Mnemonics for Children

Use of visual imagery in children

Research into whether young children can improve recall by using visual imagery has produced mixed results. It would seem that, in general, the instruction to generate mental images does not improve recall in children 5 yrs and younger, but does improve recall in children 8 years and above. Children of six and seven appear to be at a transitional stage whereby some children can use the strategy effectively in some situations.

Danner FW & Taylor AM. 1973. Integrated pictures and relational imagery training in children’s learning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 16, 47-54.

Finding: trained 1st, 3rd and 6th graders to use interactive imagery to recall sets of three concrete nouns. There were three different training methods:

(1) The children were trained to generate their own interactive images, by drawing three integrated pictures of the separate pictures of nouns. For the first practice set they were shown an example of an integrated picture. The experimenter asked them to describe the relationship between the three items, then cued recall of two items with a picture of the third. There were two more practice sets, in which the child received encouragement and correction.

(2) The children were shown three integrated pictures (each showing integration of three items). Each picture was presented for 20 seconds, during which the items were named and the child asked to remember them. Recall of two items was cued by showing a picture of the third.

(3) The children were simply presented with integrated pictures.

It was found that 6th graders recalled more when required to generate own images (i.e., trained using method 1). For 1st and 3rd graders, methods 1 and 2 were equally good for training. Since pictures are usually more effective than visual imagery for these ages, these results indicate the benefits of training. It’s worth noting that only 15-20 seconds were given for the child to generate their own image, and greater benefits might well have been apparent if the child had been given more time.

Use of the story (sentence) mnemonic

The story, or sentence, mnemonic is a verbal mnemonic in which words to be remembered are linked together in a sentence or sentences. It is an effective strategy for learning a list of words.

The research confirms that memory even in very young children can be helped by teaching them to use this verbal mnemonic strategy.

It is more effective if the words (usually nouns) are linked by verbs rather than prepositions — simply stringing together words like this: The cat and the banana and the boat were in the sky” is much less memorable than composing: “The cat ate the banana and tossed the boat into the sky.”

Sentence mnemonics have been effectively used by 6th graders (10 year olds) to remember the correct spelling of words.

Levin JR & Rohwer WD 1968. Verbal organization and the facilitation of serial learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 59, 186-91.

Finding: gave 4th and 5th graders a sentence mnemonic to recall 14 nouns. For example, the grey cat/jumped over the log/and crossed the street/to find the bowl/of cold milk/under the chair/in the new house/by the blue lake/where the young boy/lost his left shoe/while eating the fish/on the wooden boat/during the storm/that came last year. Recall of the 14 nouns was better using the sentence mnemonic than simply learning the list of nouns.

Negin GA 1978. Mnemonics and demonic words. Reading Improvement, 15, 180-2.

Finding: used sentence mnemonics to reduce spelling errors. Ten misspelled words were selected from 6th graders’ written assignments. The children were given two hours’ instruction on the use of sentence mnemonics in remembering spelling. They were given examples such as, “She screamed EEE as she passed the cemetery”; “StationERy is for a lettER”; “My skin shows resisTANce to a TAN”. They were told they could use two sentences if it was too hard to put in one. They were instructed to compare their misspellings with the proper form, locate the discrepancy, create a sentence associating the word with the correct spelling and rehearse the sentence. Their learning was compared with a group of children who were told to compare misspellings with the correct form, write each word in a meaningful sentence, underline the difficult section and rehearse the word. After each practice session, the children formed pairs and dictated words to each other. After six weeks, there was no significant difference in performance between the two groups, but after ten weeks, the children using mnemonics performed significantly better.

Pressley M. 1982. Elaboration and memory development. Child Development, 53, 296-309.

Finding: reviewed the research and concluded that even nursery school children improved in their learning when instructed to generate verbal elaborations.

Rohwer WD 1966. Constraint, syntax, and meaning in paired-associate learning. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 5, 541-7. Rohwer WD 1970. Images and pictures in children’s learning: Research results and educational implications. Psychology Bulletin, 73, 393-403.

Finding: sentence mnemonics using verbs (e.g., the dog closes the gate) helped remembering more than sentences using prepositions to join the nouns (e.g. the dog and the gate).

Use of the keyword mnemonic

The keyword method is one of the most successful mnemonic strategies to be used in education. It is of proven effectiveness as a method of learning new words, foreign language words, and social studies facts. As a technique for learning new words, it has been compared with the following common strategies:

  • learning words in context
  • finding root words
  • learning synonyms and antonyms
  • presenting words in meaningful sentences
  • having students discriminate correct from incorrect use of words in sentences and
  • having students generate their own meaningful sentences

and is apparently more effective than any of these methods.

The keyword mnemonic has been used effectively by 4th graders (8 year olds). When pictures have been provided, it has been used effectively by 2nd graders. It is suggested that, for children 10 years and younger, instructions to visualize are supplemented by illustrating pictures.

McGivern 1981 (unpublished)

Finding: Children with greater vocabulary knowledge benefited more from generating their own keywords than being provided with them, whereas children with smaller vocabularies experienced comparable benefits from generated and provided keywords.

