Speed Reading

  • Speed-reading courses generally make extravagant claims that no independent research has justified.
  • However, speed-reading courses can improve your reading skills.
  • Speed-reading courses principally improve reading by teaching you how to efficiently skim.

Speed-reading techniques

Like many memory improvement courses, speed-reading programs tend to make inflated claims. Also like memory programs, most speed-reading programs proffer the same advice. In essence, speed-reading techniques involve the following components:

  • learning to see more in a single eye fixation
  • eliminating subvocalization ("saying" the words in your head as you read them)
  • using your index finger as a visual guide down the page
  • active reading

How reading works

The first thing you need to understand about reading is that it proceeds in jerks. Though we might think our eyes are traveling smoothly along the lines, this is an illusion. What happens is that the eyes gaze steadily for around 240 milliseconds (for a college student; less practiced readers take longer) and then jerk along (during which nothing is registered), then stop again. We "read" during the eye fixations.

Now the duration of these fixations is not hugely different between readers of different abilities - a first-grade child takes about 330 ms, which is not a vast difference when you consider the chasm between a first-grade reader and an educated adult. What does change significantly is the number of fixations. Thus, to read a 100-word passage, our first-grade reader takes some 183 fixations, while our college reader takes only 75. From this, it is calculated that the first-grade reader is taking in 0.55 of a word in each fixation (100/183), while the college reader is grasping 1.33 words in each fixation (100/75). And from this, the reading rate is calculated. [These figures are of course only indicative - different types of reading matter will obviously produce different figures; the degree to which comprehension is emphasized also makes a difference].

This is not, of course, the whole story. We also can pick up some information about letters on either side of the fixation point - about 10 to 11 letter positions right of the fixation point (or left, if you're reading in a script that goes from right to left) for specific letter information, and about 15 positions for information about word length.

It is these facts that set bounds on how fast a person can read. It has been calculated that, even being very generous with the figures (reducing the duration of fixation to 200 ms; using the upper limit of how many letters we can see at one time), the upper limit for reading speed would be about 900 wpm.

How speed-reading works

This, then, is one of the things speed-reading programs aim to tackle - to increase the span of letters you can see in one fixation, and to alter the number of fixations. It is not, however, clear that (a) you can in fact train people to increase this span, or (b) it would be useful to do so.

What research does show, is that speed readers, while they don't change the length of their fixations, do significantly differ from normal readers in the pattern of their jumps. One researcher concluded from the pattern of eye movements, that speed-readers are in fact skimming.

Now there is certainly nothing wrong with skimming. Indeed, it is an extremely valuable skill, and if you wish to improve your skill at skimming, then it may well be worthwhile for you to use a speed-reading program to do so. On the other hand, there is no particular evidence that such programs do anything more than modestly improve your skimming skills.

Testing speed-reading skills

One study compared expert speed-readers against other groups of superior readers. While the speed-readers were fastest (444 words per minute - a respectable speed (250 wpm is average) but nowhere near the claims made by many of these programs), their comprehension was relatively low (71%). [1]

Interestingly, the speed-readers' speed was about twice that when they knew their speed was being tested but their comprehension would not be. In other words, like the rest of us, they slowed down markedly when they wanted to understand what they were reading (and what otherwise is the point of reading something?)

Well, actually, there is one circumstance when you read and do not look to understand or retain what you read - which brings us back to skimming.

So, how did our speed-readers compare on skimming skills? Two tasks were used to assess these:

  • to pick the best title to passages presented at rates of 7500, 1500 and 300 wpm
  • to write summaries of 6000-word passages presented at 24000, 6000, 1500 and 375 wpm

The speed readers were in fact no better than the other groups at picking titles, and though they were best at writing summaries when the passages were presented at 1500 wpm, they were no better than the others at the other rates of presentation. In an extra test of recall of important details, the speed readers in fact did worst.

Reading for understanding

Please don't mistake me, I am not condemning speed-reading - merely their often extravagant claims. Learning to skim (if you have not developed this skill on your own, and many have) is clearly worthwhile. Learning not to subvocalize - yes, I think there's value in that too. I cannot speak to any research, but I know from my own experience that when I am reading slowly, either because the material demands the effort or because I wish to make the book last longer, I make myself 'hear' the words in my head. Subvocalization does slow you down - if you wish to read faster that you can speak, you need to discard the habit.

And lastly, active reading. Well, that deserves a whole chapter of its own. So for now, for those who don't know what it means, I shall simply define it. Active reading is about thinking when you read. It is about asking yourself (and the book) questions. It is about anticipating what is going to be said, and relating what you read to what you already know, and making inferences about what you've read. Active reading is about understanding, and thus it is an essential part of reading to remember.

So that too, is a very useful skill.

This article originally appeared in the July 2002 newsletter.


  • Underwood, G. & Batt, V. 1996. Reading and understanding. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Crowder, R.G. & Wagner, R.K. 1992. The Psychology of Reading. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.
  1. Carver, R.P. 1985. How good are some of the world's best readers? Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 389-419.

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The use of mnemonics

Let's look a little deeper into the value of mnemonics for knowledge acquisition. By “knowledge acquisition”, I mean the sort of information you learn from textbooks — information that is not personal, that you need for the long-term.

In this context, I believe the chief value of mnemonic strategies is to help you recall information that needs to be remembered in a particular order. Thus we use mnemonics to help us remember the order of the planets, the order of musical notes on the stave, the order of the colors in a rainbow.

Sometimes we impose an order to make something easier to remember. Thus, HOMES is an established acronym to help people remember the Great Lakes of North America (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). The order of the lakes has no meaning, except that, ordered in such a way, the initial letters form a word.

Notice that, of course, the sole assistance this acronym offers is to serve as a reminder cue, by telling you the initial letters of the lakes (and how many there are). You have to already know the names of the lakes.

Other mnemonics for the Great Lakes provide slightly more information, by involving a meaningful order. Thus, “Sam's Horse Must Eat Oats” orders the lakes according to size, and “Sergeant Major Hates Eating Onions” tells you the order of the lakes from west to east.

None of these help you remember the actual names of the lakes.

You could use words similar in sound to the lakes’ names, to help in remembering the names. However, this may well result in a mnemonic that is harder to remember. For example, “Superior Mitch Again sees a Herons’ Eyrie Entire” makes far less sense and is a much harder sentence to remember than “Sergeant Major Hates Eating Onions”.

