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V.3 #2 A Handout for Parents and Teachers - How Can the Keyword Method Improve Memory?

The terms short-term memory and working memory are shorthand for a variety of thought processes that capture, for a few seconds or moments, information. Unless a child with reading disabilities or other learning disabilities quickly makes an active, focused, and concentrated attempt to remember the information, he will quickly lose most, if not all of it.

So, how can a child with reading or other learning disabilities make sure he remembers the fragile, fleeting information in working memory? At the start, he needs to attend to what he wants to remember. Then he needs to keep concentrating on it. This means he needs to think about it. He needs to think about why it’s important to him. He needs to think about its meaning He needs to relate it to what he already knows. He needs to put it in his own words. He needs to picture it. He needs to frequently repeat it and think about it at the moment he’s exposed to it and periodically, throughout the next few weeks, and perhaps beyond. He needs to apply it, and while doing so, think about its meaning and use. He needs to think about how it’s similar and different from what he already knows and how it changes as he thinks about it and uses it.

Notice how the previous paragraph repeated the phrase, he needs. The paragraph repeated he needs for two reasons. First, to make clear that remembering requires ongoing work, work that the child with reading disabilities needs to do. Second, to show that remembering is a complex process. Like memory, it’s a multidimensional process that the struggling reader needs to frequently activate over time.

When working to remember something, the struggling reader can use several strategies. Here’s how Margo Mastopieri and Thomas Scruggs, two outstanding scholars on memory and learning disabilities, described how teachers can use the Keyword Method to help students remember that a barrister is a lawyer.

To help students remember that barrister is another word for lawyer, first create a keyword for the unfamiliar word, barrister. Remember, a keyword is a word that sounds like the new word and is easily pictured. A good keyword for barrister, then, is bear. Then, you create a picture of the keyword and the definition doing something together. It is important that these two things actually interact and are not simply presented in the same picture. Therefore, a picture of a bear and a lawyer in one picture is not a good mnemonic [memory strategy], because the elements are not interacting. A better picture would be a bear who is acting as a lawyer in a courtroom, for example, pleading his client’s innocence.

The good news is that the Keyword Method, like many memory methods, can be effective. But like all memory methods, the struggling reader needs to work at remembering what he wants to remember, needs to keep thinking about it, and needs to repeat it many times, over a long time.

If your child is in special education, be sure that his IEP has goals and objectives for memory instruction. Here’s a sample objective:

  • Memory Objective 1: Ryan will explain and will demonstrate how to successfully apply the Keyword Strategy to remembering 5 new social studies concepts. He will do this with new concepts on three successive occasions by the end of the first marking period.

For more information about how to help your child strengthen his memory, here are three practical resources that you and his teachers might want to study:

  • Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (1998). Enhancing school success with mnemonic strategies. Intervention in School & Clinic, 33(4), 201-208. Available at

  • Medina, J. (2008). Brain Rules. Seattle Washington: Pear Press.

  • The Access Center (2005). Using Mnemonic Instruction to Facilitate Access to the General Education Curriculum. Available at

Howard Margolis, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation and for the last 19-years he has edited the Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. Howard and Dr. Gary G. Brannigan, Professor of Psychology and Chancellor’s Scholar at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, have recently published a book on reading and advocacy for parents, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds. This column was originally published at

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