by Michael Fairbrother and Dr. Jessica Whitley
Using mnemonics can help students of all ages, in particular those with LDs, to remember important curriculum information that they may otherwise have difficulty retrieving. In the article below you will find the following:
- What is it? A definition of the term “mnemonics” and a short introduction to the research into mnemonics.
- Breakdown of the main types of mnemonic strategies. This section introduces readers to the three main types of mnemonics: the keyword method, the pegword method and acronyms, as well as providing a short description of additional types of mnemonics.
- Challenges to classroom implementation, research-to-practice issues, & directions for future research. This section makes the link from research to practice for classroom educators and special educators, and also aims to identify potential problem areas for consideration, ahead of implementation.
- Research findings. For those interested in learning more about the research behind mnemonics, this section summarizes the research that has been conducted with students, both with and without LDs, and the results that were found, as well as the different curriculum areas that were investigated. It also provides readers with an example of how to implement the strategy in a grade 4 social studies classroom.
- Where to learn more. This section links to additional resources related to the mnemonics strategy, including websites, articles, and journal articles.
What is it?
Mnemonic instruction is a set of strategies designed to help students improve their memory of new information. Mnemonics instruction links new information to prior knowledge through the use of visual and/or acoustic cues. In general, mnemonics is an instructional strategy that incorporates clues (often visual and auditory) based on learners’ existing knowledge base alongside new information to be learned. This helps improve the retention of key information making it easier to retrieve at later points. Claiming “mnemonic instruction delivers the greatest learning increases seen in the history of disability intervention research” (p. 271), Mastropieri and Scruggs (1990) have been the research duo championing mnemonic instruction’s academic effectiveness for students with learning disabilities (LDs) over the last 30 years. Two significant areas of difficulty for students with learning disabilities are challenges with learning and memory (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2000). Mnemonic instruction has proven to be an evidence-based practice addressing these two critical areas (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1990a; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2000).
Mnemonic instruction has been shown to significantly aid in recall, retention, and understanding:
- throughout the curriculum: language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and foreign languages (see, Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2000; The Access Center, 2007);
- across a wide age range (see Levin, 1993);
- for students with learning difficulties (e.g., Scruggs and Mastropieri, 2000)
Mnemonics are also known as an inclusive strategy shown to be positively received and easily utilized by students with learning disabilities and difficulties (Sweeda et al., 2000; Wolgemuth & Cobb, 2010).
Mnemonic instructional strategies are classified into a few main types and will be briefly discussed below. A sample of research findings demonstrating the effectiveness of mnemonics in different subject areas and across ages is presented. Implications for applying mnemonics in the classroom setting for students with (and without) LD, as well as some challenges and considerations for mnemonics research and its use by teachers will be discussed. Following this, a list of recommended readings will be provided for further access to mnemonics instruction.
Description of the Main Types of Mnemonic Strategies
There are three forms of mnemonic strategies primarily used to improve the retention and understanding of new material for students with learning difficulties: keyword, pegword, and letter strategies/acronyms. According to Mastropieri and Scruggs (2000), mnemonic strategies, from the “perspective of learner characteristics … rely on areas of relative cognitive strength (memory for pictures, acoustic memory) and de-emphasize relative weaknesses (prior knowledge, semantic memory, independent strategy use)” (p. 166).
The keyword method utilizes acoustically similar words as meaningful substitutes or alternatives for unfamiliar words (e.g., vocabulary words, terminology, people, places) that must be learned for understanding important elements of the curriculum (see, Scruggs and Mastropieri, 1990a; Scruggs et al., 2010). For example:
- The teacher introduces a new word by first identifying a keyword that sounds similar to the word being taught and is easily represented by a picture or drawing, then;
- The teacher creates a picture connecting words to be learned with its definition (Access Center, 2007).
An example provided in Scruggs et al. (2010) uses the keyword strategy to teach students vocabulary in stories about to be read in class. For example, teaching the word jettisoned:
I showed … the vocabulary cards one at a time and also taught the keyword, which I told the students was a “cue word” that could help them remember the vocabulary word and the definition. For example, I showed students the card for the vocabulary word ‘jettisoned’. I read the word to them, and they read and pointed out the keyword “jet” which I then related to the definition “to throw overboard” and the picture (a “jet” with a package being thrown overboard). I then practiced the vocabulary word, key word, and definition three times with the students. I taped the words cards to the board as I taught them (p. 58).