All this emphasizes the main point about mnemonics, a point that sometimes gets a little lost in the shuffle. Mnemonics are adjuncts to learning. They have their place, and they are extremely effective for their purpose, but you have to remember that their purpose is very limited. Thus, if you wished to learn the Periodic Table of Elements (a question about ways of memorizing the Periodic Table was actually what provoked this article), then you could simply devise a first-letter mnemonic for the table, such as:

He Helps Limping Beggars Borrow Crutches Nicely Or Fairly Near. Naturally Magazines Allow Simple Punctuation Should Clear Arguments. (the first 18 elements, i.e., the first three rows of the Table).

And of course, this won’t help you in any way if you are not already very familiar with the names of the elements. Nor will it tell you anything at all about the significance of the Periodic Table.

Why would you want to memorize the Periodic Table of Elements?

I don’t mean this question to indicate contempt for the task, I actually believe deeply in the value of having core information tamped down, as it were, deep into your knowledge base. You cannot develop any expertise in a subject without knowing the core facts — really knowing, in the same way you know your name and birthdate and, maybe, the names of the players in your favorite sports team, or the words to a favorite song, or the names of the characters in your favorite TV show. (Mnemonics do not, in fact, play a role when you have that depth of knowledge. Once you know something at the level of instant accessibility, you don’t need a mnemonic. But mnemonics can be of great help in the early stages of developing your knowledge.)

But let’s return to the question. Why do I ask it? Because, whenever you want to learn something, you should ask yourself why. Not in the spirit of “does it really matter?”, but with the purpose of establishing precisely your goal. Notice the word “precisely”. It’s not enough to simply say, “Well, I need to know the Periodic Table because I’m studying chemistry, and the teacher tells me I have to know it.” Why does your teacher insist you learn the Periodic Table? How does it help your understanding of chemistry?

The Great Lakes of North America are simply several large bodies of water in geographical proximity. Knowing their names is of no deep significance, has no larger meaning. The Periodic Table, however, does have larger meaning. The order of elements is no arbitrary thing, and the placement of an element in a particular place in the Table is deeply significant.

The Periodic Table arranges the elements in such a way as to demonstrate the pattern underlying the physical and chemical similarities between elements. If you know where an element is in the Table, you know a great deal about the element.

To know that, however, you must understand a great deal more about the Periodic Table than simply the order of the elements. The order of the elements tells you nothing in itself.

So, what is it that you really need to know? Not the order, as such. Not simply: Hydrogen Helium Lithium Beryllium Boron Carbon Nitrogen Oxygen Fluorine Neon Sodium Magnesium Aluminum Silicon Phosphorus Sulfur Chlorine Argon Potassium Calcium Scandium Titanium Vanadium Chromium Manganese Iron Cobalt Nickel Copper Zinc Gallium Germanium Arsenic Selenium Bromine Krypton etc. The Periodic Table is a table for good reason, and you should never lose sight of that.

The rows have significance. The columns have significance. You don’t want to be able to say, “Oh, Scandium. That’s between Calcium and Titanium.” So?

More to the point would be if you knew Scandium was in row 4 and column 3B — that would tell you something (if you knew the significance of the rows and columns).

I’m not knocking the use of mnemonics to learn this sort of information. Mnemonics, used wisely, can facilitate your learning in the beginning. But, if the information you want to memorize has any meaning, you need to combine the use of mnemonic strategies with the use of strategies that are appropriate for meaningful learning. Never forget that the purpose of mnemonic strategies is to help with arbitrary information, facts that have no meaningful connection with each other.

Thus, to master the Periodic Table, you should look at the underlying principles and the meaningful clusters. Use mnemonics to memorize members of meaningful clusters, by all means. Just remember to clearly articulate precisely what you need to know (and then, redefine your goals at intervals as your knowledge grows), and organize the information in ways that support those precise goals. Then apply your mnemonics judiciously.

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Photographic Memory

Does photographic memory exist?

"Photographic" or eidetic memory is said to occur in some 8% of children, but almost all of these grow out of it. The phenomenon is extremely rare in adults, and indeed the very existence of photographic memory is still somewhat contentious. However, it may be that particular brain abnormalities can lead to ways of processing information that are dramatically different from the normal (see the case of Kim Peek).

Is a photographic memory desirable?

It is generally assumed that at any rate such a memory would be a great thing to have. I am by no means sure, however, that such is the case.

Let us dwell for a moment on Shereshevskii, a remarkable memorist made famous in a book by A.R. Luria. Although Shereshevskii did not have a “photographic” memory as such, he had a formidable ability to rapidly and easily commit vast amounts of information to memory, due to his amazing capacity for synaesthesia (the association of one sensory modality with another, so, e.g., you might “see” a tone as green) and ability to create visual images.

However, while advantageous in many regards, this ability did have a quite serious downside. Irrelevant details would tend to be included in his memory, and these would stand in the way of his subsequent recall. The confusion of so many conflicting images and sensory details would also often impede his understanding. He also had great difficulty in forgetting, and as time went on had increasing difficulty with the many items in his memory he did not wish to recall (although he did in fact hit on a solution to this: he imagined the information written on a blackboard, and pictured himself erasing it!)

Interestingly, some time ago, I received an email from a reader who knew an adolescent troubled with a “photographic memory” — she had a great deal of difficulty understanding what she was reading.

My point is that simply being a database, like a computer, is not sufficient in itself. Memory to be useful must be able to be used! And the most effective memory strategies are those that facilitate the use of memory, not simply its storage.

On this note, I would like to quote Mary Carruthers, who has written extensively about the medieval “arts of memory”. Carruthers argues convincingly that the idea that “the good of an art of memory is to remember things in order to regurgitate them by rote later on” is a misconception. On the contrary, “the orator’s “art of memory” was not in practice designed to let him reiterate exactly in every detail a composition he had previously fabricated. … [but] an art of invention, an art that made it possible for a person to … respond to interruptions and questions, or to dilate upon the ideas that momentarily occurred to him without becoming hopelessly distracted, or losing his place in the scheme of his basic speech.”

Similarly, the art of memory practiced by medieval monks involved “the making of mental images for the mind to work with as a fundamental procedure of human thinking.” The technique was designed not simply to provide “immediate access to whatever piece of stored material one may want, [but] also provides the means to construct any number of cross-referencing, associational links among the elements.”


