First-Letter Mnemonic

The First-letter mnemonic, as its name suggests, is a memory strategy in which the initial letters of words in a sentence Opens in new window are used to recall information in a particular order.

This can be an effective technique because initial letters are helpful retrieval cues, as anyone who has endeavored to remember something by mentally running through the letters of the alphabet can attest to.

Types of First-Letter Mnemonic

There are two types of First-letter mnemonic:

  1. Acronyms, by which initial letters form a meaningful word;
  2. Acrostics, whereby initial letters are used as the initial letters of other words to make a meaningful phrase.

ROY G. BIV is an acronym (for the colors of the rainbow – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Velvet), and Richard Of York Gives Battle In Vain is an acrostic for the same information.

Similarly, the acronym EGBDF is used to remember the notes in the spaces of the treble staff. The letters are incorporated into a sentence such as “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit.”

After learning the sentence, one uses the initial letters for notes, so the note on the first line is E, the note on the second line is G, etc.

Here’s some more well-known examples. Some acronyms first:

  • MRS GREN — the characteristics of living things: Movement; Respiration; Sensitivity; Growth; Reproduction; Excretion; Nutrition.
  • BEDMAS — the order of mathematical operations: Brackets; Exponent; Division; Multiplication; Addition; Subtraction.
  • HOMES — the Great Lakes in the U.S.A.: Huron; Ontario; Michigan; Erie; Superior.

And some acrostics:

  • My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas — the order of the planets: Mercury; Venus; Earth; Mars; Jupiter; Saturn; Uranus; Neptune; Pluto.
  • Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle — the order of sharps in music.
  • King Philip Came Over From Great Spain — the order of categories in the taxonomy of living things: Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species

It’s likely that you’ll know very different acrostics for these same items. Citing a variation of the first item, a famous author once said “My granddaughter recently taught me a first letter mnemonic for remembering the order of the planets from the sun: ‘My Very Elderly Mother Just Sat Upon a New Pin’ (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto).”

That’s one difference between acronyms and acrostics—the same acronyms are likely to be known to everyone, but acrostics are much more varied. The reason’s not hard to seek — clearly there are infinite possibilities for acrostics, but very very limited possibilities for acronyms.

Another variation can be used to remember a list of digits such as a credit card number: One can make up a sentence in which each word consists of a number of letters corresponding to the numbers to be remembered. For example, the number 6,734 can be “Mother (six digits) courage (seven) was (three) here (four).”

Harris (1984) suggested that first-letter mnemonics are useful only when the to-be-remembered material is well known but difficult to recall in the correct order. They can however, be used to learn new material (Wilson, 1987).

Wilson and Moffat (1984) argued that first-letter mnemonics work for two reasons: (1) Because the information is being chunked and chunking Opens in new window has long been known to increase recall (Miller, 1956) and (2) because it reduces the number of competing responses.

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