Mnemonic Strategies


Systematic strategies for strengthening long-term retention and retrieval of information are referred to as mnemonic strategies. For example, the keyword method (discussed below) was originally developed to help students recall vocabulary in foreign language courses, but the technique can be applied to other areas as well.


Acronyms are another mnemonic strategy. An acronym is an abbreviation in which each of the letters stands for the first letter in a list of words to be recalled. For example, HOMES can enable students to recall the names of all the Great Lakes of North America (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior). Acrostics, on the other hand, use the first letter of each word in a sentence to help learners retrieve a list of words. For example, "My Dear Aunt Sally" helps students recall the proper order of mathematical operations (Multiply and divide before adding and subtracting). Likewise, "Every Good Boy Does Fine" enables students to recall the notes of the lines on the scale.

Other popular mnemonic strategies include rhyming ("I before e, except after c, or sounded as a, as in neighbor and weigh") and singing (as in the traditional alphabet song and current attempts to use rap music to teach concepts to children who enjoy that type of music).


Mnemonic strategies work, and they should be employed to facilitate learning. They work by creating connections where no connection is immediately obvious to the learner. An even more powerful strategy, of course, is to find and capitalize upon real connections. For example, instead of using a keyword approach to vocabulary development, a learner could focus on Greek and Latin roots. Some very difficult words can become easy to understand when the learner can connect the roots to appropriate meanings.

The following section takes a close look at one specific mnemonic strategy.


Keyword Mnemonics


A keyword mnemonic is an aid to help students learn new vocabulary words. When using this strategy, the learner makes a connection between the new word and an image involving a related word that serves as a "key" to remember the new word. For example, a student of French could remember that pain is the French word for bread by vividly picturing a loaf of bread in a pan.

Does this method really help learners know the new words? Does it truly help expand their vocabularies?

The answer depends on what we mean by knowing (Calfee & Drum, 1986). If knowing means giving the definition of the word when asked to do so, the answer would be yes. If knowing means seeing the word in a sentence in a book, thinking about it for a moment, recalling the meaning, and then inserting that definition into the context so that we can understand the sentence, then the answer would still be yes. These are valid definitions of knowing. However, if knowing a word means that we can use the word in our conversations and in our thinking and recognize all possible contexts of the word (Cronbach, 1943), then it is not equally obvious that the keyword method helps students use new words effectively.

What the research shows is that students who use mnemonic strategies are generally not at a disadvantage compared to students who use other strategies, such as semantic analysis or free study, when they are asked to give or infer the meaning of words a week or so after studying them. In most cases, they do better. However, some research suggests that the strategy is not as effective as other methods for long-term retention and for making the words a part of the student's working vocabulary. (For a review of the research, see Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986.)

It is probably best to regard mnemonic methods as very powerful precomprehension strategies. Being able to recognize the meaning of a word is useful - whether this is accomplished by recalling it mnemonically or by looking it up in a dictionary; but to know a word in its fullest sense, students must use that word as concretely as possible in many contexts, so that it can be meaningfully integrated with appropriate information and appropriately retrieved from long-term memory.


Keyword strategies work best under the following circumstances:

  1. When a keyword is obviously and readily available. If students spend time fruitlessly trying to think of a keyword and cannot find one, then the technique is not likely to be productive. However, McCarville (1992) found that even when they failed to think of a keyword, students benefited from using this method, as long as they actively tried to find one.

  2. When the association between the keyword and the target word can be vividly and unambiguously pictured in the visual memory. Loraine and Lucas (1974) further recommend that it be a ridiculous or unusual visual association. (I myself can easily remember the authors of that book, because Jerry Lucas was one of the favorite basketball players of my youth; and I associate him with a short, unshaven guy with lots of hair playing basketball on a court on which there is a torrential downpour - Hairy Low Rain = Harry Loraine. Perhaps it's best to keep one's ridiculous associations to oneself. People who have never heard of Jerry Lucas would not find this association useful at all.)

  3. When both the word to be learned and the keyword are concrete rather than abstract.

  4. When the word to be learned is related to concepts that already exist within the learner's long-term memory.

  5. When the strategy is combined with other strategies, such as examining its root meaning, looking for analogies with other words, or using the word actively and often in meaningful contexts.

  6. When learners generate the keyword associations themselves, rather than having them delivered by a teacher or textbook - but getting one from somebody else may be better than having no keyword at all. Learners who initially have trouble making up their own keywords can benefit from the process of scaffolding, described in Chapter 15, by which a teacher would first model how to select and use keywords and gradually transfer more responsibility to the learners.



It is especially useful to combine the keyword method with other strategies. For example, a young child might first learn the meaning of interscholastic by picturing himself entering another school through the entrance in order to play an interscholastic sport. It would be more likely that he would remember this word if he contrasted it with intramural sports, which are played right at the home school. (The ra distinguished intra from inter.) If the child never participated in or attended either interscholastic or intramural activities, the level of encoding (and memory) for these words would remain superficial (and temporary). However, if the child participated in both activities and continued to notice the difference between the prefixes, learning would become more permanent. In addition, if the child learned that words have prefixes and that prefixes have meanings, it would become even easier for long-term learning to occur. If he looked at words like international (between nations) and intervene (to come between), he would have a head start on a huge number of words that use that prefix.

(While the preceding paragraph describes an excellent way to learn the meaning of words, it has limitations. Oddly enough, if we pronounce the word inter differently and apply it to a dead body, it has nothing to do with between anymore. When we inter a body after a funeral, we place it in the earth - from the Latin in terra. Note, however, that for mature learners, the very activity of noting that this is an interesting exception to the original association makes it easier to remember the meaning of the word and to use it correctly.)

In short, the keyword method helps learners acquire an initial, surface familiarity with a word that can serve as a first step to enable them to recognize the word when they encounter it later. Further active processing can make the word a permanent, automatic part of the learner's repertoire.



Scruggs & Mastropieri (1992) describe the systematic use of mnemonic strategies to help learning disabled students master scientific concepts (Figure 6.3). When information was considered to be concrete and familiar to mildly handicapped learners, they used mimetic reconstructions (Figure 6.3a), in which the information was simply represented pictorially in an interesting fashion. For abstract information, they used symbolic reconstructions (Figure 6.3b), in which symbolized pictorial representations were shown interacting pictorially with relevant target information. When abstract information was unfamiliar, they used acoustic reconstruction (Figures 6.3c and 6.3d), in which target information was linked with acoustically familiar keywords. They found not only that these strategies were extremely effective, but also that the students were able to generalize the strategies to new situations.

To generalize the mnemonic strategies, they (1) referred students back to previous mnemonic instruction, (2) provided explicit prompting and feedback for keyword and interactive image generation, (3) provided feedback for mnemonic drawings, and (4) provided explicit attribution training. This last consisted of making comments such as, "You have learned this information because you used this good strategy."



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