  • Carruthers, M. 1998. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric. and the Making of Images. 400-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ericsson, K.A. (1985). Memory skill. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 39, 188-231.
  • Higbee, Kenneth L. Your memory. How it works and how to improve it. NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988.
  • Luria, A.R. 1968. The Mind of a Mnemonist. New York: Basic Books.
  • Thompson, C. P., Cowan, T.M. & Frieman, J. Memory search by a memorist. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Ass., 1993.

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Memory Champions

A study of exceptional memorizers has revealed no superior cognitive abilities, and no structural differences in their brains.It has revealed differences in brain activity that seem to reflect the use of a spatial mnemonic; 9 of the 10 memory champions confirmed their use of the method of loci.Despite many years of practice in mnemonics, and impressive performances in memorizing, there were no increases in gray matter, as there have been in the cases of those with expert knowledge.

In 2002, a British study scanned the brains of ten "superior memorizers" — eight leading contenders in the World Memory Championships, and two individuals previously studied for their extraordinary memory accomplishments — all people that had demonstrated truly impressive feats of memory, in terms of the ability to quickly memorize hundreds of numbers or unrelated words. The ten "memory champions" were matched with ten controls, who had no memory capabilities out of the ordinary.

Testing revealed that the memory champs scored about the same as the controls on general cognitive ability, but did, unsurprisingly, score higher on working memory and long-term verbal memory. They didn't differ in visual memory.

Participants in the study were shown three sets of images; faces, snowflakes and three-digit numbers. The numbers, being the sort of items which the memory champs excel at, were expected to show large performance differences between the two groups. Faces are a class of stimuli for which most people have a considerable expertise in, so a smaller difference was expected. And snowflakes are a very difficult visual pattern to verbalize, and it was expected that both groups would be equally poor at remembering them.

Their brains were scanned while the participants were asked them to remember which ones they had seen, and the order they were shown in. The expected differences in performance were indeed found, allowing the researchers to differentiate between brain activity that reflected the learning prowess itself from the activity reflecting the amount of information learned.

A number of brain regions were of course active in all tasks, for both groups. But there were differences between the two groups, both in terms of greater activity in some regions, and, more interestingly, in terms of the memory champs using brain regions not used by the controls. Most particularly, regardless of task and regardless of performance, the memory champs engaged the left medial superior parietal gyrus, bilateral retrosplenial cortex, and right posterior hippocampus. These areas are all known to be involved in spatial memory and navigation.

On questioning, nine out of ten memory champions advised that they used the loci mnemonic for some or all of the tasks.

The researcher concluded, "Superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or structural brain differences. Rather, we found that superior memorizers used a spatial learning strategy, engaging brain regions such as the hippocampus which are critical for memory and for spatial memory in particular."

As another researcher commented, "If you use the right technique, with a lot of application and hard work you can improve your memory. It certainly doesn't look like it's a question of neurological machinery."

The most interesting finding from this study was that, among the memory champs, there were no changes in gray matter volume, despite the fact that these people had been practicing mnemonics for an average of 11 years (a range of 3 to 38.5). Similar brain scans of musicians and London taxi drivers have found significant increases in gray matter volume as a function of number of years practice/experience. This finding would seem to support the view that practice in rote learning strategies doesn't have the benefits of strategies that develop understanding and mastery of meaningful knowledge, in terms of building new connections and growing new neurons.

On that note, you might like to read my article on photographic memory (and whether it's really as desirable as all that.)


  1. Maguire, E.A., Valentine, E.R., Wilding, J.M. &Kapur, N. 2002. Routes to remembering: the brains behind superior memory. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 90-95.
  2. Brain scan clues to 'memory marvels'. BBC article, 16 December 2002.
  3. Master memories are made not born. New Scientist article, 15 December 2002.

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Human memory is a complex and varied phenomenon, and we could delve into its mysteries every day for a hundred years and still have plenty to talk about. But if I had to pick one factor that was absolutely crucial to the operation of memory, I would pick the deceptively simple concept of similarity. Similarity.

We all think we know what that means. An orange is similar to a mandarin; a zebra is similar to a horse; a cup is similar to a glass; my son is similar to his brother. A car is similar to an elephant.


Well, I might think a car was similar to an elephant. Maybe I’m imagining an elephant thundering toward me, kicking up dirt, unstoppable. Or maybe my perceptions are confused. But whether there’s a logical reason for my perception of similarity or not, whether my perception of similarity is shared with other people or not, all that is required for my brain to make the connection is ... that I perceive a connection.

Similarity — perceived similarity — is a crucial ingredient to the connections made in your head. Similarity enables us to make connections that transcend space and time, and enables us to strengthen connections made as a result of a juxtaposition of space and time.

Thus, when you meet a person and he tells you his name is Tom Brown, the first connection is made simply because the name and person are coincident in space and time. And if you leave it there, that connection will most likely be too weak to retrieve on a later occasion.

You can (and should, if you want to remember) employ another critical element to strengthen the connection: repetition (which impacts on the perceived familiarity of the information, but that’s another story). But the new information (this person is named Tom Brown) will be much more firmly lodged in your database, and much easier to find, if you make other connections, connections to information already stored in your memory. Thus, you might associate the name with the book “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, based on the similarity of names. There might be some physical characteristic of this new person that you can link to a character in the book. If so, you are much more likely to be able to remember this name when you meet the person again. However, if you are barely familiar with the book, and have to stretch your imagination to make any further connection, such as with the characters in the book, then this similarity of names won’t greatly help you.

The important thing when connecting new information to information already existing in your database, is to ensure the existing information is itself easily retrievable, and that the connections you make are not too obscure.

So, to make new memories easily retrievable:

  • look for similarities to existing memories
  • look for similarities that are obvious to you (what other people think doesn’t matter in the slightest)
  • choose existing memories that are themselves easily retrievable

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 newsletter.

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Using the keyword method to learn vocabulary

  • The keyword mnemonic is undoubtedly an effective means of learning the words of a foreign language.
  • How well you remember depends on how well you learned them, not on whether you have learned the words using a keyword mnemonic or rote repetition or some other method.
  • Even using a keyword mnemonic, you still need to rehearse the information to be learned.
  • The keyword mnemonic is not always the best method of learning particular words.
  • Skilled learners may be best to use the keyword mnemonic selectively, for particularly difficult words.
  • The keyword mnemonic requires individual instruction and practice, to use effectively.
  • Using a verbal (sentence) link is at least as effective as an image, and is easier for many people.
  • Whether using a sentence or an image, the critical factor is that the keyword interact with the definition or own-language word.