Levin JR 1981. The mnemonic ‘80’s: Keywords in the classroom. Educational Psychologist, 16, 65-82.

Finding: suggested that as it becomes more difficult to derive keywords, it is probable that provided keywords (rather than generated) would be more effective.

Levin, J.R., Shriberg, L.K., Miller, G.E., McCormack, C.B. & Levin, B.B. 1980. The keyword method in the classroom: How to remember the states and their capitals. The Elementary School Journal, 82, 185-91.

Finding: Studies of 2nd and 6th graders and adults have found providing pictures of interaction between the keyword and the word representing the meaning of foreign word leads to higher recall than having the person generate their own image. Keyword method successfully used with whole classrooms and small groups of elementary and junior high students. Has been employed by 8th graders to attach a persons name to a number of pieces of biographical info.

Johnson RE 1974.Abstractive processes in the remembering of prose. Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, 772-9.

Finding: the keyword method produces better results than those obtained by: (a) learning words in context (b) finding root words, and (c) learning synonyms and antonyms

Pressley M Levin J & Miller G 1982. The keyword method compared to alternative vocabulary-learning strategies. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 7, 213-26.

Finding: the keyword method produces better results than those obtained by: (d) presenting words in meaningful sentences (e) having students discriminate correct from incorrect use of words in sentences and (f) having students generate their own meaningful sentences.

Levin JR McCormick CB Miller GE Berry JK & Pressley M. 1982. Mnemonic versus nonmnemonic vocabulary-learning strategies for children. American Educational Research Journal, 19, 121-36.

Finding: successfully taught 4th graders abstract verbs (such as persuade, hesitate, object, glisten, resolve) using the keyword method. There were two steps: the child was asked to learn a keyword (word clue) for each word – keyword(s) were phonetically similar to a salient part or all of the word (e.g., purse for persuade; he’s a date for hesitate). Each pair of items (keyword and word to be learned) were presented on a card. After they had all been presented once, the child was shown cards with just the word on and asked to recall the keyword. If the child hesitated or gave the wrong answer, the card was immediately turned over and the keyword shown. The procedure was repeated twice. Most children were able to answer correctly after two trials. In step 2, the child was asked to learn the meaning of the 12 words. A colored line-drawing showing the keyword interacting with the definition of the word was presented; each card also had the word and its definition printed below the drawing (people in the drawing had dialogue balloons coming from their mouths – one character would mention the keyword, the other the word to be learned. The sentence was constructed so that the meaning of the word couldn’t be construed directly from sentence. The child was given 15 seconds to study the picture while the experimenter read the written material on the picture. It was found that children using this method remembered significantly more than children who used an alternative, instructionally sound method (82.8% vs 55%).

Levin, J.R., Shriberg, L.K., Miller, G.E., McCormack, C.B. & Levin, B.B. 1980. The keyword method in the classroom: How to remember the states and their capitals. The Elementary School Journal, 82, 185-91.

Finding: An adaptation of the keyword method was used to teach 4th and 5th graders the US states and their capitals. Step 1: the student formed an association between the name of the state and the keyword (e.g. marry for Maryland). Step 2: the student formed an association between the name of the capital and a different keyword (e.g., apple for Annapolis). The two keywords were then shown linked by a visual image (a line-drawing in which the two keyword referents were related, e.g. “The capital of Maryland is Annapolis. Here is a picture of two apples getting married”). When learning capitals, students were asked to recall the capital from the keyword, rather than the other way around, as they would ultimately be tested for recall of the capital for each state. Because backward keyword learning is more difficult, students were given up to five trials. They learned 12 capital-state pairs on the 1st day, and on 2nd day they were given 13 more, and told to learn them any way they wished. It appeared the students did not try to transfer the keyword method; the one student who did, did so ineffectively. This is not a surprising result, since they had been given the keywords and pictures, and hadn’t been taught how to produce them themselves. Results of the 1st day: those who learned using the keyword method recalled on average 78% correct vs 65.9% for those not trained in the keyword method. After two days, the keyword group remembered some 71.2%, while the nonmnemonic group's performance had fallen to 36.4%. Clearly the keyword method is of most benefit in retaining information.

Pressley M Levin J & Miller G 1981. How does the keyword method affect vocabulary comprehension and usage? Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 213-26.

Finding: suggested guidelines for using the keyword method with children: concrete stimulus support needed (especially for children 10 years and younger). Instructions to visualize may need to be supplemented by experimenter-provided illustrations etc.

Pressley & Levin 1978. Developmental constraints associated with children’s use of the keyword method of foreign language vocabulary learning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 26, 359-72.

Finding: taught 2nd and 6th graders the keyword method to learn Spanish words. They found that the 2nd graders didn’t benefit when keywords and translations were presented verbally, but did when presented pictorially. The 6th graders were fine with both.

Levin JR Shriberg LK Miller GE McCormack CB & Levin BB 1980. The keyword method in the classroom: How to remember the states and their capitals. The Elementary School Journal, 82, 185-91.

Finding: taught 8th graders abstract attributes of towns (e.g., considerable wealth, abundant natural resources). Results indicated that pictures in which attributes were separately represented didn’t help recall. Recall was much better when the attributes were combined in a picture that incorporated the keyword.