Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal 14(2), 207–224, 2016 Copyright @ by LDW 2016

*Please send correspondence to: Edward A. Polloway, Lynchburg College, 1501 Lakeside Dr., Lynchburg, VA 24501, Email: polloway@lynchburg.edu.

Mnemonic Instruction in Science and Social Studies for Students with Learning Problems:

A Review Jacqueline Lubin

Fort Hays State University

Edward A. Polloway Lynchburg College

Over the years, mnemonic instruction has been promoted as an effective strategy to teach students with learning problems including learning dis- abilities (LD) or mild intellectual disability (MID). This paper discusses mnemonic instruction, including types, versatility in use, and effective- ness with struggling learners. Specific emphasis then is placed on research on mnemonic strategies in the content areas of science and social studies. The paper concludes with a discussion of how mnemonic strategies can be effectively used with students with learning problems to enhance per- formance.

Keywords: Mnemonic instruction; learning problems; learning disabilities; mild intellectual disability; science instruction; social studies.


Mnemonic instruction has been proven to be a research-based method for teaching students with different kinds of disabilities (e.g., Brigham, Scruggs, & Mastropieri, 2011; Conderman, & Pedersen, 2005; Lloyd, Forness, & Kavale, 1998; Scruggs, Mastropieri, Berkeley, & Marshak, 2010; Veit, Scruggs, & Mastropieri, 1986). It has been used in special and general education for decades as a way to convert diffi- cult-to-remember concepts into more memorable ones. Mnemonic instruction uses memory devices that may help students learn a significant amount of information as well as increase long-term retention (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1991). Mnemonics may assist with both storage and retrieval of information (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1998). Its use has been promoted as a way to assist especially those students who do not meet the minimum requirements with regard to their academic progress. Such learners of- ten fail to develop the knowledge, skills, will, and self-regulation necessary to succeed in key subject areas. They could exhibit difficulties in specific areas (e.g., reading, mathematics) and would thus may be referred to as having a learning disability (LD). Or they may be identified as having a mild intellectual disability (MID) (Grünke & Morrison Cavendish, 2016). In any case, mnemonic instruction can be very effective to use for students who have problems in remembering information given that there are many subject area concepts to be learned, students are often unfamiliar with the content, and the information is often complex (Levin, 1993).

Mnemonic instruction has been empirically validated as a technique that can enhance students’ learning since 1973 (Berkeley & Scruggs, 2010; Levin, 1993). By 1983, Mastropieri had shown that mnemonic instruction can be used with students



Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal 14(2), 207–224, 2016


with LD. As Scruggs and Mastropieri (2000) noted, mnemonic strategies are effective in teaching students with LD as they help them make use of their cognitive strengths. Mnemonic instruction has been documented to be versatile as it can be effectively used not only across abilities but across subject areas, including foreign language, English, science, history, math and social studies (e.g., Brigham et al., 2011; Letendre, 1993; Scruggs, Mastropieri, Berkeley, & Graetz, 2009; Zisimopoulos, 2010).

The purpose of this paper is first to discuss mnemonic instruction in gen- eral, noting various mnemonic strategies that may be used and the versatility and ef- fectiveness of mnemonic instruction with students with learning problems. Then, re- search investigating mnemonic strategies that have been implemented in the subject areas of science and social studies, respectively, are highlighted. The paper concludes with a discussion of how mnemonic strategies may be effectively used with students with learning problems to enhance performance. While a substantial amount of re- search on mnemonic instruction occurred in prior decades, it remains an important tool that continues to be regarded as an empirically-validated practice.

MneMonIc InstructIon

Mnemonic instruction includes a variety of strategies that are applicable across multiple settings and may be used effectively with students with varying abili- ties. The Division for Learning Disabilities and the Division for Research within the Council for Exceptional Children highly recommended mnuemonic instruction as an empirically validated practice that may be used with students with LD (i.e., Berke- ley & Scruggs, 2010; Brigham & Brigham, 2001; TeachingLD, 2015). This section highlights general information about the utility of mnemonics.

There are many types of mnemonic strategies that teachers may employ. According to Thompson (1987 as cited by Amirousefi & Ketabi, 2011), there are five classes of mnemonics: linguistic, spatial, visual, physical response and verbal meth- ods. Linguistic mnemonics, such as the pegword and keyword methods, involve as- sociating the new concept with familiar words and/or phrases to help remember the item. Spatial mnemonics, which include the loci, spatial grouping and finger meth- ods, involve connecting the new concept to a familiar place, pattern or finger to help in memorization of the material. Visual mnemonics make use of pictures or visual- izations to create an association to the target concept (e.g., symbolics, pictograph- ics). The verbal method uses meaning and stories to help students remember, with methods such as grouping or semantic organization and story-telling or narrative chains. Physical response methods make use of the body parts to aid in remembrance, either through movement or physical sensation. These five types of mnemonics are illustrated in Figure 1.