In the mid-seventies, Raugh and Atkinson had remarkable results using the keyword method to teach Russian vocabulary to college students. While later studies have not tended to find such dramatic results, nevertheless, a large number of studies have demonstrated an advantage in using the keyword mnemonic to learn vocabulary.

Some researchers have become huge fans of the strategy. Others have suggested a number of limitations. Let’s look at these.

Remembering for the long term

The keyword method is undeniably an effective method for accelerating learning of suitable material. Nor is there any doubt that it improves immediate recall. Which can be useful in itself. However, what people want is long-term recall, and it is there that the advantages of the keyword method are most contentious1.

While many studies have found good remembering a week or two after learning using the keyword mnemonic, others have found that remembering is no better one or two weeks later whether people have used the keyword mnemonic or another strategy. Some have found it worse.

It has been suggested that, although the keyword may be a good retrieval cue initially, over time earlier associations may regain their strength and make it harder to retrieve the keyword image. This seems very reasonable to me — any keyword is, by its nature, an easily retrieved, familiar word; therefore, it will already have a host of associations. When you’re tested immediately after learning the keyword, this new link will of course be fresh in your mind, and easily retrieved. But as time goes on, and the advantage of recency is lost, what is there to make the new link stronger than the other, existing, links? Absolutely nothing — unless you strengthen it. How? By repetition.

Note that it is not the keyword itself that fails to be remembered. It is the image. The weakness then, is in the link between keyword and image. (For example, the Tagalog word araw, meaning sun, is given the keyword arrow; when tested, araw easily recalls the keyword arrow, but the image connecting arrow with sun is gone). This is the link you must strengthen.

The question of the relative forgetting curves of the keyword mnemonic and other learning strategies is chiefly a matter of theoretical interest — I don’t think any researcher would deny that repetition is always necessary. But the “magic” of the keyword mnemonic, as espoused by some mnemonic enthusiasts, downplays this necessity. For practical purposes, it is merely sufficient to remember that, for long-term learning, you must strengthen this link between keyword and image (or sentence) through repeated retrieval (but probably not nearly as often as the repetition needed to “fix” meaningless information that has no such mnemonic aid).

One final point should be made. If the material to be learned is mastered to the same standard, the durability of the memory — how long it is remembered for — will, it appears, be the same, regardless of the method used to learn it2.

Are some keyword mnemonics easier to remember than others?

A number of factors may affect the strength of a keyword mnemonic. One that’s often suggested is whether or not the mnemonic is supplied to the student, or thought up by them. Intuitively, we feel that a mnemonic you’ve thought up yourself will be stronger than one that is given to you.

One study that compared the effectiveness of keywords provided versus keywords that are self-generated, found that participants who were required to make up their own keywords performed much worse than those who were given keywords3. This doesn’t answer the question of the relative durability, but it does point to how much more difficult the task of generating keywords is. This has been confirmed in other studies.

The quality of the keyword mnemonic may affect its durability. Mnemonics that emphasize distinctiveness, that increase the vividness and concreteness of the word to be learned, are remembered less well over time than mnemonics that emphasize relational and semantic information (which is why the emphasis in recent times is on making interactive images or sentences, in which the keyword and definition interact in some way). Having bizarre images seems to help remembering immediately after learning (when there is a mix of bizarre and less unusual images), but doesn’t seem to help particularly over the long term.

The advantage of a semantic connection may be seen in the following example, taken from an experimental study3. Students in a free control condition (those told to use their own methods to remember), almost all used a keyword-type technique to learn some items. Unlike those in the keyword group, the keywords chosen by these subjects typically had some semantic connection as well. (The use of somewhat arbitrary keywords is characteristic of the strategy as originally conceived by Atkinson). Thus, for the Spanish word pestana, meaning eyelash, several people used the phrase paste on as a link, reflecting an existing association (pasting on false eyelashes). The keyword supplied to the keyword group, on the other hand, was pest, which has no obvious connection to eyelash. (It is also worth noting that verbal links were more commonly used by control subjects, rather than mental images.)

It has been suggested that keywords that are semantically as well as acoustically related to the word to be learned might prove more durable.

Controlled presentation

For experimental reasons, the information to be learned is usually presented at a fixed rate, item by item. There is some suggestion that an unpaced situation, where people are simply presented with all the information to be learned and given a set time to study it, allows better learning, most particularly for the repetition strategy. The performance of rote repetition may have been made poorer by constraining it in this way in some experimental studies.

An unpaced study time is of course the more normal situation.

The importance of one-to-one instruction and the need for practice

What is clear from the research is that instruction in the technique is vitally important. Most particularly, the superiority of the keyword mnemonic tends to be found only when the students have been treated individually, not when they have been instructed as a group. At least, this is true for adults and adolescents, but not, interestingly, for children. Children can benefit from group instruction in the technique. Why this is, is not clear. However, I would speculate that it may have something to do with older students having already developed their own strategies and ideas. More individually-oriented instruction might be needed to counteract this depository of knowledge.

It might also be that children are given more direction in the using of the technique. That is, they are given the keywords; the images may be described to them, and even drawn. Clearly this is much simpler than being required to think up your own keywords, create your own links.

It does seem clear that durable keyword images require quite a lot of practice to create. It has been suggested that initially people tend to simply focus on creating distinctive images. It may only be with extensive practice that you become able to reliably create images that effectively integrate the relational qualities of the bits of information.

Some words benefit more from the keyword mnemonic

It has been suggested that the keyword mnemonic works effectively only on concrete words. For the most part, researchers only use concrete words (which are easily imageable). Studies which have compared the two are rare. The weight of the evidence is probably against the view that the mnemonic should be restricted to concrete words, but it may well be more difficult to come up with good, concrete images for abstract words. However, verbal mnemonics (a sentence can link the keyword with the definition) don’t suffer the same drawback.

In experimental studies, the words are usually vetted to make sure they’re not “easy” to learn because of obvious acoustic or graphic similarities with familiar words. The implication of this for real world learning, is that there is no reason to think that such words require a keyword mnemonic.

How important is the image?

