Taking the world less travelled

How Should You Structure Your Flash Card Deck?

Posted by on May 18, 2008 in Language | 6 comments

In my post Divide and Conquer – a Vocab Post, Atreya asked the question:

I am quite confused about the method by which I should structure my Anki Deck. By method I mean, how does one create the cards in Anki?

Now, the short answer is, of course: Any way you want.

But that doesn’t help those who may be a little lost in how to structure flash cards in their deck. The best way to structure your deck is a individual thing, and with trial and error you will find the best way that works for you. In this post I’ll show you the best way that works for me.

My program of choice is Anki, and so many examples are taken from Anki, however, I’m sure most, if not all, can be structured into any flash card system.

What Is The Purpose Of Your Deck?

To start, I think this is the most important question to ask when structuring your deck. In other words, what are your aims, what do you want to achieve by using a flash card program (or, *gasp* a paper based system). Here are some ideas:

bullet To learn vocabulary
bullet To help produce Japanese sentences
bullet To practise translation
bullet As a main study aid in learning Japanese (i.e. primary method of learning the language, for instance AJATT method)

My Purpose #1 – To Help Learn Grammar Structures

My original purpose in using a flash card program was to internalise grammar structures that I was learning. My primary focus was on grammar recognition.

Production and Recognition

Production (in the flash card-based system) took too much of my time that I could use on other activities for learning Japanese. I also actively used Japanese in ways that felt more normal and natural to me – I had a workbook where I responded to questions in my own words, and I kept a diary. Both these made more sense to me than trying to replicate someone else’s words. That’s like trying to do a speech with someone else’s script.

bullet I use Recognition cards only in Anki.

In Anki you can change what kinds of cards are produced (Recognition/Production) in the model properties from the edit menu. What kind of cards you want produced is dependant on your purpose and what other activities you are doing in your study.

Japanese Ability

At the beginning, at least it is for me, impossible to eliminate English.. In fact, it makes more sense for me to use what I already know. Sure, something may not have a direct equivalent in English, but at least English will give you a starting point so that as you become more familiar with the language and see the word used in a different contexts, you will learn the nuances of the word and wont even think about the English equivalent.

Here is an example of how my cards were structured at the very beginning of my Japanese studies:

Front Side: うちにかえって、電話をします。
Flip Side: うちにかえって、でんわをします。
I’m going to go home and make a telephone call.

(from Japanese for Everyone, lesson 7)

bullet I would use kanji that I knew or was learning.
bullet Anki automatically puts in the readings/kana section, which is nice.
bullet I would type out the translation directly from my text book.
bullet This uses the default “Japanese” structure within Anki.

I would put in sentences after learning the grammar point. Anki helped reinforce these grammar points while practising new kanji and vocabulary. My method of reviewing was dependant on time as well as my motivation levels for the session.

bullet If I was short on time, or wanted to get through the deck as quickly as possible, I would only read the sentence in my head, and if I knew all readings and understood everything I would pass the card.
bullet If I had a bit more time, I would read out the sentence aloud.
bullet For an ultimate study session, I would read aloud and write down the sentence. This way I also practised writing the kanji instead of just recognising it.

Progressing in Ability

As I progressed it became apparent that English translation wasn’t necessary. For simpler sentences, or ones I was very familiar with, I knew what they meant in Japanese. For more difficult sentences or ones I was not 100% familiar with, I often would have to break them down into smaller chunks and translated them in my head into English in order to understand, however, at the end I either understood in Japanese or I didn’t. The translation, written down as an answer in Anki, again wasn’t necessary.

However, I wasn’t ready to go all Japanese – Japanese, as I didn’t know enough vocabulary and I was still learning the most basic words. So some English was still necessary, but not a translation. My cards were structured like this:

Front Side: このごろは遊ぶためにアルバイトをする学生も多いそうだ。

Flip Side: このごろはあそぶためにアルバイトをするがくせいもおおいそうだ。

V(plain, non past)ために = “in order to”

遊ぶ - to play, make a visit

(From An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, chapter 4)

bullet Again, anki automatically makes the kana version.
bullet I put the grammar point I am studying as a reference in case I have forgotten and can’t quite work out what is going on.
bullet At the end I put definitions of unknown words or words I have trouble with.
bullet To review, I use the same method as previously.
bullet I don’t try and memorise anything, I am only trying to understand. So I am not memorising grammar points at all, the information is just there for if I don’t understand a sentence. If I don’t understand something, it helps me to break it down into grammar terms/points, but when actively using the language I don’t think “grammar” at all.

