Code Project: Build a flash card app


In this coding project, we're going to create a flash card program to help you remember foreign words. It displays an English word and asks you to choose its German equivalent from a list of three randomly chosen options, keeping a score as you progress.

But it's not just limited to German – you'll be able to use it for any language, or indeed for anything else you want to learn! You could even set it up to display the name of an animal, having the program test you on its species.

One of the reasons we love computers is their ability to just work. Sure, hardware can break down and programs can have bugs, but when everything's running smoothly your data won't magically disappear. If you download, say, a Norwegian dictionary, your machine will store it for later retrieval – without argument.

Your PC won't get bored and try to learn another language, nor will it have a few too many drinks and forget the data it had yesterday. It won't get into an argument with a lady PC and destroy its files out of jealousy. On a solid system, the data is always there.

Here in humanland, though, we're engaged in a constant battle with the foibles and quirks of our brains. We forget stuff, we change our minds – above all, we wish our brains were more like trusty RAM banks than fussy blobs of organic gloop. This is most evident when learning a foreign language: a computer can store millions of words and never 'forget' them, whereas we struggle to remember the German word for 'meeting' even though we used it yesterday. Thanks, brain.

To work around these evolutionary flaws, our flash card app will prompt you to remember whatever kind of information you choose, thus firmly embedding it in your long-term memory. Let's go!

New Python skills

Our flash card app will need to read text files and generate random numbers. Opening files in Python is a doddle: create a new text file called foo.txt, tap a few words into it (one per line), and save it in your home directory. Now create a file called, also in your home directory, with the following contents:

file = open('foo.txt', 'r')
print file.readlines()

To run this Python script, start a terminal and enter:


This code opens foo.txt ('r' for read-only) and associates the contents with a new object called file.

In the second line of code, we call readlines() on our file object, which scans through foo.txt and stores each line in an array. So by printing it to the screen, we see:

['hello\n', 'banana\n', 'cupcake\n']

Of course, this will vary depending on the words you entered in foo.txt. But it demonstrates how Python retrieves text from a file, storing each line as a separate array element. That's all well and good, but what if we want to display the text file normally?

file = open('foo.txt', 'r')
for line in file:
    print line

This prints out all of the lines in foo.txt. Note that indentation is essential in Python – the tab before print line shows that it's code to be executed in the for loop. That for loop essentially says: for every line in the file we opened, print said line until the file ends.

Quick tip

If you're experimenting with some Python code and your program gets stuck in a loop, you can kill it from the terminal with Ctrl+C. You may need to press this a couple of times, especially if your program is waiting for some user input. If your program still won't quit, enter ps ax in a terminal, find the Python process number for your script, and enter kill -9 <number>. That's the ultimate program halting command.

So, we can now retrieve text from files and use word lists for our flash cards. But there's something else we need to do: our program needs to display a list of possible answers when displaying a word. After all, it'd be rather pointless if answer number one was always correct! So in our program, we're going to display three possible answers for the displayed word, one of which will be correct. Here's how to get random numbers:

import random
a = random.randint(1, 5)
b = random.randint(30, 100)
print a, b

The first line tells Python that we want to use its random number facilities. After that we create two variables, a and b, and give them random values via Python's random.randint() routine. We specify a range for the values – for variable a, the number will be between one and five (inclusive). For b, it will be between 30 and 100. Easy!

Bring on 1.0

Let's get cracking with the program. We'll need two text files, one containing English words and one containing the corresponding German words. (Or in file one, you could have country names, and in file two you could have capital cities, for instance.) The most important thing is that both files have the same number of lines and the words match up in each. If you're using capital cities, and line seven in file one is 'Japan', line seven in file two must be 'Tokyo'. Otherwise the answers won't match up!

So, create two text files in your home directory and enter ten words in each, one per line. For our example, file one is called english.txt and contains 'thanks, good, please' etc; file two is called german.txt and contains 'danke, gut, bitte' etc. Now you need the Python code to go alongside these text files in your home directory – here's the listing. You can get this from here, but for now just read it through...

import os, random

count = 0
score = 0

file1 = open('english.txt', 'r')
file2 = open('german.txt', 'r')

f1content = file1.readlines()
f2content = file2.readlines()

while count < 10:

    wordnum = random.randint(0, len(f1content)-1)

    print 'Word:', f1content[wordnum], ''

    options = [random.randint(0, len(f2content)-1),
        random.randint(0, len(f2content)-1),
        random.randint(0, len(f2content)-1)]

    options[random.randint(0, 2)] = wordnum

    print '1 -', f2content[options[0]],
    print '2 -', f2content[options[1]],
    print '3 -', f2content[options[2]],

    answer = input('\nYour choice: ')

    if options[answer-1] == wordnum:
        raw_input('\nCorrect! Hit enter...')
        score = score + 1
        raw_input('\nWrong! Hit enter...')

    count = count + 1

print '\nYour score is:', score

With, english.txt and german.txt in your home directory, open up a terminal and enter python You'll see that the program displays an English word and then three possible German equivalents beneath. These equivalents are numbered, so if you think 3 is the right answer, just press 3 and hit Enter. Then the program will tell you whether you got it right or wrong – it does this for ten questions.

