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Mnemonics: Memory Builders

If "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" saved you in learning the order of operations in mathematics, then you should check out what Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher have to say in Learning Words Inside and Out about using keyword mnemonics to help commit words to memory.

Keyword mnemonics were first used to teach students studying a foreign language (Raugh and Atkinson 1975) and soon became popular for teaching vocabulary for any learner (Pressley, Levin, and Delaney 1983). The word mnemonics comes from the Greek word mnemonikos, meaning mindful. Mnemonic devices are used to recall information. For example, many of us have learned to use FOIL to remind ourselves of the steps for multiplying binomials — first, outside , inside, last. Doug memorized the lobes of the brain for his neuroanatomy class using FPOT: frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal. This is called a peg mnemonic because each letter reminds us of an item on a list.

The keyword method of vocabulary attainment involves two other aspects of mnemonic devices: an acoustical element and a visual one. It is believed that memory is enhanced when two stimuli are closely associated with one another, known more formally as dual coding theory (Paivio 1969). These techniques are widely used for memorization and recall of complex information in the fields of pathology, medicine, pharmacology, and aviation. For example, a mnemonic that uses dual coding involves Felty's syndrome, a complication that can arise because of rheumatoid arthritis. One of the markers of the disease is that the spleen can be felt (Felty's) upon examination. Many people who have passed national professional board examinations owe their thanks in part to mnemonics for recalling information.

Let's return to the word mnemonic to demonstrate the usefulness of keyword learning as it relates to roots and word derivation. We told you that it stems from the Greek word for mindfulness. The word is also closely related to Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses in mythology. Now add a visual to that — imagine a Greek goddess who mindfully watches over her daughters. She encourages them to remember where they came from, and to keep the memory of their family close to their hearts. That mental image of the mindful mother along with the acoustically similar words mindful, remember, and memory consolidate a dual association in your mind. Chances are that if you have invested your attention in that word, you will recall the word and its image long after you close this book.

Mnemonics are a useful way for individual learners to mentally manipulate sound and image to create a memory that can be retrieved on demand. We teach our students to use mnemonics as a way to independently learn information and vocabulary. In fact, the information we shared about Mnemosyne is how we introduce the technique to our students. We ask them to think of peg mnemonics they have already learned, and we usually hear about HOMES to recall the names of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior), or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally to remind them of the order of operations in mathematics (parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction). We also give them opportunities to develop their own peg and keyword mnemonics, as the most valuable ones seem to be those that are created by the learner rather than provided by the teacher.

For example, Kevin had been trying to figure out a way to remember the thirteen colonies. Kevin had used mnemonics with some success, so he decided to check the Internet to see what he could find. The one he found that humored him was

Good (Georgia) Students (South Carolina) Need (North Carolina) Very (Virginia) Many (Maryland) Dogs (Delaware)
Never (New Jersey) Pet (Pennsylvania) New (New York) Cats (Connecticut)
Roaring (Rhode Island) Mad (Massachusetts) New Hamsters (New Hampshire)

He liked this idea and wanted to make it his own, so he listed the letters of the colonies: G, S, N, V, M, D, N, P, N, C, R, M, N. Not finding any obvious words, he began to create sentences. He crossed off letters as he used them, knowing that he did not need to memorize the colonies in any particular order. In the course of a few minutes, he created something he found satisfactory:

Grandma screamed no more dogs. Victor needs peace not crazy running mutts now.

He sketched a cartoon drawing of an older woman shouting at a bunch of dogs with an older man trying to sleep in a hammock. "I imaged my gramma yelling at the dogs wile Grandpa Victor tried to sleep." Of course, each of these colonies represents far more information than the label alone implies. But Kevin's creation of a personal mnemonic allowed him to recall sequence of information and access the schema he had developed for this content and words used to convey the information.

Reproduced with permission from Learning Words Inside and Out by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. Copyright © 2009 by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. All rights reserved.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 22nd 2009, 8:18 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
I wish I had known about mnemonics when I was in junior high and high school. Remembering the colonies with Kevin's sentence (using the mental image) would have been so helpful!!

Thanks! Great article - and I look forward to reading the book.

Meggin (
Wednesday July 22nd 2009, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
Mnemonics are great for helping kids remember science vocabulary. Some of my favorites:

The colors of the visible spectrum in order: Roy G. Biv - Red Orange Yellow Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.

Understanding taxonomy: King Phillip Came Over For Green Sneakers - Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
Wednesday July 22nd 2009, 1:57 PM
Comment by: Anne M. (San Diego, CA)
I'll never forget the one my sister made up for the planets in order:

My Vain Elephant, Mack, Just Sat Using No Pep
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto

Of course, now that Pluto is no longer a planet, you'd have to change the ending a bit for it to make sense.
Wednesday July 22nd 2009, 2:18 PM
Comment by: Georgia S.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Here is one that my son uses to help him to remember his guitar strings:
E: Eddie
A: Ate
D: Dynamite,
G: Good-
B: Bye
E: Eddie!

And here are a few others I found online:
Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears

Eat All Dead Gophers Before Easter

Every Apple Does Go Bad Eventually
Wednesday July 22nd 2009, 2:28 PM
Comment by: Brenda L. (Brockport, PA)
So we can say your mnemonics tool for the order of the planets has been plutoed!
Thursday July 23rd 2009, 12:54 PM
Comment by: saeed S.
Is this usefull for adults who are trying to improve their vocabulary?
Friday July 24th 2009, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Georgia S.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
In response to that last question (from Saeed S.): Sure, keyword mnemonics can be very useful for anyone trying to improve their vocabulary. If you associate a new word with visual and acoustical elements, you will most likely remember it (as Nancy and Doug point out in this article). Try it!
Tuesday August 4th 2009, 6:22 PM
Comment by: Catherine S. (Springdale, AR)
I learned the mnemonics tool for the order of the planets as

My very educated mother just sat upon nine plums. It was such fun.
Wednesday August 12th 2009, 6:58 AM
Comment by: Suzanne P.
Well I might try remember things, this is interesting. Usually I like tunes or poems such as...30 days have September, April, June and November all the rest have 31 accept for February which has 28. I know I'm a bit off the track.

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Mnemonic devices are a tried-and-true method for memorizing lists and other information.