Keyword Mnemonics

An Introduction to Keyword Mnemonic

The keyword mnemonic (first formalized by Atkinson in 1975) is the most studied mnemonic, and contains within it the most potential for flexible use in a wide range of learning situations. The keyword method of mnemonic has direct application to the teaching of foreign and native language vocabulary and meaning. A number of additional educational applications, described below, have been studied.

In foreign language instruction, the keyword mnemonic involves the establishment of a phonetic and an imagery connection between a foreign word and its native language equivalent. The phonetic link Opens in new window reminds the learner of the relevant native language word, while the imagery link Opens in new window provides a clue to the meanings of the foreign word. The procedure is as follows.

  • In the first stage, the learner associates all or part of the unfamiliar foreign word with a similar sounding English word, preferably a concrete noun. The English word is the keyword to which both the phonetic and imagery links are attached.
  • In the second stage, a mental image is formed of the keyword interacting with a word representing the meaning of the foreign word.

The following example from Atkinson and Raugh demonstrates the procedure.

  • In the first stage, the Spanish word carta, meaning letter, is associated with the similar sounding English word cart. Thus, the phonetic link is established between the foreign word and a similar sounding, concrete, English keyword.
  • In the next stage, a mental image is formed of the keyword cart interacting with the word representing the meaning of the foreign word, letter.

For example, a shopping cart may be visualized carrying a letter. Later when given the Spanish word carta, through phonetic association one may recall the English keyword cart, thereby evoking the image of the shopping cart, and the word letter representing the meaning of the Spanish word. Conversely, the learner, given the word letter, may retrieve the Spanish word carta.

Obviously, selection of a suitable keyword is important. The keyword should:

  1. sound as much as possible like a part (not necessarily all) of the foreign word,
  2. be concrete and readily form a mental image,
  3. readily form a memorable mental image linking the keyword and the English translation and
  4. be different from other keywords used to learn a list of foreign vocabulary words.

Following an extensive review of the literature in the use of the mnemonic keyword method, Pressley, Levin and Delaney (1982) conclude that the evidence is overwhelming that use of the keyword method, as applied to recall of vocabulary definitions, greatly facilitates performance. The keyword mnemonic method has been successfully employed with:

  1. abstract and concrete words;
  2. words from different grammatical classes: action verbs and a variety of complex (for children) English nouns, such as surplus, verbs, e.g., persuade, and adjectives like quaint;
  3. various languages, such as Spanish, Russian, Latin, French, German, Navajo, Hebrew, Malay, and English;
  4. subjects from three years of age to adults; good and poor vocabulary learners as well as native and foreign English speakers;
  5. keywords provided by the experimenter, or generated by learners. In many experiments, no significant difference between the two sources of keywords has been found, but the results have been inconsistent. Each procedure may have different effects upon various populations of learners. For example, McGiven (1981) found that children with greater vocabulary knowledge benefitted more from generating their own keywords than from keywords provided by the experimenter, whereas children with less vocabulary knowledge experienced comparable benefits from generated and provided keywords. As it becomes more difficult to derive keywords for particular types of vocabulary words, it is probable that experimenter provided keywords would prove more effective (Levin, 1981).

In addition, the following has been found:

  1. Several studies of children in the second and sixth grades and of adults have shown that providing pictures of the interaction between the keyword and the word representing the meaning of the foreign word have led to higher recall than having subjects generate their own images.
  2. With respect to older children and adults, the cost of constructing interactive illustrations as described in (1), above, outweighs the slight benefit produced by such illustrations. On the other hand, if the materials to be linked are complex and do not lend themselves to readily generated images, or are used with populations for which one or more of the steps in the keyword method are difficult, prepared illustrations may serve an advantage.
  3. The keyword method using imagery to link the keyword to the meaning word is slightly superior to the sentence method in which the keyword and the meaning word are linked together in a sentence mnemonic.
  4. The keyword method has been successfully employed with whole classrooms and small groups of elementary and junior high school students.
  5. The method is versatile and has been employed with grade eight students to attach a persons name to a number of pieces of biographical information (Levin, Shriberg, Miller, McCormack and Levin 1980; Lewisohn, Danaher and Kikel, 1977).
  6. The method produces better results than those obtained by other more conventional methods of teaching vocabulary, such as (a) learning the words in context, (b) finding root words and (c) learning synonyms and antonyms (Johnson, 1974); or (d) presenting vocabulary words in meaningful sentence, (e) having students discriminate correct from incorrect use of the words in sentences and (f) having subjects generate their own meaningful sentences (Pressley, Levin and Miller, in press).

McCarty (1980) and Lewisohn, Danaher, and Kikel (1977) conducted studies demonstrating successful use of the keyword method to promote recall of name-face associations. Subjects in these studies generated keywords for names, e.g., con and rat for Conrad, and then formed an interactive image involving the keyword referent and a prominent facial feature. For example, one could imagine a prisoner, a con, riding a rat while sliding down a nose.