Let's look at the code in a bit more depth. We start off with an import line, which tells Python which facilities we're going to use. In this case, we need to call an OS function (to clear the screen) and generate random numbers. Then we set up two variables, count and score – the first is used to show ten questions, and the second stores how many you've got right. Then we have:

file1 = open('english.txt', 'r')
file2 = open('german.txt', 'r')
f1content = file1.readlines()
f2content = file2.readlines()

Here we open two files, assigning them to two variables called file1 and file2. These variables are like handles for the files – they represent the files stored in memory. But we don't want just the raw files; we want their contents, so the second two lines in this code chunk grab the actual text data into two arrays called f1content and f2content. Now we have a list of English words in f1content and a list of German words in f2content. Next, we start our main program loop:

while count < 10:

    wordnum = random.randint(0, len(f1content)-1)

    print 'Word:', f1content[wordnum], ''

We want to ask ten questions, so we execute all the indented code ten times (the count variable is incremented each time). The first line of this loop clears the screen by calling the normal /usr/bin/clear tool, and then we get a random word to display. We're saying: wordnum needs to be a random number representing a line in the word files, so give me a number between zero and the length of the file (in lines).

Even though the word files may have line numbers from one to ten, arrays start at zero, hence why we get a random number between zero and file-lines minus one. So, line one in f1content (english.txt) is actually the zero-th part of the array, and line ten is the ninth bit. Then we display that word from the english.txt file.

options = [random.randint(0, len(f2content)-1),
    random.randint(0, len(f2content)-1),
    random.randint(0, len(f2content)-1)]

options[random.randint(0, 2)] = wordnum

Next, we create an array of three possible answer numbers called options. We set each answer to a random number, limited to the maximum number of lines in f2content (german.txt). We now have three random German words – but hang on, one of them needs to be correct, right? Otherwise we could have three totally wrong answers! So we choose one of our options answers to be wordnum – that is, the right one. And instead of the correct answer always being, say, number one, we position it at random in the three-choice list of possible answers.

From here, the remainder of the code is very easy to understand. It prints the three possible answers to the screen, then gets a response from the user – ie entering 1, 2 or 3. When the user enters an answer, we check to see if it corresponds with the correct word. So, if the English word is 'thanks' and option number two is 'danke', when the user enters '2' our program says: Ah! Option two is the seventh word in the German file. And the original wordnum answer was also seven, so that's correct! The words match. Bingo.

The first incarnation of our flash card program is a simple text-based affair.

The first incarnation of our flash card program is a simple text-based affair.

A pictorial version

We've now got a text-based flash card tool, which is great for many purposes, but how about a graphical version? You may want something that shows a picture of an animal, and gives three possible names – ideal for kids. Or perhaps you want to brush up on national flags, and that's exactly what we're going to do here. Like before, however, this program can be morphed into anything that involves words and pictures: foodstuffs and their names in Spanish, sitcom star photos and their screen names...

For this, we need to venture beyond the command line and use a graphical layer. Thankfully, we have the perfect choice for our Python adventures: PyGame, a library that links Python with the popular SDL media layer. PyGame lets us create windows and display proper images on the screen, all with minimum hassle. Indeed, much of our existing code can remain the same – we just need to make it show pictures instead of plain text.

Whereas our first version of used two text files with corresponding words, this graphical incarnation will use a list of words and a list of associated pictures. So, for flags, file1.txt may contain 'Nepal, Canada, Finland...' and file2.txt would have 'nepalflag.png, canadaflag.png, finlandflag.png...' and so on. We get the list of words from the file1, and a list of corresponding pictures to display from file2.

The code for this is a bit longer than before, and to avoid wasting space with setup bits we'll just include the main chunk here. Still, this is the majority of the code, and it should show you how a graphical version works. We have the full code listing – with lots of comments (denoted by # marks) – available to download from here.

