As you all know I am very interested in making sure that teachers help equip students with the skills and knowledge they need to help them become more autonomous learners. So I was very shocked to find out that not one of the 20 Korean adult learners of English I have just interviewed used any learning strategy related to vocabulary development apart from rote memorization.
Aside from this, ZERO of the 20 students I interviewed about learning strategies had been explicitly taught any methods or approaches that may aid them. Sure, they had been informed of some ideas, and some had even heard about how effective some strategies can be, but they had never actually been taught how to use them.
This makes me wonder how we, as teachers, can expect our learners to reach their full potential if we are not even investing time in teaching them how. (Do I need to give you the “teach a man to fish” parable?)
In an attempt to help rectify this I am going to use this post to present a range of mnemonic devices that you can teach your students in relation to learning vocabulary.
What is a mnemonic device?
In language learning the concept of mnemonics can be viewed as any form of memory technique or strategy used by learners to increase the retention and retrieval of lexical (vocabulary) items. These mnemonic devices usually require the student to deliberately relate the word to be learned with a previously learned word or piece of knowledge (linking the unfamiliar to the familiar), in order to make processing and retrieval easier.
For vocabulary acquisition three of the most common devices are:
The keyword method – which involves the L2 word being linked to a keyword, a sound-alike native word (the acoustic link), via a vivid image that involves both the foreign word and the native word (the imagery link).
E.g. Let’s pretend your student wants to remember the Spanish word “hola”. The student might make a mental image of a person hollering (English keyword) “Hola” (L2 target word) to their friend.
Note: This device can be hard to use with languages that do not have similar phonology. It may also be time consuming to create mental images for every word (however the process of just thinking of a keyword to match the target word may aid learning). A good keyword should have as much sound overlap with the L2 word as possible (e.g. hola / holler), easily lend itself to an image, and, if possible, have a semantic relationship with the word you want to learn.
The peg-word mnemonic – uses mental imagery that requires the items the student wishes to remember being ‘pegged to’, or associated with, certain images in a prearranged order. The best-known of the peg systems is probably the rhyming peg method, in which numbers from one to ten are associated with rhymes (e.g. one-bun, two-shoe, three-tree, and so on), and then associated with the target vocabulary.
E.g. Let’s pretend your student wants to remember three new words – “mischief”, “abolish”, and “sacred” - and that their corresponding peg-words are one-bun, two-shoe, and three-tree.
For the word mischief the student might imagine a naughty boy trying to steal a fresh bun from the oven. He is up to mischief. (One-bun-mischief)
For the word abolish the student might imagine someone throwing their smelly shoes into the trash. The shoes are being abolished. (Two-shoe-abolish)
For the word sacred the student might imagine a sacred cow sitting in a tree. (Three-tree-sacred)
Note: The peg-word method is probably best suited to students with more advanced L2 language skills as you need to be able to make connections using the L2. The peg-word system can be used with any peg-word, not just the common ones (e.g. instead of 1 – bun, 2 – shoe, three – tree, etc., you could use 1 – fun, 2 – crew, 3 – pea). Try to make your images as visual and vivid as possible. Remember that rhyme is a powerful heuristic – try and capitalize on it.
E.g. If a student is learning 5 new words (firm, stick, king, God, grass) they could use their house as the loci. They imagine opening the door (and imagine the door is really firm) and tripping over a stick as they walk inside. As they stand up they imagine they see a king sitting on the sofa talking to God about a game of golf they have both just played. They are commenting on the brightness of the green grass on the fairways.
Note: As this method often requires the formation of a story or narrative in the L2 it might be better suited to advanced level students. However, this is not to say that the system can’t be adapted to suit lower-level students.
Application of the mnemonics – some guiding principles
1. Not all students are the same: The effectiveness of the above strategies really depends on the learner’s personal characteristics (e.g., attitudes, level of personal control, motivation, prior knowledge, etc.), the vocabulary to be learned (e.g., type, complexity, difficulty, uniqueness, and generality), and the learning environment (e.g., the learning culture, support afforded to the learner, etc.).
2. Involve the student: Once the teacher has explained the different types of mnemonic devices, and taught the students how to use them, have the students use a trial and error approach to see which ones work for them.
3. Horses for courses: Not all mnemonic systems are suitable for the same tasks or students. Certain mnemonic devices might be more applicable at different stages of learning. For example, the keyword method might benefit lower-level students who need to remember a large number of fairly arbitrary nouns or adjectives, whereas advanced learners might be better able to utilize the loci method to paint vivid pictures in the L2 that incorporate new vocabulary items.
4. Evaluate and evolve: Never underestimate the value of re-evaluating and re-teaching the students mnemonic systems or learning strategies. Also, make sure you encourage your students to evaluate the techniques and strategies they are currently using to ensure they are still suitable and have not become ineffective or boring.
5. Sometimes it just won’t fit: Sometimes certain mnemonic devices are not amenable to learning certain words. For this reason, teachers should encourage their students to employ several techniques at the same time.
Despite their reported utility as noted in various studies, mnemonic approaches to L2 vocabulary development are not without their limitations and drawbacks
1. It’s not just L1 = L2: Although mnemonic devices can be useful for learning new vocabulary items, teachers should bear in mind that learning how to correctly use L2 vocabulary is not as simple as just learning a collection of L1-L2 word pairs.
2. A does not always equal B: The above mnemonic approaches emphasize a fixed one-to-one relationship between form and meaning. However, most vocabulary items not only have several meanings, but also have multiple dimensions of meanings (referential, syntactic, pragmatic, emotional, etc.). Mnemonics can be somewhat limited in teaching these differences.
3. Everything in moderation: Using mnemonics for every single word is probably not necessary, or advisable. In my experience, my students have achieved the best results by creating weekly mnemonic lists of about 10 – 15 words they would like to remember for a specific reason.
In closing I’d like to say that although mnemonic devices can prove useful in enhancing vocabulary learning, retention, and recall, these memory techniques should be used to complement vocabulary techniques that require the learner to use and experience the given lexical item in an act of meaningful communication (i.e. students need to do more than just remember lists of words, they need to encounter and use these words in acts of communication to ensure that they find their way into the student’s L2 language repertoire.).
Vocabulary learning approaches should include strategies for “using” (i.e. to apply this word in the correct way at the correct time to convey the intended meaning) as well as “knowing” a word (check out my post on retrieval practice).
I hope you have found this post useful and that you will take the time to teach your students some of these mnemonic devices.
Have a great day,
Keep English Real!
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