Most research has focused on using an image to link the keyword with the definition. One study which compared the using of an image with the use of a sentence (in a study of children’s learning of Spanish words) found no difference (the sentence mnemonic in fact scored higher, but the difference was not significant)4.

Is the keyword mnemonic of greater benefit to less able students?

Several researchers have suggested that the keyword mnemonic might be of greater benefit to less able students, that the keyword mnemonic may be a means by which differences in learning ability might be equalised. One study that failed to find any superiority in the keyword mnemonic among college students, pointed to the high SAT scores of their students. They suggested that those studies which have found a keyword superiority using college students, have used students who were less verbally able5.

What seems likely, is that teaching the keyword mnemonic to more able students has less impact than teaching it to less able students, because the more able students already have a variety of effective strategies that they use. It is worth noting that, just because students are instructed to use a particular strategy, that doesn’t mean that they will. In one experimental study, for example, when subjects were asked about the strategies they used, 17 out of the 40 control subjects (instructed to use their own methods) used the keyword method for at least some items, while every keyword subject used the keyword method for at least seven items (implying they didn’t always). In that study, it was found that, for the control subjects, the probability of recalling keyword-elaborated items was .81 vs .45 for other items; while for the keyword group, the probability of recall for keyword-elaborated items was .80 vs .16 for those items for which they didn’t use a keyword mnemonic6.

Comparing the keyword mnemonic to other strategies

As a general rule, experimental studies into the effectiveness of the keyword mnemonic have compared it to, most often, rote repetition, or, less often, “trying your hardest to remember” (i.e., your own methods). It is not overwhelmingly surprising that the keyword mnemonic should be superior to rote repetition, and the study quoted just above reveals why comparisons with “free” controls might show inconsistent (and uninformative) results.

Studies which have directly compared the keyword method to other elaborative strategies are more helpful.

A number of studies have compared the keyword strategy against the context method of learning vocabulary (much loved by teachers; students experience the word to be learned in several different meaningful contexts). Theory suggests that the context method should encourage multiple connections to the target word, and is thus expected to be a highly effective strategy. However, the studies have found that the keyword method produces better learning than the context method.

It has been suggested that students might benefit more from the context method if they had to work out the meaning of the word themselves, from the context. However, a study which explored this possibility, found that participants using the context method performed significantly worse than those using the keyword mnemonic5. This was true even when subjects were given a test that would be thought to give an advantage to the context method — namely, subjects being required to produce meaningful sentences with the target words.

The same researchers later pursued the possibility that the context method might, nevertheless, prove superior in long-term recall — benefiting from the multiple connections / retrieval paths to the target word. In an experiment where both keyword and context groups learned the words until they had mastered them, recall was no better for the context group than it was for the keyword group, when tested one week later (on the other hand, it was no worse either)2.

Two more recent studies have confirmed the superiority of the keyword mnemonic over the context method7.

Another study looked at the question of whether a combined keyword – repetition strategy (in which subjects were told to use repetition as well as imagery when linking the keyword to the English translation of the word to be learned) was better than the keyword strategy on its own. They failed to find any benefit to using repetition on top of the imagery8.

Given the procedures used, I can see why this might occur. Imagine you’re trying to learn that carta is Spanish for letter. The obvious keyword is cart. Accordingly, you form an image of a cart full of letters. However, having constructed this image, you are now told to repeat the salient words “carta - letter” over and over to yourself. It’s not hard to see that many people might completely lose track of the image while they are doing this. Thus the repetition component of the strategy would not be so much augmenting the imagery link, as replacing it. Repetition of the link you are supposed to be augmenting (a cart full of letters) might be more useful (in fact, I personally would repeat to myself: “cartaletter; a cart full of letters”).

Backward recall

The value of the keyword mnemonic is of course, in forward recall — that is, in the above example, you learned that carta meant letter. When you see the word carta, the keyword mnemonic will help you remember that it means letter. But if you are asked for the Spanish for letter, how helpful will the keyword mnemonic be then?

A study that looked at this question found that the keyword mnemonic was no worse for backward recall than the other strategies they employed8. On the other hand, it was no better, either — and this despite being superior for forward recall (remembering the English when given the Spanish). The failure of the method was not due to any difficulty in recalling the keyword itself. Remember, the English meaning and the keyword are tied together in the mnemonic image, so it is not surprising that remembering the keyword given the English was as high as remembering the English given the keyword. But the problem is, of course, that generating the (unfamiliar) Spanish word from the keyword is much harder than remembering the (familiar) keyword from the Spanish.

Using the keyword mnemonic to remember gender

One other aspect of vocabulary learning for many languages is that of gender. The keyword mnemonic has successfully been used to remember the gender of nouns, by incorporating a gender tag in the image9. This may be as simple as including a man or a woman (or some particular object, when the language also contains a neutral gender), or you could use some other code — for example, if learning German, you could use the image of a deer for the masculine gender.

Why should the keyword mnemonic be an effective strategy?

Let’s think about the basic principles of how memory works.

The strength of memory codes, and thus the ease with which they can be found, is a function largely of repetition. Quite simply, the more often you experience something (a word, an event, a person, whatever), the stronger and more easily recalled your memory for that thing will be.

This is why the most basic memory strategy — the simplest, and the first learned — is rote repetition.

Repetition is how we hold items in working memory, that is, “in mind”. When we are told a phone number and have to remember it long enough to either dial it or write it down, most of us repeat it frantically.

Spaced repetition — repetition at intervals of time — is how we cement most of our memory codes in our long-term memory store. If you make no deliberate attempt to learn a phone number, yet use it often, you will inevitably come to know it (how many repetitions that will take is a matter of individual variability).

But most of us come to realize that repetition is not, on its own, the most effective strategy, and when we deliberately wish to learn something, we generally incorporate other, more elaborative, strategies.

Why do we do that? If memory codes are strengthened by repetition, why isn’t it enough to simply repeat?

Well, it is. Repetition IS enough. But it’s boring. That’s point one.

Point two is that making memory codes more easily found (which is after all the point of the exercise) is not solely achieved by making the memory codes stronger. Also important is making lots of connections. Memory codes are held in a network. We find a particular one by following a trail of linked codes. Clearly, the more trails lead to the code you’re looking for, the more likely you are to find it.

