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Why Mnemonics Work

Remember This:
Mnemonics Work

From the Greek mnemonikos for “mindful” or “of memory,”  a mnemonic (“neh-MON-ik”) is a memory clue that works because it creates a link between a thing you’re already familiar with and the thing you want to remember.  Like a good metaphor, a mnemonic can tie an abstract idea to a concrete one, making the unfamiliar familiar.  And when you’re trying to remember a lot of information—like hundreds of new words—mnemonics are the way to go.

There are acronym mnemonics: HOMES to remember the names of the Great Lakes. And FOIL for multiplying binomials.  For centuries, FACE has helped musicians remember the notes in the spaces of the treble clef. And I still remember how cool I felt when I learned that SCUBA stands for “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.”

Did you learn to spell “arithmetic” by remembering “A rat in the house might eat the ice cream?” That’s an acrostic. And here’s another one: Vanna White eats flour but seldom bites baking soda. What’s that?  An acrostic for the ingredients for Toll House cookies! Vanilla, white sugar, eggs, flour, butter, salt, brown sugar, and baking soda. Why is it easier for someone to remember that nonsensical sentence than a list of ingredients? It just is. Researchers debate the “why” (visualization, patterns, organization, and cross-referencing), but they tend to agree on the “whether or not.”  Mnemonics work because for whatever the reasons, the brain clings to the associations— sometimes forever.

There are mnemonics that work because they rhyme:  “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492,” and “I before e except after c.” There are mnemonics that work because they mean something to your life (or mine) as in, “My brother, Greg, is very gregarious.” And there are those that work because we repeat them enough to be able to retrieve them quickly:  “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey,” and “Roy G. Biv.”

To create the “Remember This” clues in SAT Word Slam, I first check if there is a part of the word that has a relationship to the word’s meaning (“expunge is to wipe away, as you do with a sponge, “servile people serve other people,” “a cacophony sounds about as pleasant as a cough). These are often called “keyword” mnemonics. Sometimes I’ll defer to a straight rhyming link (“erudite is very bright” and “abrogate means eliminate”), although I use those sparingly because there may be many other words that also rhyme with the word in question. And sometimes I more or less invent an association between a word and its definition by writing a little story-rhyme that creates the link, as in the SAT Word Slam poem for “capricious” which describes a health-freak mom capriciously buying Capri Sun (a very sugary drink).

One thing about this word-slamming process that has delighted me is the discovery that the “stupid” clues are easily as effective as those that seem more clever or intellectual. That’s good news for you as you write your own mnemonics—let the nonsense roll! I’m sure I groaned as I wrote “Cantankerous is really crankerous,” and “When a star is at its zenith, you can barely seenith,” but these mnemonics work! Kids remember them long after learning the meanings of those words. And who can forget the “Remember This” clue written by Jake Dehovitz, one of my former students? “Because of apathy, I don’t give a crapathy.” Brilliant.

On every page of SAT Word Slam, the book, are the words “Now you,” followed by blank lines. In the book’s introduction I explained that whenever you can think of a mnemonic that works for you, you should write it on those lines. Kids often think of mnemonics that suit them better than the ones I invented, and I find it exciting to see my students thinking in mnemonic terms.  For the word “iconoclast,” I created the “Remember This” clue:  “Think iconoCLASH: an iconoclast clashes with icons. “ One of my students said, “My aunt Connie is kind of an iconoclast.” Perfect! Her mnemonic overruled mine.

Try to create mnemonics for every subject you can. You’ll be astounded by how well they help you remember facts about geography, medicine, languages, math, technology, history. . .  I recall many years ago helping a student to memorize dates (ugh) for a history class. To help her remember that Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both murdered in 1968, we said, “1968 was the year of hate.” Never forgot it.

To some people, the idea that we can remember better by remembering more seems counterintuitive. But the brain loves the associations, so keep em coming. Make your mnemonics specific, catchy, visual, and whenever possible, related to your life.

Remember This:
Study with mnemonic clues and you will sing no testing blues.

Jodi Fodor


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