Using Keyword Mnemonics to Improve Ability to Memorize and Recall

Student Using Keyword Mnemonic Method. ML Harris Photographer's Choice/ Getty Images

What Is a Keyword Mnemonic?

A keyword mnemonic is an elaborative rehearsal strategy used to help encode information more effectively so that you can easily memorize and recall it. This approach has often been researched and has been shown to be an effective way to teach foreign language vocabulary as well as many other subjects and types of information.

    A keyword mnemonic involves two steps.

    • First, a keyword that sounds somewhat similar is chosen.
    • Second, the learner forms a mental image of that keyword being connected to the new word or piece of information.

    An Example

    In order to learn the Spanish word for grass, which is pasto, first think of the word pasta (the keyword I've chosen) and then imagine pasta noodles growing up out of the grass. When you are asked what the Spanish word for grass is, that should trigger the image of pasta growing up out of the grass and then help you recall the word pasto.

    How Effective Are Keyword Mnemonics?

    • Foreign Language Acquisition

    Several studies have been conducted on the use of keyword mnemonics in foreign language acquisition. The learning and recollection of foreign language vocabulary has been repeatedly demonstrated to be superior with the use of the keyword mnemonics method as compared to other methods of study.

    • Science and History

    An interesting study focused on using keyword mnemonics to teach science and history to eighth grade students. The students were randomly assigned to one of four groups where they practiced one of the following strategies- free study, pegword, method of loci and keyword. Their task in these groups was to learn specific uses for different types of metal alloys.

    After testing, the students in the keyword method group performed significantly better than the students in each of the other three groups.

    The researchers also wanted to test if the students were able to effectively apply the mnemonic strategy to a different area of information. The students were given Revolutionary War facts to learn, and once again, those in the keyword strategy group significantly outperformed the other students in their ability to recall the information.  

    Are Keyword Mnemonics Effective for People with Mild Cognitive Impairment or Early Dementia?

    Minimal research, if any, has been conducted on using the keyword mnemonic method to improve recall in people with mild cognitive impairment or early stage dementia.

    There have, however, been studies conducted on the use of mnemonic strategies in general for those with mild cognitive impairment. These studies have shown that mnemonic methods can improve the ability to learn and recall information, as well as the activity levels in the hippocampus, of people with MCI.


    Alzheimer's and Dementia. July 2014. Volume 10, Issue 4, Supplement, Pages P157–P158. A comparative study of mnemonic strategy and spaced retrieval training in patients with mild cognitive impairment.

    Applied Cognitive Psychology. Volume 21, Issue 4, pages 499–526, May 2007. Comparing and combining retrieval practice and the keyword mnemonic for foreign vocabulary learning.

    Current Psychology. March 2014, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 64-72. Receptive and Productive Recall with the Keyword Mnemonics in Bilingual Students.

    Hippocampus. Volume 22, Issue 8, pages 1652–1658, August 2012. Mnemonic strategy training partially restores hippocampal activity in patients with mild cognitive impairment.

    International Journal of Language and Linguistics. 2015; 3(1-1): 1-6. The magic of mnemonics for vocabulary learning of a second language.

    Journal of English Language Teaching and Learning. Volume 5, Issue 12, Autumn 2013, Page 1-15. The Effect of Mnemonic Key Word Method on Vocabulary Learning and Long Term Retention.

    Researcher Vol. 21 Issue 3. 2008. Richmond, A. S., Cummings, R., & Klapp, Transfer of the method of loci, pegword, and keyword mnemonics in the eighth grade classroom.

    Spackman, C. Ohio Dominican University. Mnemonics and Research on Using the Keyword Method in the Classroom. Accessed August 21, 2015.

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