Elaborative strategies — mnemonic strategies, organizational strategies — work on this aspect. They are designed to increase the number of links (connections) a memory code has. Thus, when we note that lamprey is an “eel-like aquatic vertebrate with sucker mouth”, we will probably make links with eels, with fish, with the sea. If we recall that Henry I was said to have died from a surfeit of lampreys, we have made another link. Which in turn might bring in yet another link, that Ngaio Marsh once wrote a mystery entitled “A surfeit of lampreys”. And if you’ve read the book, this will be a good link, being itself rich in links. (As the earlier link would be if you happen to be knowledgeable about Henry I).

On the other hand, in the absence of any knowledge about lampreys, you could have made a mnemonic link with the word “lamp”, and imagined an eel-like fish with lamps in its eyes, or balanced on its head.

So, both types of elaborative strategy have the same goal — to increase the number of connections. But mnemonic links are weaker in the sense that they are arbitrary. Their value comes in those circumstances when either you lack the knowledge to make meaningful connections, or there is in fact no meaningful connection to be made (this is why mnemonics are so popular for vocabulary learning, and for the learning of lists and other ordered information).

Where does that leave us?

  • Memory codes are made stronger by repetition
  • Repetition is enough on it’s own to make a strong memory code
  • Achieving enough repetitions, however, is a lengthy and often boring process
  • Memory codes are also made easier to find by increasing the number of links they have to other memory codes
  • Elaborative strategies work on this principle of making connections with existing codes
  • Some elaborative strategies make meaningful connections between memory codes — these are stronger
  • Mnemonic strategies make connections that are not meaningful
  • Mnemonic strategies are most useful in situations where there are no meaningful connections to be made, or you lack the knowledge to make meaningful connections

Mnemonic strategies have therefore had particular success in the learning of other languages. However, if you can make a meaningful connection, that will be more effective. For example, in Spanish the word surgir means to appear, spout, arise. If you connect this to the word surge, from the Latin surgere, to rise, then you have a meaningful connection, and you won’t, it is clear, have much trouble when you come across the word. However, if your English vocabulary does not include the word surge, you might make instead a mnemonic connection, such as surgir sounds like sugar, so you make a mental image involving spouting sugar. Now, imagine each of these situations. Imagine you don’t come across the word again for a month. When you do, which of these connections is more likely to bring forth the correct meaning?

But of course, it is not always possible to make meaningful connections.

The thing to remember however, is that you haven’t overcome the need for repetition. These strategies are adjuncts. The basic principle must always be remembered: Memory codes are made stronger by repetition. Links are made stronger by repetition. If you don’t practice the mnemonic, it won’t be remembered. The same is true for any connection, but meaningful connections are inherently stronger, so they don’t need as many repetitions.

I would also note that the experimental research invariably involves very limited numbers of words to be learned. While this is entirely understandable, it does raise the question of the extent to which these findings are applicable to real world learning situations. If you are learning a new language, you are going to have to learn at least 2000 new words. Does the keyword mnemonic hold up in those circumstances? The keyword mnemonic has been used in real world situations (intensive language courses), but these are not experimental situations, and we must be wary of the conclusions we draw from them. The keyword strategy does take time and effort to implement, and may well have disadvantages if used to excess. Some words lend themselves to other techniques. At least for more experienced students (who will have a number of effective strategies, and are capable of applying them appropriately) the keyword strategy is probably best used selectively, perhaps for particularly difficult items.


1. Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. 1992. The Effect of Imagery-Based Mnemonics on the Long-Term Retention of Chinese Characters.

Wang, A.Y. et al. 1989. Do Mnemonic Devices Lessen Forgetting? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association (97th, New Orleans, LA, August 11-15, 1989).

Wang, A.Y. et al. 1992. Keyword Mnemonic and Retention of Second-Language Vocabulary Words.

Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. 1995. Effect of keywords on long-term retention: help or hindrance? Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 468-75.

Gruneberg, M.M.1998. A commentary on criticism of the keyword method of learning foreign languages. Applied Cognitive Psychology , 12, 529-532.

Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. 1999. In defence of keyword experiments: a reply to Gruneberg's commentary

2. McDaniel, M.A., Pressley, M. & Dunay, P.K. 1987. Long-term retention of vocabulary after keyword and context learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 87-9.

3. Hall, J.W., Wilson, K.P. & Patterson, R.J. 1981. Mnemotechnics: Some limitations of the mnemonic keyword method for the study of foreign language vocabulary. Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 345-57.

4. Pressley, M., Levin, J.R. & Miller, G.E. 1981. The keyword method and children’s learning of foreign vocabulary with abstract meanings. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 34, 283-87.

5. McDaniel, M.A. & Pressley, M. 1984. Putting the keyword method in context. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 598-609.

6. Pressley, M., Levin, J.R., Digdon, N., Bryant, S.L. & Ray, K. 1983. Does method of item presentation affect keyword method effectiveness? Journal of Educational Psychology, 75, 686-91.

7. Jones, M.S., Levin, M.E., Levin, J.R. & Beitzel, B.D. 2000. Can vocabulary-learning strategies and pair-learning formats be profitably combined? Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 256-62.

Shing, Y.S. & Heyworth, R.M. 1992. Teaching English Vocabulary to Cantonese-speaking Students with the Keyword Method. Education Journal, 20, 113-129.

8. Pressley, M., Levin, J.R., Hall, J.W., Miller, G.E. & Berry, J.K. 1980. The keyword method and foreign word acquisition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 163-73.

9. Desrochers, A., Gelinas & Wieland, L.D. 1989. An application of the mnemonic keyword method to the acquisition of German nouns and their grammatical gender. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 25-32.

tags strategies: 

External memory aids

What are external memory aids?

External memory aids include such strategies as:

  • taking notes
  • making shopping lists
  • entering appointments in a diary or on a calendar
  • writing a memo to yourself
  • writing on the back of your hand
  • taking photographs
  • using clocks, oven timers, alarms on watches, etc
  • putting objects in a conspicuous place
  • putting a knot in your handkerchief
  • asking someone to help you remember

Making lists

Making lists or writing reminder notes to yourself, is one of the most widespread external memory aids. It seems that list-making is primarily helpful as a way of organizing (encoding) information, rather than its more obvious role in retrieving. More often than not, people do not actually use the list or note to ‘remember’. The act of making it is sufficient to aid later recall.

However, there are situations where list-making appears appropriate but is not in fact the best strategy. For example, one study found that waitresses who went from table to table to take drink orders were much better at remembering the orders if they visualized the drinks in particular locations rather than when they wrote the orders down1. It is perhaps the time pressure in that kind of situation that makes an internal strategy more effective than an external one.

