you feel you’ve learned it, put behind tab “Level 1”. It’s like the flashcard has entered a game where it gets to start leveling up, beginning at Level 1. (Cards outside the system are Level 0.)
Now let’s get started. Every day when you sit down to quiz your flashcards, simply look at the review schedule and review the items with the corresponding levels. On the first Monday that you start this whole thing, you’ll only be reviewing the “Level 1” cards. Go through them one at a time, reviewing them as I described in the first article in this series.
As you review a stack of cards from a tab, set them on two different piles in front of you based on how well you did. Theoretically, if your command of these words and phrases is strong, you should be able to review each card without any difficulties of remembering what the word or phrase is or how to use it. But realistically, that won’t always happen. So for any card that you ARE very successful in reviewing, put it on a “level up” pile. But if you have trouble with a card, put it on the “level down” pile.
After you’re done with your review for the day, you’ll take all the cards from the “level up” pile and advance them by one tab. Any cards in the “level down” pile will move down by one level. For example, if it’s Thursday and you’ve reviewed your Level 3 cards, most of those will move to Level 4, but some might have to be dropped down to Level 2.
The exception is Level 1. If you put a Level 1 card on the “level up” pile, move it to Level 2, but if you put it on the “level down” pile, keep that card in Level 1. It will stay there until it’s ready to go to Level 2.
Before you get started, here’s something important to remember: Any day that you’re reviewing multiple tabs of cards, don’t immediately put the cards into the adjacent tab. Wait until the end of your study session, because otherwise things will get a little messy. For example, let’s say it’s Friday and you’re working on both Level 1 and Level 2. If you move cards from Level 1 into Level 2, and then the same day review the cards from Level 2, you’ll accidentally move some of your cards straight from Level 1 to Level 3 in one day!
Instead, set aside the cards until you’re done reviewing, in up to 4 piles. For example, on a Friday, you’ll probably end up with four piles: Level 1 level up, Level 1 don’t level up, Level 2 level up, Level 2 level down. After you’re done reviewing, you then file them in the appropriate places.
Expanding to the Long Term
That’s enough to get you started! If you’re interested in learning a lot of Spanish vocabulary in the next few weeks or months, please go ahead and get your index cards. You can start filing and reviewing right away.
But after a few weeks, you’ll need to start expanding this system. The schedule I gave only works for 4 weeks! Besides, what are you supposed to do with your Level 5 cards that need to level up?
Here are the two things you’ll need to add to this basic system.
(1) Long-Term Boxes
Whenever I review the cards in Level 5, all the cards that “level up” have to go to a new, special place. I set them in their own designated box labeled with the time when they should be reviewed again. To do this, I choose a date approximately 3 weeks away, and then I write on the box that they’re supposed to be reviewed at that time.
For example, if you’re following the schedule I gave above, you’ll review your Level 5 cards on April 17. Three weeks later is May 8. So I’ll write “Review mid May and then June” on this box.
Why “and then June”? Because June is the following month, and that’s about the right amount of time to give before reviewing them again. (It’s not *exactly* double the previous amount of time, but it’s pretty close.) After that, they’ll be due for review 2 months later, then 4 months later, then 8 months later, doubling the interval each time.
So in the future, when I review them in mid May, I’ll move the level-up cards to a new box that says “review June and then August”. In June, I’ll put them in a box that says “review August and then December”. And so on. So all of my long-term cards live in these little filing boxes with their next two review periods on them.
That’s not VERY complicated by itself… but what about leveling DOWN these long-term review cards? Do we have to make even more filing boxes when we have to level down a card that we’ve been reviewing for months? That would get complex pretty quickly, with tons of boxes for lots of different purposes.
I simplify this a little. If I’m working on cards from any long-term box, I just put any level-down cards straight into Level 5. This applies no matter what level of card I’m reviewing, whether I’ve had it for a month or for a year. If I have trouble reviewing it and need to level down, I put it straight into Level 5 in my short-term review system.
(2) Extra Scheduling
The second thing you’ll have to do is just as important. As soon as you get to the end of your four-week schedule as noted above, you’ll need to create a new card, based exactly on that schedule, but with some extra notes to include your long-term review.
So every 4 weeks, I look at all my long-term review boxes, take note of any that are due for review soon, and then create a new schedule with those things included. For example, let’s say it’s now mid June. By default, your schedule would look like this:
But we know we also have to review the cards from our box labeled “Review June and then August”. So let’s add those to the schedule! It’s probably a good idea to put them on days that I would otherwise just have to review Level 1 cards; that way I’m not doing too much on a given day. Also, since there are a lot of cards in this box, I’ll divide it into 3 parts (using my manila folder dividers).
I’ve simply shuffled all the cards in this box and evenly divided it among the three tabs. (Shuffling within a specific level is very important for your learning, as explained in the first article in this series!)
Then I’ll modify my schedule to look like this:
Now the next four weeks are fully planned out, and I can get back to the normal daily work!
There’s just one more issue that you’ll probably run into: Level 5 becomes a large category very quickly. In general, this system is pretty good at distributing your review work across different days, but there’s one day in the standard schedule that you’re likely to dread, and that’s the day you have to review Level 5.
To fix this, you can do the same thing we just did with our June review: Divide Level 5 into a few parts, and then review it over the course of a week instead of in one day. So your finalized schedule for the four weeks might look like this:
As long as you’re conforming to the schedule more or less, and (most importantly) you’re consistently following the plan you’ve laid out for yourself, feel free to use your own creativity to make strategic adjustments!
The point is that this is a simple system that you can follow. It only takes a few minutes a month to maintain, and it will save you hours and hours of frustration and overwhelm that you’d otherwise experience in your Spanish quizzing. You’ll be able to sleep well at night, knowing that you’re on track with your Spanish study plan every single day!
A Note for the Perfectionists
If you’re a spaced repetition purist, you can see that there are problems with the schedule I’ve shared. Theoretically, a card should be reviewed at specifically increasing intervals, as I showed in the intricate schedule at the beginning of this article.
This system doesn’t follow that rule perfectly. If you follow the life of any given card in this system, you’ll see a variety of intervals that are short on average and then long on average, but with all kinds of variation in between. For example, consider a card that is learned on the very first day in this system. It will move into #2 and be reviewed the next day, then move into category #3 and be reviewed two days later on Thursday. Then it will be reviewed more than a week later, when #4 cards are reviewed the following weekend… and then it will be reviewed just one week later, the very next weekend.
So it’s not a perfect system as far as precise spaced repetition is concerned. But surprisingly, these flaws haven’t really inhibited my own long-term memorization of anything I’ve added to the system things. On average, your cards will be reviewed less and less often as time goes by, which is the basic premise of a spaced repetition system.
And more importantly, this gives you a system you can follow and trust. Imagine being able to write down a Spanish word on a flashcard, drop it into a box, and know for certain that it’s about to become a permanent part of your vocabulary, just through that simple action. If you’re not convinced, just try it for a few weeks and see for yourself!
Now this system sometimes feels like magic, but of course it won’t make you fluent by itself. There’s no getting around real-life practice. Plus, don’t neglect to speak out loud as you’re reviewing these cards, or to follow the other tips I gave in the first article in this series.
In the next and final article in this Spanish flashcards series, I’ll demonstrate one of my favorite games to play when practicing Spanish at home. If you’re using flashcards to learn Spanish and want to accelerate your path to fluency, I’ll show you how your solo time with flashcards can simulate real-life Spanish conversations, and also be a lot of fun!
Want to see how spaced repetition can help you finally become fluent in Spanish? Start the Accelerated Spanish course for free.