My Purpose #2 – To Learn The Kanji Via Heisig’s Method

Another goal of mine is to learn all the kanji via the Heisig method. Many use the Reviewing the Kanji website, and I recommend it very much. I still use it for sentence creation and visit the wonderful community there. However, I have decided to use Anki for reviewing the kanji as I like the option of more than just “yes” or “no” when advancing cards, and I like reviewing everything all at once.

For learning the kanji, I just use the Heisig model deck that is automatically in Anki.

In Heisig, I use the “production” method – that is, I am producing the Kanji from the Heisig keyword given. I have also slightly modified some entries – if i know the word the Kanji is in, then I often have both Heisig’s keyword and the kana in the front side. For example:

Front Side: およ(ぐ)・Swim
Flip Side: 泳ぐ
*amount of strokes, and what chapter the kanji is from*

There is also a link to the Reviewing the Kanji webpage for that kanji.

My Purpose #3 – To Learn Vocab

Recently, I decided to learn vocabulary out of context. I decided that I needed to learn a lot of words quickly so that when reading and hearing authentic Japanese sources I would be reinforcing my learnings instead of hearing/seeing words I don’t know. Again the focus here was on recognition – this would be a simple exercise of learning new vocabulary for me to use elsewhere.

I used Anki’s “Japanese” model and modified it slightly – I added an extra, non essential field for sentences – so that if I had time I would also be able to review a sentence containing the word, but if I did not have time it did not matter.

In this case, the card is structured like:

Front Side: 思考する
Flip Side: しこうする
to think, consider
*sample sentence*

Where To Get Sentences/Material To Review From

Another thing to consider is where you will get your sample sentences and material from. Again, to answer this you will have to consider your purpose.

bullet When reviewing grammar, I used sentences from my text book. I prefer to read sentences from books actually in books – I see no reason to add these into anki as I can just enjoy them straight from the source. Same with quotes from movies and websites – I would rather enjoy these in their original form, reinforcing grammar of course but not actively or consciously so. This is why I used textbook sources only.

bullet For Heisig, obviously I used Heisig’s order of kanji as a source.

bullet For vocab, I am pulling these from everywhere, including books I am reading and shows I am watching. If I want to get the word deeper into my head I will add it to anki, and later test my “knowledge” by reading or watching the source text again.

Why I Decided Not To Share My Anki File

Before I end this post, I just want to write a short note about why I have decided not to share my Anki file. The biggest reason is I don’t see how anyone will benifit from it. It is helpful to see how other people structure their decks, which is why I wrote this post. However, for the actual content, I see it being little use to people unless they have the same level of knowledge that I have.

I also think there is value in creating your own deck from your own sources. The material you put into your flash card file should be relevant to you. Adding it in yourself will aid you with learning it.

Your Turn

Share your own thoughts on structuring your flash card deck. What is your purpose for using a flash card program? Do you use production methods, fill in the blank methods, or other? Where do you get your material from to review (textbooks, manga, other?) I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, as mine are always evolving.


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Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. アカン

    I try to keep it as simple as possible so as to spend as little time with the SRS as possible. Usually it’s just the sentence and any new 単語 with their English meanings (opening a monolingual dictionary and getting the definitions is way too time consuming).

  2. Dan R

    Useful one Carlie. You put me on to Anki and it’s been a huge difference – I fire the laptop up on the way to work each morning and again on the way home and I’m learning vocab so much more quickly. But I’m clearly not maximising the benefits. Good post, cheers

  3. Atreya

    Wow, thanks a lot! I have a much better idea about how to use anki for sentence reviews. I didn’t realize the importance of my small question. And another big thanks because I wouldn’t have known about Anki or RevTK if it wasn’t for this blog.. :)

    Staying on topic, here is the link to a thread I stumbled onto where some members of RevTK share their ideas on the types of models they use for review in Anki.


  4. GoddessCarlie

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    アカン, you’ve given me something to think about, which I may make into a new post.

    Dan, I’m glad I’ve given you food for thought!

    And Atreya, thanks always for your comments. I’m glad you got something out of this :)

  5. Chris

    Great article Carlie! This has given me a much better idea of how to use Anki. I too only use recognition and I’m about to move on from learning the Kana to Kanji… *gulp*

  6. Sandra

    Thank you so much for this, it has given me so many ideas.


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