The pegword method employs the rhyming of pegwords (e.g., one is bun, two is shoe). Using pegwordsassists in the recall of numbered or ordered information (such as provinces, rules, multiplication facts). The intention is for rhyming words (pegwords) to “provide visual images that can be associated with facts or events with the number that rhymes with the pegwords(The Access Center, 2007). There are a variety of pegword strategies such as number-rhymes, number-shape, and alphabet-pegs (see the table below for some brief examples):
|Number-Rhyme Pegs||Number-Shape Pegs||Alphabet Pegs(sound alikes)||Concrete Alphas|
|Table adapted from http://www.memory-improvement-tips.com/remembering-lists.html|
With number-rhyme pegwords you first remember a concrete object that rhymes with the number, such as one and sun. Next you associate each item with a visual (such as sun). This is generally the easiest peg system to learn. Number-shape pegwords are similar to number-rhymes but instead of using rhymes, concrete objects comparable to the shape of the numbers are applied. Alphabet pegwords (sound alikes) are similar to number-rhyme pegwords using rhyming words alongside letters (A-hay). Concrete alphas connect a visual that starts with the same sound of the letter in the alphabet (A-Ape).
Letter Strategies: Acronyms
Acronyms are considered the most familiar of the mnemonic strategies and are helpful when a set of responses is required rather than a single response. Acronyms are words that are formed from the first letter of the words in a phrase. For example,
- HOMES for the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior
- FOIL: the standard method of multiplying two binomials where: the product (a+b)(c+d) is the sum of the First terms (ac), the Outer terms (ad), the Inner terms (bc), and the Last terms (bd)
- Acronyms can also be used as acrostics (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge).
(see Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1990a)
To work well, the response information needs to be familiar so that one letter can lead to effective and efficient retrieval of the information. Acronyms accompanied with an additional stimulus (e.g., picture of homes on big (great) lakes) will help prompt faster and more accurate retrieval (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1990b).
Other School-relevant Mnemonic Strategies
Additional types of mnemonic strategies include:
- Phonics mnemonics - sounds of letters shaped to fit with the object with the sound of the letter being taught, such as a drawn as an apple when teaching the short a sound;
- Spelling mnemonics - incorporating the sound of letters that are parts of harder to spell words such as the three es in cemetery where the teacher might say, “She screamed ‘E-E-E’ as she walked by the cemetery”;
- Number-sound mnemonics - used to recall strings of numbers.
A great resource for more detail on all of the mnemonic instructional strategies can be found in Scruggs and Mastropieri (1990a).
Challenges to Classroom Implementation, Research-to-Practice Issues, & Directions for Future Research
Along with many positive results for using mnemonics as an instructional aid for students with LDs, the literature also indicates some challenges to classroom implementation, research-to-practice issues and offers directions for future research.
Challenges to Classroom Implementation & Research-to-Practice Issues
- There are an optimal number of learning outcomes that can be introduced in a given time thus putting limits on the material that can be covered
- Ample time and resources are needed to develop and implement mnemonic strategies
- There is a lack of quality published mnemonic materials
- It can be a challenge to differentiate mnemonic tools due to age and individual abilities
- It is much easier to use in a setting with one student as opposed to a whole class
- There can be an initial tendency for teachers or parents to view mnemonics pictures as apparently nonsensical and not very related to academic learning
Directions for future Use in the Classroom
- Finding better strategies for primary grade students
- More research conducted in classrooms, by teachers
- Development of strategies for basic skill areas such as letter recognition and spelling
- Better strategies for learning spatial information (such as location of map features)
- Effective strategies for higher level subjects such as periodic table of elements in chemistry
Directions for Future Research
- Expand mnemonics strategies across the curriculum for students with learning difficulties
- Develop more rigorous experiments for application in the classroom
- Explore mnemonics instruction for transferto other areas beyond recall as most mnemonics research for students with learning difficulties is related to recall of academic content
- Calculate how effective mnemonics strategies are in facilitating long-term recall
- Finally, as noted by Wolgemuth et al. (2008), mnemonics research is exclusively associated with Scruggs and Mastropieri. A wider range of researchers examining this should enhance the findings and confidence in generalizability.