When to use mental strategies

  • when you can’t rely on external prompts (e.g., acting in a play)
  • when external prompts are difficult to prepare (e.g., because you lack writing materials) or hard to use (you have OOS in your writing hand)
  • when you didn’t expect to need to recall something, and have nothing prepared
  • when using external aids interferes with other behavior (understanding what’s going on; taking orders; etc)
  • when carrying external aids would be undesirable or inconvenient (e.g., when driving)
  • when the interval between learning and recall is very short (as when you need to remember a phone number only long enough to dial it)

When to use external memory aids

  • when a number of interfering activities occur between encoding and recall (e.g., having to remember to buy groceries after work)
  • when there is a long time between encoding and recall (e.g., needing to make a doctor’s appointment two months in the future)
  • when internal aids are not trusted to be sufficiently reliable (as when precise details need to be remembered; or strict timing — when to check a cake in the oven)
  • when information is difficult, and doesn’t cohere easily (e.g., remembering lectures)
  • when there is insufficient time to properly encode information
  • when memory load is to be avoided (as when you are attending to more than one activity)

How effective are external memory aids?

In general, external aids are regarded as easier to use, more accurate, and more dependable, than mental strategies. However, with the exception of note-taking, there has been little research into the effectiveness of external memory aids. The most that can be said is that, by and large, people believe they can be effective (with the emphasis, perhaps, on ‘can’).

One problem with external aids is that most of them are highly specific in their use. Their effective use also requires good habits. It’s no good remembering to make a note in your diary if you don’t remember to look in it.


  • Intons-Peterson, M.J. & Fourrier, J. 1986. External and internal memory aids: when and how often do we use them? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115, 267-280.
  • Intons-Peterson, M.J. & Newsome, G.L. III. 1992. External memory aids: effects and effectiveness. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  1. Bennett, H.L. 1983. Remembering drinks orders: The memory skills of cocktail waitresses. Human Learning, 2, 157-169.

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tags strategies: 

Learning a new skill

To master a skill:

  • Practice it until you reach the stage where actions follow automatically
  • Practice more efficiently, by:
    • varying your actions
    • providing immediate feedback
    • spacing out your practice

Remembering a skill is entirely different from remembering other kinds of knowledge. It’s the difference between knowing how and knowing that.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice is the key to mastering a skill. One of the critical aspects is assuredly the fact that, with practice, the demands on your attention get smaller and smaller. Interestingly (and probably against common sense), there appears to be no mental limit to the improvement you gain from practice. Your physical condition limits how much improvement you can make to a practical skill (although, in practice, few people probably ever approach these limits), but a cognitive skill will continue to improve as long as you keep practicing. One long-ago researcher had two people perform 10,000 mental addition problems, and they kept on increasing their speed to the end.

How to get the most out of your practice

While practice is the key, there are some actions we can take to ensure we get the most value out of our practice:

  • Learn from specific examples rather than abstract rules
  • Provide feedback while the action is active in memory (i.e., immediately). Try again while the feedback is active in memory.
  • Practice a skill with subtle variations (such as varying the force of your pitch, or the distance you are throwing) rather than trying to repeat your action exactly.
  • Space your practice (maths textbooks, for example, tend to put similar exercises together, but in fact they would be better spaced out).
  • Allow for interference with similar skills: if a new skill contains steps that are antagonistic to steps contained in an already mastered skill, that new skill will be much harder to learn (e.g., when I changed keyboards, the buttons for page up, page down, insert, etc, had been put in a different order — the conflict between the old habit and the new pattern made learning the new pattern harder than it would have been if I had never had a keyboard before). The existing skill may also be badly affected.
  • If a skill can be broken down into independent sub-skills, break it down into its components and learn them separately, but if components are dependent, learn the skill as a whole (e.g., computer programming can be broken into independent sub-skills, but learning to play the piano is best learned as a whole).


  1. Anderson, J.R., Fincham, J.M. & Douglass, S. 1997. The role of examples and rules in the acquisition of a cognitive skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 932-945.
  2. Chase, W.G. & Ericsson, K.A. 1981. Skilled memory. In J.R. Anderson (ed.) Cognitive skills and their acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Wulf, G. & Schmidt, R.A. 1997. Variability of practice and implicit motor learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 987-1006.

tags memworks: 

tags strategies: 

Spacing your learning

  • Spacing your learning / practice is more effective than doing it in long concentrated blocks
  • People commonly over-estimate how much they've learned, after a concentrated block
  • Memorization of items during a study session is most effectively done by recalling items at increasing intervals

Distributed practice more effective than massed practice

It has long been known that spacing practice (reviewing learning or practicing a skill at spaced intervals) is far more effective than massed practice (in one heavy session). An interesting example of this comes from a study that aimed to find the best way of teaching postmen to type (this was at the request of the British Post Office). The researchers put postmen on one of four schedules:

  • an intensive schedule of two two-hour daily sessions
  • one of two intermediate schedules involving two hours a day, either as one two-hour session, or two one-hour sessions
  • a more gradual schedule of one hour a day

The researchers found quite dramatic differences, with the one-hour-a-day group learning as much in 55 hours as the four-hour-a-day group in 80. Moreover, the gradual group showed greater retention of their skills when tested several months later.

Research has also demonstrated that people commonly over-estimate the value of massed practice, and tend not to give due recognition to the value of spacing practice. This particular study confirmed this, by finding that, notwithstanding their superior performance, the gradual group were the least happy with the program - for though they learned much more quickly in terms of hours, it took them many more days (80 hours at four hours a day is 20 days, but 55 hours at one hour a day is 55 days).

Micro-distribution practice

What about practice over much shorter intervals? Say you are learning vocabulary in a foreign language - is it better to repeat a word twice in rapid succession, or to space out the repetitions?

On the basis of the distribution principle, the answer is clear. Go through your list once, then repeat it. That way, every item will be maximally distant from its own repetition. But the distribution principle isn't the only memory principle at work here. The other principle is that of generation - that if you produce the word for yourself, this will strengthen the connection better than having the word given to you. And your likelihood of being able to successfully recall the word is greater if you test it earlier.

