Keyword Mnemonic

Keyword Mnemonic Explained

The keyword mnemonic (first formalized by Atkinson in 1975) employs interactive visual imagery to assist recall of a series of to-be-remembered information. It has direct application to the teaching of foreign and native language vocabulary and meaning.

The essence of this method of mnemonic lies in the choosing of an intermediary word that binds what you need to remember to something you already know well. For example, to remember the name of the famous psychologist Alfred Binet, you could tie the name Binet to bonnet (the keyword) and imagine Binet in a bonnet.

To remember that aronga means direction in Maori, you could give the unfamiliar word aronga the familiar word wrong as a keyword, and tie that to the meaning with the phrase wrong direction. In another example, to remember that the Spanish word carta means letter (the sort you post), you select an English word that sounds as close to carta as you can get, and you make a mental picture that links that word to the English meaning &mdahs; thus, a letter in a cart.

Or perhaps, to extend the technique a little further, you want to remember that Canberra is the capital of Australia. Beer can is an obvious phrase for Canberra (particularly in light of the Australian’s notorious enjoyment of beer!), and you could connect it to Australia by substituting a familiar icon such as a kangaroo or a kola bear. Thus, your image for remembering this fact could be a kangaroo swigging back a can of beer.

Here are some Russian words (transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet) paired with acoustically similar English words, taken from Atkinson & Raugh’s 1975 study.

Russian wordAcoustically similar English word
gorágarage
durák two rocks
ósenocean
chelovékchilly back
krovátcravat
dvordivorce
kusókblue sock
rotrut
naródnarrow road
úzhinengine
Note that the important thing is acoustic similarity (Atkinson called it the acoustic link). It’s all about sounding alike, not what the actual letters are. Nor is it necessary to try and echo all of the word, although these words do. Obviously it is better if it does, but that is not always going to be possible. It is acceptable practice in those cases to echo only part of the word. For example, for górod (city), Atkinson & Raugh chose go as the keyword.

The next step is to create an imagery link with the meaning. Where it is difficult to create an image, you can make up a sentence or phrase that links the two. In the next chart, you can see the meanings.

Russian wordAcoustically similar English wordMeaning
gorágaragemountain
durák two rocksfool
ósenoceanautumn/fall
chelovékchilly backperson
krovátcravatbed
dvordivorceyard, court
kusókblue sockpiece
rotrutmouth
naródnarrow roadpeople
úzhinenginesupper

As a general rule, it is the thinking of the keyword that people find hard, not the creation of an image joining the two. But here are some suggestions so you get the idea:

  • A garage perched on the summit of a mountain.
  • A jester trapped between two rocks.
  • A torrent of autumn leaves falling on the wide ocean.
  • A person shivering as a snowball splashes over his bare back.
  • A cravat laid out ready for wear on a bed.
  • In a yard, a judge decrees, and a man and woman separate.
  • Someone is cutting a large blue sock into pieces.
  • Deep ruts in a once-muddy road; one curves itself into a smile and then speaks, like a mouth.
  • A mass of people walking along a road that narrows squeezing them tightly together.
  • Supper laid out on an exposed car engine.

If you have diligently tried to form these, or your own, images, you will have noticed that it is not entirely fair to call this an imagery link, or to make a distinction between an image and a sentence.

In truth, both words and pictures are important. You need to make sure the crucial words — the keyword and the meaning — are attached to the images. When you picture the people walking along a road that narrows, you need to be thinking narrow road, people; when you see the snowball splashing on the person’s bare back, you need to be thinking chilly back, person. It is after all the words that are critical — the images are there only to trigger the words.

So, you create a picture, and you think clearly about the words attached to the elements in the picture, and every time you recall the picture, you make sure you recall the words attached to the elements.

Another thing you might have noticed when creating these images, is the pictures that were described were very bare-bones. When you turned the sentence into an image, there will have been details that were not mention, details that are individuals to you, to the way you think and the experiences you have had. That’s good.

While you shouldn’t get bogged down in crafting very detailed images — indeed, you want to keep the images as simple as possible, so that the crucial elements are not hidden — you do want some details that make the images more memorable for you. How well these images work does depend on you putting in the effort to making them as clear and vivid as you can. That does not mean that you have to be a brilliant visualize to use this technique effectively!

As we have seen, the technique involves both words and images, which means that those who are highly visual can put more weight on images and those who are more verbal can put more weight on the words. But even those who do not think of themselves as particularly visual do benefit from images, so do make the effort! (There’s guarantee you will get better with practice).