A range of studies has explored the effectiveness of using mnemonics instruction for students with learning difficulties in vocabulary, social studies and science. This research includes laboratory-based studies and field-based investigations using established school curriculum, quasi-experimental experimentation, students with and without learning disabilities, interviews and anecdotal responses, and small group as well as whole class instruction.
Evidence based on this varied body of research supports mnemonics as an effective tool for enhancing academic skills. Findings from large-scale meta-analyses (see, Mastropieri and Scruggs, 1989; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2000; & Wolgemuth & Cobb, 2010), random controlled studies (e.g., Marshak, Mastropieri, & Scruggs, 2011) as well as single classroom action-research studies (Mastropieri, Sweeda, & Scruggs, 2000) indicate that mnemonics instruction aids in recall and improves learning. These are described in more detail below.
In an initial (though dated) meta-analysis of 24 experimental investigations looking into a variety of mnemonic instructional approaches in special education settings, Mastropieri and Scruggs (1989) found that students who were instructed with mnemonic methods outperformed students instructed in a variety of control conditions (e.g., free study, direct rehearsal, questioning and feedback, visual-spatial display conditions, and teacher led ‘traditional’ instruction). Participants were 983 students in grades 3 to 12 and 930 identified with LDs. Study sampling characteristics included 21 studies with primarily students with LDs, 2 studies involved Mild Intellectual Disabilities, and 1 study involved behaviourally disordered students. An effect size of 1.62 was calculated, implying that an average student in the mnemonic group (i.e., 50th percentile) scored at the 95th percentile when compared to controls not using mnemonics. Furthermore, groups of students who were provided mnemonic instruction learned on average 75% of the information presented, while the control students learned 44% of the information. Furthermore, comparing their effect size to previous analyses on other interventions (reduced class size, special class placements, psycholinguistic training, perceptual motor training, stimulant and psychotropic drugs, and diet interventions) students with LDs that received mnemonic instruction showed significantly greater gains. Eleven years later in a more comprehensive meta-analysis, Scruggs and Mastropieri (2000) calculated a nearly identical effect size (1.62) with the effects of mnemonic instruction positive across grade levels and disability.
A third meta-analysis that focused on keyword, keyword-pegword, and reconstructive elaborations examined the immediate recall of 699 high school students (aged 13-17) with learning disabilities (Wolgemuth & Cobb, 2008). Outcomes were measured in social studies, number recall, science, and word recall. Conclusions were overwhelmingly positive in favour of mnemonics instruction and consistent with other meta-analyses on mnemonic instruction, demonstrating its impact compared to direct instruction, free study and other control conditions (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1989; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2000).
Finally, Marshak et al. conducted one study not included in the meta-analyses in 2011. Their randomized control trial conducted in classrooms with and without learning difficulties demonstrated significant findings supporting mnemonic use. Forty-two of the 186 students in this study of grade 7 social studies unit on Industrialization, Progressive Movement and Imperialism had mild disabilities. Results favoured the experimental group (mnemonics instruction) on three unit tests. Significant differences were found when comparing the two groups on the total scores and the treatment effects for students with disabilities paralleled students without disabilities. Students in the experimental groups (both with LDs and without) enjoyed using the mnemonic materials, noting they were easy to use, helped them learn, helped them do better on tests, and would be helpful in other classes such as science, math and English. Teachers noted increased student interactions, student enthusiasm and student learning.
Recommended Practice Demonstrated with Classroom Teacher
The following example illustrates how one teacher employed the keyword strategy in her grade 4 social studies class (Mastropieri et al., 2000). Mnemonics were initially practiced in a few areas of the curriculum to nurture familiarity. The teacher used a U pattern for developing her students’ mnemonics skills: consider the question, go down to the strategy, and then back up to the answer, as in a U pattern. Using selected vocabulary from the social studies unit, keywords were related to pictures. The teacher also included characters in the pictures stating terms directly related to the definitions: e.g., for charter a picture of a king; the king with chart in his hand giving permission for starting a colony. All students were successful on the unit test. Students with special needs in particular scored 75% correct on questions that made use of the mnemonic strategy while only getting 37% correct on the non-mnemonic taught subject matter. Comparable to Marshak et al. (2011), students using mnemonics ranked it as a very satisfactory instructional aid.