So you have two opposing principles at work here: one says maximise the time between repetitions, the other says minimise it. Which wins? Well, neither. They're both at work, so you need to take both into account, like this:

  • the first time, test a new word after only a brief interval (your own experience is best here, to tell you what length of interval is best for you)
  • on successive recalls, gradually increase the interval (your aim is to find the maximum interval at which you can reliably recall the word)
  • if you fail to recall the word, shorten the interval; if you succeed, lengthen it

Distributed practice in skill learning

The distribution principle also applies to skill learning, although people are probably even more reluctant to apply it. Practicing a skill in a concentrated block seems to give better performance, and indeed it does - at the time. The problem is, it doesn't lead to better long-term learning.

Part of the problem is that it makes you over-estimate how well you have learned the skill. But most of that learning will fade quickly. To learn the skill properly (i.e., for over the long term), you are best, not simply to distribute your practice, but also practice the skill in the context of a variety of different tasks. For example, if you were learning to type, you could hammer away at one combination of keys (say, asdf) thirty times, then you could move on to another sequence (jkl;) and repeat that thirty times, and so on. But it would be better if you mixed the sequences up.

It is thought that practicing in this way works better because it requires you to repeatedly retrieve the motor program corresponding to each task. It also requires you to differentiate the skills in terms of their similarities and differences, which may be assumed to result in a better mental conceptualization of those skills.


  1. Baddeley, Alan. Your memory: A user’s guide. (2nd ed.) London: Penguin Books, 1994.
  2. Simon, D.A. & Bjork, R.A. 2001. Metacognition in Motor Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 27 (4).

tags strategies: 

Strategies for learning languages

A general distinction you can make is that between:

  • direct study, and
  • learning from context

Direct study is more important when you're learning a non-cognate language. It's also more important in the initial stages of learning a language. Learning from context is particularly useful for cognate languages.

Of course learning a language requires both approaches, but the relative proportions will vary.

You need both definitional and contextual information to "know" a word properly. It is also helpful to process words at a "deeper" level - by playing with them, using them, thinking about them.

And of course, you need multiple exposures - a requirement for which extensive reading is the best remedy, but in the beginning, is probably best answered by programmed texts/courses that repeatedly present words in slightly different contexts (e.g., in different sentences).

Let's look at some particular techniques:

Decontextualized vocabulary

Word lists - can be a useful resource. generally decontextualized; however, sometimes they are provided in conjunction with a reading passage, thus providing context - this is, of course, more effective. lists of "most frequently used" words can also be quite motivating. however, lists of difficult or less frequent words are probably more useful. lists are also fairly tedious to learn from. their main use is therefore as a resource - e.g., in order to make flashcards or semantic maps. (look below for some word lists available on the Web)

Set yourself targets (daily as well as longer term)

Study words in their "families" - e.g., write, written, wrote, writing, typewriter, etc


Drill - good for getting in the needed repetition; most useful when they involve multiple media; when they group words according to context (words that "belong" together, for one reason or another), rather than, as is often the case, according to frequency; when they provide full and immediate feedback

Bilingual-dichotic method

This is a somewhat specialized technique. Dichotic listening refers to a technique used in the psychology laboratory, whereby a person wearing headphones hears different messages in the left and right ear. The technique has been used with some success in teaching foreign language words - the foreign word is heard in the right ear while simultaneously the native translation is heard in the left ear (most people process speech better in the right ear). The student is instructed to attend to the foreign language word. The student also has a list of the words to read while listening.


Graded reading - is, after all, the means by which most of us acquired the bulk of our native language vocabulary; the main problem with this approach, when applied to another language, is that you need to understand around 95% of the words in a text in order to infer the meaning of the rest. this makes it harder to simply grab books aimed at the native speaker - you need graded readers, specifically created for students of the language. another useful resource to build up your vocabulary are bilingual readers.

The great benefit of reading is the repeated experiences of the same words in slightly different contexts; the down side is that it is a time consuming method of learning. also, infrequent words will, of course, appear infrequently - these words really need to be given special attention.

Dictionary use - using a bilingual dictionary is of course helpful, and often necessary; however, it is better if looking things up in the dictionary is NOT your first strategy - better to try and guess the meaning first. effective students tend to use a dictionary flexibly and thoughtfully; they are also better at judging when guesses are likely to be accurate, and which words in a sentence are most important for understanding the meaning.

A useful strategy to prevent you getting too bogged down, is to mark the words you're in doubt about, on your first reading, and then look them up at the end of the passage.

The Web is a great resource for language students - find a newspaper in your chosen language and practice with it regularly; find a radio station that broadcasts in your chosen language

I find DVDs wonderful - look for ones that offer your chosen language. You can listen in your native language and have subtitles in your chosen language; listen to your chosen language with native language subtitles; or, have both the soundtrack and the subtitles in your chosen language.


Try to retell passages of text in your own words

Recounting what you have learned to someone else is an excellent way to reinforce learning (trying to teach them is better still!)

Remember to speak aloud words as you read/think them

Talk to yourself - tell yourself what you're doing as you do it; make up sentences about what you can see when you're walking, or waiting for something

Try and think of different ways of saying the same thing


Have a notebook to record new words and grammar points; don't simply list the words as you come across them, but organise them into categories - categories that are personally meaningful. for ready reference, start the notebook with a list of words you find or think you'll find particularly difficult. (note: useful groups include generic categories, e.g., animals, fruit; functions, e.g., greetings, prepositions; situations, e.g., Post Office, airport, shop)

Make labels for items round the home and stick them up - and don't limit yourself to single words, create sentences. remember to read them aloud at appropriate moments.

In the bathroom and toilet, put up lists of declensions/conjugations or even passages of text or dialog.


Even unrelated languages throw up words that share similarities - look out for these. Be creative.

Physically act out words and sentences - use mime and gestures.

Associate words with pictures

Visualize words



Periodic review - vital!

To make sure words are "fixed", you need to overlearn them - don't tick them off too soon!

Daily practice is essential, but try not to get into a rut. Routine is useful for establishing a habit, but ring the changes with your activities, both to keep your interest up, and because it is a more effective means of learning.


  • Experiment with different strategies till you find what works for you.
  • Aim to have a variety of strategies to choose from.

Some word lists

English top 1000 words:

I like this because it groups words according to their stem, thus: able: ability abler ablest ably abilities unable inability


1000 most common words in French


1000 most common words in German


List of High-Frequency Baseword Vocabulary for Japanese EFL Students


also check out the supermemo language collections:

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