Memory for foreign vocabulary as a function of learning strategy for receptive and productive vocabulary learning. Adapted from Ellis and Beaton (1993).

(particularly useful if you are revising for exams or learning a new language). And I have used my memory to earn considerable amounts of money at the blackjack table."

Mnemonic techniques

A basic notion in attempts to improve memory is that relevant previous knowledge is very useful in permitting the efficient organisation and retention of new information. Expert chess players can remember the positions of about 24 chess pieces, provided that the arrangement of the pieces forms a feasible game position (DeGroot, 1966; see Chapter 16). Unskilled amateur players can remember the positions of only about 10 pieces. These findings reflect differences in knowledge of the game rather than in memory ability, because experts do no better than amateurs when remembering the positions of randomly placed pieces.

Several mnemonic techniques to increase long-term memory have been devised. Most involve some or all of the requirements for superior memory skills identified by Ericsson (1988): meaningful encoding; retrieval structure; and speed-up. There are various peg systems, in which to-be-remembered items are attached to easily memorised items or pegs. The most popular peg system is the "one-is-a-bun" mnemonic based on the rhyme, "one is a bun, two is a shoe, three is a tree, four is a door, five is a hive, six is sticks, seven is heaven.". One mental image is formed by associating the first to-be-remembered item with a bun, a second mental image links a shoe with the second item, and so on. The seventh item can be retrieved by thinking of the image based on heaven. This mnemonic makes use of all Ericsson's requirements, and doubles recall (Morris & Reid, 1970). From a scientific rather than a practical perspective, it is unfortunate that we do not know which of Ericsson's three requirements is most responsible for the success of the one-is-a-bun mnemonic.

The keyword method has been applied to the learning of foreign vocabulary. First, an association is formed between each spoken foreign word and an English word or phrase sounding like it (the keyword).

Second, a mental image is created with the keyword acting as a link between the foreign word and its English equivalent. For example, the Russian word "zvonok" is pronounced "zvah-oak" and means bell. This can be learned by using "oak" as the keyword, and forming an image of an oak tree covered with bells.

The keyword technique is more effective when the keywords are provided than when learners must provide their own. Atkinson and Raugh (1975) presented 120 Russian words and their English equivalents. The keyword method improved memory for Russian words by about 50% over a short retention interval, and by almost 75% at a long (six-week) retention interval.

Ellis and Beaton (1993) pointed out an important limitation in the study by Atkinson and Raugh (1975). It was concerned only with receptive vocabulary learning (being able to produce the appropriate English word when presented with a foreign word), and did not consider productive vocabulary learning (producing the right foreign word when given an English word). Ellis and Beaton (1993) studied receptive and productive vocabulary learning of German words in four conditions: noun keyword; verb keyword; repetition (keep repeating the paired German and English words); and own strategy. As can be seen in Figure 8.8, the keyword technique (especially with noun keywords) was relatively more successful with receptive than with productive vocabulary learning.

Why was the keyword technique unsuccessful with productive vocabulary learning? As Pressley et al. (1980) pointed out, "There is no mechanism in the keyword method to allow retrieval of the whole word from the keyword." Why was the repetition strategy so successful with productive vocabulary learning? Repetition involves considerable use of the phonological loop, and the phonological loop plays a major role in language learning (Baddeley, Gathercole, & Papagno, 1998; see Chapter 6).

The SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review) technique can be used for learning complex, integrated material. The initial Survey stage involves skimming through the material while trying to construct a framework to aid comprehension. In the Question stage, learners ask themselves questions based on the headings in the material to make reading purposeful. The material is read thoroughly in the Read stage, with the questions from the previous stage being borne in mind. The material is re-read in the Recite stage, with learners describing the essence of each section to themselves after it has been read. Finally, learners review what has been learned. The general notion is that the Survey stage activates previous knowledge, with the subsequent stages involving active, goal-directed processes designed to integrate that knowledge with the stimulus material.


Memory researchers have traditionally focused on memory failures, but it is also important to consider situations in which there is very high memory performance. Ericsson and Kintsch (1995) added to our understanding of successful memory strategies, but theoretical progress has been slow. Most mnemonic techniques are effective, but we generally do not know why in detail.

Some of the techniques require time-consuming training, and are often of little applicability. For example, few of us need to learn the order of a list of unrelated words, which is what the one-in-a-bun mnemonic permits us to do. General memory aids (e.g., the SQ3R method of study) are less effective than specific memory aids, but unfortunately it is the general memory aids that have the greatest relevance to everyday life.

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