Reading Disentangled – The Beginnings of Flashcards

We all know and use flashcards as a common and effective study tool for memorizing information. The ‘traditional’ flashcard is an empty rectangular piece of lined or checkered paper or carton that allows for notes to be written down. Finished cards can also be bought for a wide variety of subjects. In the 21st century, flashcards, like other paper sources, are slowly being replaced by electronic devices that offer the same features. As it’s common knowledge, you were already well aware of all of this.

What you may not know yet about flashcards is their history, origins and what was there before. In fact, not many details are known about when the learning device first emerged. Nevertheless a bit of research unearthed several facts about the history and ancestors of the flashcard that might be interesting to know.

Before paper was discovered as a cheap and easily available writing material, books – in fact all study materials – in the western world were written on parchment. Its production was both complex and expensive and as a result only few had the means to afford it. Schools sometimes used chalkboards or wax tablets to allow their students to take notes, but neither option offered much writing space or could be preserved for long periods of time (the writing was erased when it was no longer needed). Study materials necessarily needed to be more permanent, but an entire book made out of parchment was often impossible to afford. Soon other devices were created, such as hornbooks. These were wooden slates with a handle on which a single piece of parchment was placed and then protected by a layer of flattened cow horn. The sheet was inscribed with the letters of the alphabet and often some letter combinations and prayers.  During the 18th century hornbooks were a commonly used study material in both England and America.

When paper became more readily available with the beginning of the 1800s other forms of study materials quickly became more popular. It is Favell Lee Mortimer, an author of educational books for children, who is credited with creating the first flashcards as we know them today. Her book Reading Disentangled included cards with drawings as well as the corresponding word and its first letter. This language learning guide focused on the phonetics of letters to teach children how to read and speak.

The rest, as they say, is history. Flashcards became widely popular and continue to be a valuable learning tool today – be it to study languages, geography, vocabulary or random facts.


Flashcard. Retrieved December 2, 2011 from

History of the Hornbook. Retrieved December 2, 2011 from

Mortimer, Favell Lee. (1873). Reading Disentangled; or, Classified Lessons in Spelling and Reading. London: Edward Stanford.

Pruzan, Todd; Mortimer, Favell Lee. (2006). The Clumsiest People in Europe, or, Mrs. Mortimer’s bad-tempered guide to the Victorian world. New York: Bloomsbury. Retrieved from

Brainscape affiliation


2 thoughts on “Reading Disentangled – The Beginnings of Flashcards

  1. Pingback: The History of Flashcards | The Brainscape Blog: Learn How to Learn Faster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s