Let’s try another example. Here’s a short list of Spanish words for the classroom. Before looking any further, try and come up with English words that sound similar.

SpanishKeyword ?Meaning
el lápizpencil
la papelerawastepaper bin
las tijerasscissors
la reglaruler
las cuentassums
el pupitre desk
el techoceiling
la paredwall
el suelofloor
el pincelpaintbrush

You can see the author’s suggestions below. According to the author, do note that they’re not necessarily any better than yours!

SpanishKeywordMeaning
el lápizlapelpencil
la papelerapuppetwastepaper bin
las tijerastigerscissors
la reglaregattaruler
las cuentasqueensums
el pupitre pupildesk
el techoteacherceiling
la paredparcelwall
el sueloswellingfloor
el pincelpencilpaintbrush

Now we make an image joining the keyword and the meaning:

  • A big pencil sticking out of a jacket’s lapel (where a flower or pin might be).
  • A puppet hanging over the edge of the wastepaper bin.
  • Baby tigers running around the classroom waving scissors.
  • A fleet of yachts on the water, giant rulers in place of their masts.
  • A queen, complete with crown, frowning over a slate with 2 + 4 written on it.
  • A pupil, very neatly dressed in an old-fashioned school uniform, sitting at a desk.
  • The teacher has floated up to the ceiling, and is stuck flat to it.
  • A big squashy parcel on the wall.
  • A giant swelling raising the floor.
  • A pencil with a paintbrush end instead of an eraser end.

Creating Good Keywords

There are several things to note about the words chosen by the author. First of all, they are all nouns. Moreover, they are concrete, not abstract, nouns. That is, they are things that you can visualize.

Regal, for example, would be a great keyword for regal, except that you can’t picture regal very well (you could of course picture a king or queen, or someone with great deportment, but would these images necessarily bring to mind the word regal? That’s the deciding issue.)

Of course, it is not always possible to find an appropriate concrete noun — that’s why sometimes you have to go with a sentence of phrase instead of a picture — but that’s what you should be trying first.

They are also all words that are familiar to the author. That’s where the individual choice comes in — what is a good word for me is not necessarily a good word for you.

You may, for example, find regalia a better word than regatta; if you’re familiar with lapis (lazuli) as a gem or pigment, that would be a better word than lapel. If you’re a birdwatcher, swallow would probably be a better word than swelling.

Note too, that based on the author’s preference, queen was chosen for cuentas. This goes back to what is said about acoustic similarity: although we don’t usually think of c and q having the same sound, the sound cu in Spanish is the same as the English sound qu.

Effective keywords need to not only sound like the target word and be able to form memorable links with the meaning, they also need to be different from each other — you don’t want to get confused between too-similar keywords. Where possible, they should also be concrete and familiar. (As noted, you can have a concrete word that symbolizes an abstraction, such as an image of a blindfolded woman holding a pair of scales for justice. The crucial thing is that the symbol recalls, for you, the abstract noun.)

Perhaps most importantly of all — more importantly, research suggests, than distinctiveness, vividness, concreteness — is relational and semantic information. This is why the emphasis now is on making interactive images or sentences, in which the keyword and definition interact in some way. It is not enough for the two images, the keyword and the meaning, to be in the same image; they must interact.

Thus we don’t have a garage and a mountain, we have a garage teetering on a mountain. The pupil sits at the desk; the puppet hangs out of the wastepaper bin. The better (the more active; the more meaningful) the interactive connection, the more effective it will be.

The advantage of a semantic connection may be seen in the following example, taken from an experimental study. Students in a free control condition (those told to use their own methods to remember) almost all used a keyword-type technique to learn some items. But unlike those in the keyword group, the keywords chosen by these subjects typically had some semantic connection as well.

Thus, for the Spanish word pestana, meaning eyelash, several people used the phrase paste on as a link, reflecting an existing association (pasting on false eyelashes). The keyword supplied to the keyword group, on the other hand, was pest, which has no obvious connection to eyelash. (It is also worth noting that verbal links were more commonly used by control subjects, rather than mental images.)

It seems likely that keywords that are semantically as well as acoustically related to the word to be learned will be remembered longer and more easily.

Relatedly, two studies that directly compared learning by context (a very popular strategy among teachers) and the keyword strategy found that the best method was one that combined both — that is, where students were given not only the keyword, but also example sentences, showing the word in context.

In other words, use of the keyword mnemonic should not blind you to the value of seeking and attaching meaning. Creating meaningful links should always take precedence over arbitrary links, however vivid and distinctive.

