Updated: Nov 20, 2021
What is a mnemonic? Well, according to Wikipedia it is 'is any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval (remembering) in the human memory.'
To be clear from the outset: an acrostic (such as Naughty Elephants Squirt Water, used to remember the points of the compass) is just one kind of mnemonic. Other kinds of mnemonics are stories, songs and rhymes.
In D.T. Willingham's 'What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?' AFT journal article he summarises the three principles of memory (see the box to the left). He says that 'mnemonics work largely (but not exclusively) by using the first two principles... '
He also makes the point that Mnemonics '...give students ways to make up meaningful relationships. And the more creative or distinctive, the better.'
Many of those within educational circles who are currently promoting retrieval practice and other memory techniques seem to focus heavily on the testing effect. As such, it appears that quizzes have become the most widely used technique when it comes to helping children to remember things. I have already collated a selection of no-quiz retrieval practice techniques but in that blog post I felt my final recommendation of using stories, songs, rhymes and mnemonics needed some further exploration, hence this further blog post.
We can all testify to the ease in which we are able to recall the lyrics to certain songs, even ones we've not heard for a while. Most likely we will also remember their tunes - sometimes they pop into heads when were are least expecting it. Many of us will still remember MRS GREN/NERG, My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming (Planets) and Richard Of York Gave Battle (In) Vain. Some of us will even have mastered that knuckle thing to help you remember the number of days in each month. Each one of those is an example of how mnemonics help us to remember things - often things we don't even deliberately try to remember.
So, how can we harness these (dare I say it) fun and engaging ways of memorising information in the classroom? Well, first of all we need to be deliberate about it - we have to intentionally include these opportunities, recognising the potential they have to help children in their learning. It will take a bit of effort to search out a decent (I use this word purposefully) song or rhyme that links to your current topic. It won't be easy to put together a story that features the facts you want the children to learn. But, done well, it should be worth the extra effort.
Here a few quick pointers to get you started using mnemonics in your teaching:
Hywel Roberts and Debra Kidd's latest book Unchartered Territories has a fascinating chapter on how story can be used as an aid memoire. It's a great book in general for those looking to inject some creativity into their lessons.
It quotes D.T. Willingham: “Stories are psychologically privileged in our minds”. Roberts and Kidd suggest that we should place knowledge content (i.e. facts and figures) into a dilemma-led story which has four components (the 4 Cs of storytelling):
Causality – how events link through consequence (plot)
Complications – aspects of the stor where things aren’t as they seem
Conflict – tension to engage emotions
Characters – because we relate and connect to other humans
There will be very few stories out there that do this already for each area of learning that a teacher might be teaching so there is a lot of work to be done in order to use this technique. Teachers will need to write their own story, or adapt an existing one, in order to present the information in this fashion.
Once done, the potential is huge - children could learn the story Talk 4 Writing-style, they could write their own versions, use role play or toys to retell the story, even making some of these into films or animations. All of this could be considered rehearsal, and therefore retrieval practice. If they can remember the story, then they will remember the facts that are embedded in it.
Willingham also outlines another technique which loosely follows the principles of telling a story in order to memorise information:
Image from D.T. Willingham's AFT journal article 'What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?'
This point alone is worth exploring in much further detail, but for now this will suffice. I do plan to attempt to try out this method in the coming year so will be writing some stories linked to year 5 topics shortly - I will share these, and blog about the process.
Songs and Rhymes
Although some time is required for searching out songs and rhymes, there are often topic-specific examples already out there - many of them on Youtube. The more creative and musically-talented among us might be willing to turn our hand to writing original songs or rhymes (my brother-in-law writes and performs parodies of popular songs to teach physics facts, one of which was recently sung on Radio 1!) but often this level of commitment and skill isn't necessary.
The key here is to choose songs and rhymes wisely. Do they cover the content that we want the children to learn or are we settling for learning whatever the song's current content is? Is the content accurate (e.g. ensure the song is about English grammar and spelling rather than American English grammar and spelling)? Does it reinforce misconceptions? Does it support a good understanding as well as memorisation (Keep Change Flip is a great trick but it doesn't help with conceptual understanding)? Finding and selecting suitable material can sometimes take as long as writing your own!
If you do choose to write your own try using familiar tunes, such as those used in nursery rhymes and popular songs, as a memory cue.
Children could also be asked to write their own songs and rhymes using pre-learned information, although some caution should be exercised here as additional skills will be required - this is not as straightforward as a free recall task (although it could follow a free recall task as well as additional teaching on how to write stories, songs, rhymes or mnemonics).
These are what we most often think of as being mnemonics. Some of them rhyme, some of them are acronyms, others are acrostics and others of them make associations between something in the to-be-remembered material and an aspect of the material that is hard to remember. Some expression mnemonics make use of more than one of these techniques.
Here are some examples:
Rhyming: Divorced, beheaded, died / Divorced, beheaded, survived
Acrostic: (For the tuning of guitar strings) Every Afternoon Daddy Goes Back East
Acronym: (For coordinating conjunctions) FANBOYS
Associations: stalactites grow from the ceiling; stalagmites from the ground.
Never Eat Shredded Wheat is a rhyming acrostic.
Lists of such mnemonics can be found online such as these ones from Wikipedia, Adducation and Thoughtco. Expression mnemonics can be used to remember tricky spellings (I will never forget the Trunchbull's derision when Nigel spells 'difficulty': "Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs LTY. That spells difficulty.") and lists of facts, names or rules. It is worth regularly searching for such mnemonics when planning to teach something new although it might not be too daunting to create your own. There are also acrostic generators available on the internet.
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