Two critical elements to mnemonic instruction stood out in the Mastropieri et al. (2000) study. Sufficient repetition and prior practice were necessary, such as teaching the U pattern in multiple curricular areas. The teacher also connected the special education students’ learning from mnemonic practice by bringing them into small groups and linking their learning to the curriculum. Likewise, applying it to various aspects of learning and sending practice home to cement the strategy was another recommendation from this work.
Where to learn more (recommended sites to peruse and important articles to read)
- LD online is a great resource for a number of instructional strategies for assisting students with learning disabilities. Click here for an LD article that discusses aspects of mnemonics instruction for facilitating access to the general education classroom.
- The following article provides a general but concise account of mnemonics instruction. Click here for an article about practice alert, developed by the Division for Learning Disabilities (DLD) and Division for Research (DR) of the Council for Exceptional Children (2001).
- The following page comes from the University of Kansas and gives a very basic description of mnemonic strategies including some examples and general guidelines for constructing them. Click here for an article about mnemonics strategies and teacher tools.
- The following page provides good descriptions of mnemonics instruction and discussion on keyword strategy and the pegword strategy. There are also some illustrations providing examples of keywords and a table showing some pegwords for selected numbers. Click here for an article that presents information about mnemonics instruction.
- The following page provides strategies for incorporating multiple pegword strategies to help memorize multiple terms and for expanding conceptual understandings of topics. Click here for an article about pegword strategies.
- Scruggs, T., & Mastropieri, M. (1990a). Mnemonic instruction for students with learning disabilities: What it is and what it does. Learning Disability Quarterly, 13, 271-280.This article provides good description on the concepts of mnemonics instruction and how it applies to specific learning characteristics of students with learning difficulties.
Levin, J.R. (1993). Mnemonic strategies and classroom learning: A twenty-one year report card. The Elementary Journal, 94(2), 235-244.
Marshak, L., Mastropieri, M., & Scruggs, T. (2011). Curriculum enhancements in inclusive secondary social studies classrooms. Exceptionality. 19, 61-74.
Mastropieri, M., & Scruggs, T. (1989). Constructing more meaningful relationships: Mnemonic instruction for special populations. Educational Psychology Review, 1, 83-111.
Mastropieri, M., Sweeda, J., & Scruggs, T. (2000). Putting mnemonic strategies to work in an inclusive classroom. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 15(2), 69-74.
Scruggs, T., & Mastropieri, M. (1989). Mnemonic instruction of learning disabled students: A field-based investigation. Learning Disability Quarterly, 12, 119-125.
Scruggs, T., & Mastropieri, M. (1990a). The case for mnemonic instruction: From laboratory research to classroom applications. The Journal of Special Education, 24(1), 7-32.
Scruggs, T., & Mastropieri, M. (1990b). Mnemonic instruction for students with learning disabilities: What it is and what it does. Learning Disability Quarterly, 13, 271-280.
Scruggs, T., & Mastropieri, M. (2000). Students with learning and behavior problems: An update and research synthesis. Journal of Behavioral Education, 10(2/3), 163-173.
Scruggs, T., Mastropieri, M., Berkeley, S., & Marshak, L. (2010). Mnemonic strategies: Evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence. Intervention in school and clinic, 46(2), 79-86.
The Access Center. (2007). Using mnemonic instruction to facilitate access to the general education curriculum. Retrieved from http://www.ldonline.org/article/15577/.
Wolgemuth, J., & Cobb, B. (2008). The effects of mnemonic interventions on academic outcomes for youth with disabilities: A systematic review. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 23(1), 1-10.
 Meta-analysis: a quantitative analysis of several separate but similar experiments or studies in order to test the pooled data for statistical significance (retrieved from, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meta-analysis).
Michael Fairbrother is currently in his first year of a doctoral program at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. His concentration is in Teaching, Learning and Evaluation, and his research goals are primarily focused on bridging the gap between research and practice for elementary students at-risk for learning difficulties in reading. It is Fairbrother’s hope to contribute to the creation of an effective framework involving parents, teachers and all other stakeholders directly connected to the learning experiences of young students before and upon their entry to school. Before beginning his Ph.D. at UofO, Fairbrother graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.Ed. in general elementary instruction in 2006. Fairbrother completed his M.Ed. concentrating in Special Education in 2011. Fairbrother has seven years’ experience teaching grades three through seven and two years’ experience as a special education resource teacher in British Columbia public elementary schools.