Note too, that although it is usually recommended that you should try to create bizarre images, the research evidence for this is mixed. Having bizarre images seems to help remembering immediately after learning only when there is a mix of bizarre and less unusual images, and may not particularly help over the long term at all.

It seems plausible that one reason for the conflicting experimental results is the fuzzy question of what exactly constitutes ‘bizarreness’. It may be that some forms of peculiarity help memory, while others don’t (and may even hinder it).

It does seem clear, however, that most people find it harder to come up with bizarre images. Accordingly, I would recommend that you should only use bizarre images when they come easily to mind.

These, then, are the dimensions along which keywords can be evaluated for effectiveness:

  • meaningfulness
  • acoustic similarity
  • imageability
  • distinctiveness
  • familiarity

The fact that I call these dimensions is a clue that keywords can, and will, vary considerably along these dimensions! In other words, you try the best you can, but sometimes you will have to accept keywords that measure poorly on these dimensions. That does not necessarily mean they will be ineffective.

For example, here are some keywords Atkinson & Raugh used in their study that were startlingly effective. For all of these the difference in recall between those learning in the keyword condition and the control condition was greater that 40% — for example, the probability that those in the keyword condition would remember that dévushka meant girl was 100% but only 50% for those in the control condition; the probability that those in the keyword condition would remember that vózdux meant air was 77% compared to 35% for those in the control condition.

RussianKeywordMeaning
dévushkadear vooshkagirl
vnimániepneumoniaattention
taréikadaddy elkplate
karandáshcar run dashpencil
edáya diefood
vózduxfuzz dukeair

It cannot be said that these are good examples of keywords according to most of the dimensions the author has described, and yet they worked very well. These are clear examples of the importance, and effectiveness, of the verbal part of the imagery link (Atkinson & Raugh also called this the mnemonic link, and this is perhaps a better term in some ways). Nevertheless, the reason why these keywords were so effective is mysterious, and emphasizes that the guidelines are only that. They are not rules. Ultimately, a good keyword is one that works for you.

Having said that, a study that used “good” keywords and “poor” ones showed not only that the quality of the keywords makes a significant difference, but that judges could accurately assess the memorability of keywords. So, as a general rule (inexplicable cases aside), you can probably usually tell whether a particular word will make a good keyword.

Have a look at all the words for which the difference in recall between those learning in the keyword condition and the control condition was greater than 40% (table underneath). The first word in this list had a difference of 62% (the probability that those in the keyword condition would remember that dvor meant yard was 81% but only 19% for those in the control condition), while the last word had a difference of 42% — 65% vs 23%.

RussianKeywordMeaning
dvordivorceyard
nachálonot shallowbeginning
kusókblue sockpiece
naródnarrow roadpeople
tolpátell pacrown
gorágaragemountain
gálstukgallstonenecktie
plóshchad’postagesquare
uslóvieYugoslaviacondition
duráktwo rocksfool
ósen’oceanautumn/fall
výxodboyhoodexit
zházhdajudgethirst
gólodgullethunger

In other words, those using keywords were still three times as likely to remember the word than those in the control condition.

Interestingly, the study found no particular disadvantage to using a keyword phrase — these were recalled about as well as single keywords.

Parts of speech are another matter.

In a later study by Atkinson & Raugh in which verbs and adjectives were used as well as nouns, while nouns and verbs were remembered at about the same rate, adjectives were noticeably harder to remember. While this could be related to the adjectives being on average longer words, it seems most likely to be related to the greater difficulty in visualizing them.

Choosing a Good Keyword
  • A good keyword will sound as much as possible like the to-be-learned word.
  • A good keyword will easily form an interactive image with the word meaning.
  • A good keyword will be sufficiently unlike other keywords to not be confused.
  • A good keyword will be a familiar word, easily recalled.
  • Nouns and verbs are usually better than adjectives.

Is it all about good keywords? How important is the image?

Atkinson & Raugh explored these questions a little further by adding two groups — those who only learned the acoustic link, and those who only learned the imagery link. From this study it appears that both acoustic link and the imagery link are important, and neither one is more important than the other. Moreover, the two links are independent — performance on one was unrelated to performance on the other.

But don’t forget that the mnemonic link doesn’t have to be an image. If a verbal link works better for you, that’s fine — just remember that the crucial characteristic is that it connects the keyword with its associated word in a way that is active and meaningful.

    Adapted from the book: Mnemonics for Study (2nd ed.), authored by Fiona McPherso