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Mar 1, 2011

Building Vocabulary with an SRS

So you're cruising along and enjoying something in your second language, when suddenly you come across a word that you don't know. You can guess at its meaning based on context, you can look it up and move on, or you can look it up and add it to your SRS (spaced repetition system) so that you never forget it again. But what exactly should you do to make an effective card for SRS reviews? Here is a little guide (with pictures!) to help with making cards that will help you to learn.

Alright, so let's get started. Here we have a manga page with a highlighted word. This is a word we've never seen before and that we need to learn. So what do we do?

This image is from Non Non Biyori, which I introduced in this post.

Well, luckily for us this word has furigana, which means all we need to do is type that into a dictionary and we can find out what it means. Let's do that now.

And now select the kanji that fit and search. The page that comes up contains several different entries, and depending on how far you are in your studies or what exactly you want, you may pick a different section. The main categories to remember are the Japanese monolingual dictionary (yellow) and the Japanese-English dictionary (blue).

I generally use multiple dictionaries in order to get a lot of example sentences, so I'll actually show both of the dictionary types. In the J-E dictionary, there is usually a list of English words that are similar to the Japanese word and then some example sentences. For the Japanese monolingual dictionary, however, there is a written explanation in Japanese that is sometimes followed by example sentences (shown in blue). Note that the actual word is not shown in the sentences, instead there is a dash in its place.

Now we just need to find a good example sentence. Typically something of medium length is best – long enough to put the word in some context, but not so long that it'll take you a while you read or remove focus from the target word. This sentence will work well.

We simply copy the sentence and paste it into Anki as the “question” side of the card. Now we just need to make the answer. We'll start by putting a pronunciation guide for all of the kanji words that aren't familiar.

The next step is to add in definitions for the words we don't know. For this sentence we'll assume that we only need to add the definition for 現在. So now we go back to the Japanese monolingual dictionary and copy the definition(s). In the earliest stages, you'll probably have to use the English equivalent words as your definitions, but you should try to transition to Japanese only as soon as possible.

And now we're done. Once again, something that you may need in the earliest stages is the English translation of the sentence. If you are using ALC or the Japanese-English dictionary, then there should always be an English translation as well. In the very beginning, copying this into the bottom of the card can be quite useful.

At this point, adding another card or two for the word is probably a good idea. I typically add 2-3 cards per new word, so that I can see it being used in a few different situations. This is especially important if a word has many different meanings. There's no need to maintain this same card format either. Experimenting with new card forms could lead to better results.


  1. Great help thanks. My Japanese days were pre-internet so I struggle to look up Kanji.

  2. Thanks for the tip I was looking for some thing like this, when ever I get in the mood to make attempts to learn.

  3. What a great post, I just read it completely. Learned something innovative after a long time. An informative blog.