Note that you need the PyGame library installed before you run it: most distros have this in their package repositories (search your package manager), but if not you can get the source from

Here's the main chunk of code that we're using. There's some new stuff in here, but in typical Python fashion, it's largely self-explanatory – open an image file, draw it to the screen at a specified location, and so forth.

screen = display.set_mode((640, 480))

font = font.Font(None, 48)

while count < 10:

    wordnum = random.randint(0, len(f2content)-1)

    mainpic = image.load(f2content[wordnum].rstrip('\n'))

    screen.blit(mainpic, (255, 50))

    options = [random.randint(0, len(f1content)-1),
        random.randint(0, len(f1content)-1),
        random.randint(0, len(f1content)-1)]

    options[random.randint(0, 2)] = wordnum

    text1 = font.render('1 - ' + f1content[options[0]].rstrip('\n'),
        True, (255, 255, 255))
    text2 = font.render('2 - ' + f1content[options[1]].rstrip('\n'),
        True, (255, 255, 255))
    text3 = font.render('3 - ' + f1content[options[2]].rstrip('\n'),
        True, (255, 255, 255))

    screen.blit(text1, (30, 200))
    screen.blit(text2, (30, 300))
    screen.blit(text3, (30, 400))


The first four code lines tell PyGame to set up the screen. We initialise PyGame, then tell it to create a new 640x480 pixel window, setting the window title bar to some appropriate text. Then we create a new font: we create an object called font using PyGame's own font system, and with 'None' we say: it doesn't matter what font we use – just choose the system default. We also want a 48-point font size.

Then the main loop kicks in, running ten times for ten questions. screen.fill(0) simply fills the screen with the zero-th colour, which is black – it just clears the screen for each question. Next we choose the line for the random word that'll be the answer, as in our text-based version, and then we have:

mainpic = image.load(f2content[wordnum].rstrip('\n'))

This is quite a big instruction, so let's parse it. We're creating a new PyGame picture object called mainpic for drawing to the screen. However, we need to load the picture from somewhere – and we need it to be the correct answer picture. You'll remember that wordnum now contains the file line number of the correct answer – we've told Python to choose it at random.

Like before, in the full code we load two text files into f1content and f2content. f1content contains the word list – in our case, 'Nepal, Canada, Finland...'. f2content contains a list of corresponding image file names: 'nepalflag.png, canadaflag.png, finlandflag.png...'. Our wordnum points to the word in f1content, and also to the associated image filename in f2content. If wordnum is 2, it may point to 'Nepal' in f1content and 'nepal.png' in f2content – this is why your files should match up!

So, we load our picture from the correct filename in f2content, stripping off the newline character with rstrip – otherwise PyGame gets confused! Next up, we choose one of the three options to be the correct one, as before. Then we create three text snippets to display to the screen. Here's the first:

text1 = font.render('1 - ' + f1content[options[0]].rstrip('\n'),
    True, (255, 255, 255))

This creates a new image called text1, containing the first random option from our f1content list of words. The True means that we want this text to be anti-aliased, and the (255, 255, 255) is the text colour in red, green, blue format. So, our text here is white. We do this for the other two options, then 'blit' (draw) the text to the screen, and update the display to make sure everything is shown.

The remainder of the code handles user input at this point. We check to see if the user has pressed 1, 2 or 3, and react accordingly – print 'Correct!' and update the score, or print 'Wrong!'. Then we wait for Enter to be pressed and restart the loop.

With Python and PyGame we can now create graphical tests like this one.

With Python and PyGame we can now create graphical tests like this one.

Finishing off

Hopefully this has inspired you to delve deeper with your flash card project, perhaps expanding it to include five possible options instead of three. Or maybe you could capture the system time at the start of the test, and compare it to the system time at the end, thereby rating how quickly the test was completed!

Do more with PyGame

Our second flash card program merely scratches the surface of what's possible with PyGame. This library provides a wealth of facilities for loading images, moving sprites around, handling keyboard/mouse input and playing back sound effects. It's a popular choice for open source game programmers – see for examples of what can be achieved.

Best of all, PyGame has copious documentation, including tutorials for complete beginners and a detailed API reference. At you'll find getting-started tutorials on initialising PyGame, moving sprites and using pixel effects.

PyGame isn't just limited to video games - you can use it to create media players too.

PyGame isn't just limited to video games - you can use it to create media players too.

First published in Linux Format

First published in Linux Format magazine

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Your comments


;aslkdfj <a > </a>

Any fix for this so it

Any fix for this so it doesn't display 2 (or more) of the same possible answer?

To make it not display the

To make it not display the same possible answer, just add some checks to make sure the three numbers aren't the same:

for(i = 0; i < len(options); i++)
check = False
while not check
if i == 0:
if options[0] == options[1] || options[0] == options[2]:
options[0] = random.randint(0, len(f1content)-1)
check = True

Repeat for the others, changing the logic.

Why not select 3 options

Why not select 3 options like this:

r = random.Random()
options = r.sample(f1content,3)

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