Specific examples of mnemonics are highlighted in Figures 2-4. In educa- tional research and in practice, the most commonly used mnemonic devices include acronyms (Figure 2), acrostics (Figure 3), keywords (Figure 4), pegwords (for learning items in numerical or chronological sequence), symbolics, and pictographics (Figure 2, ii) . Students tend to be most familiar with acronyms and acrostics as well as find them to be the most helpful and useful techniques (Bloom & Lamkin, 2006; McCabe, Osha, & Roche, 2013), while keywords are frequently cited in educational research.



Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal 14(2), 207–224, 2016


Figure 1. Types of Mnemonics

Mnemonic instruction may be used by both general education and special education teachers. Given the degree of inclusion of students with learning prob- lems, clearly much of the instruction for the students will occur in general education classrooms.

The use of mnemonic instruction in special education has been researched in particular with students with LD and for more than three decades a substantial literature base has been established on the effectiveness of mnemonic instruction with these students (e.g., Bulgren, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1994; Lloyd et al., 1998, Mastropieri, 1983; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1989, 2000; Scruggs et al., 2009; Mastrop- ieri, Scruggs, & Levin, 1985; Veit et al., 1986). The extant research collectively points to the value of mnemonic instruction in teaching and learning concepts that need to be retrieved quickly and automatically.

Further, mnemonic strategies may be used broadly across subject areas in lessons where new vocabulary, technical terms, the names of people places or things, number patterns and formulae need to be learned. In general, mnemonic instruction has utility for any academic task that requires factual recall of information and has been found to be effective in enhancing performance across subject areas (Therrein, Taylor, Hosp, Kaldenberg, & Gorsh, 2011).



Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal 14(2), 207–224, 2016


Figure 2. Acronyms and Pictograhic for Science Concepts

i. MR GREEN = The 7 characteristics of all living animals: Movement, Reproduction, Growth, Respiration, Excretion, Environmental Sensi- tivity, Nutrition

ii. CAM SEA, (pronounced “calm sea”) which represents the six classes of invertebrate animals: Cnidarians, Annelids, Mollusks, Sponges, Echino- derms, Arthropods



Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal 14(2), 207–224, 2016


Figure 3. Acrostics for Science and Social Studies Concepts

i. King Harry’s deeds brought deep cheer to millions. Explanation: These stand for the metric prefixes and base unit. Kilo-, Hecto-, Deca-, base, Deci-, Centi-, Milli-

ii. First 16 American Presidents:

Washington Adams Just Made Many Admirers,

George Washington

John Adams

Thomas Jefferson

James Madison

James Monroe

John Quincy Adams


Juggling Various Heavy Trumpets.

Andrew Jackson

Martin Van Buren

William Henry Harrison

John Tyler


Please Try Following <the> Pretty Boy’s Legacy.

James Polk

Zachary Taylor

Millard Fillmore

Franklin Pierce

James Buchannan

Abraham Lincoln



Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal 14(2), 207–224, 2016


Figure 4. Keywords for Social Studies Concepts

States and capital. For example:

i. Keyword for Virginia is Virgin (Oil). Keyword for Richmond is Rich-Man.

ii. Keyword for Connecticut is Connect. Keyword for Hartford is Heart.



Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal 14(2), 207–224, 2016


In reading, mnemonic strategies may be used to enhance retention, which has the ripple effect of enhancing comprehension skills; as students remember more information, they are more likely to succeed in applying it to the comprehension task (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1998). The use of mnemonic instruction also has sig- nificantly improved the retention of vocabulary learning (e.g., Amirousefi & Ketabi, 2011; Berkeley & Scruggs, 2010; Scruggs et al., 2009).

In mathematics, mnemonic strategies may be used to promote the perfor- mance of students with LD as there are many concepts that students need to know automatically in order to carry out more complex tasks (Miller & Strawser, 1996). Greene (1999) found that mnemonic instruction increased the retention of math facts over traditional instruction by 28% with students with LD. Given difficulties with computation, for example, increasing the ability to memorize information can enhance math performance (Miller, Stringfellow, Kaffar, Ferreira, & Mane, 2011).

The principal goal of mnemonic instruction is to help students remember facts and concepts and this goal is imperative to school success as there is content in every area that needs to be memorized and quickly retrieved. The proven effective- ness of mnemonic instruction makes it a valuable tool in the classroom (Lloyd et al., 1998). The focus below is on research that has been conducted on the use of mne- monic instruction in the subjects of science and social studies, respectively.

MneMonIc InstructIon In scIence

Students with learning problems often find it difficult to remember science concepts (Therrien et al., 2011) and they may perform significantly lower in science exams than their typically developing peers (Mastropieri, Emerick & Scruggs, 1988). The main instructional strategies used in traditional general education classrooms typically include textbooks and/or lectures. Students with learning problems typi- cally struggle to grasp concepts when these are the sole techniques used in classrooms (Therrien, Taylor, Watt, & Kaldenberg, 2014). A valuable instrument which is highly effective in improving students with learning problems ability to retain and recall science facts is mnemonic instruction (Brigham et al., 2011; Scruggs, Mastropieri, Levin, & Gaffney, 1985; Therrien et al., 2011). Table 1 outlines five studies that have demonstrated the effectiveness of mnemonic instruction in helping students acquire science concepts and facts. These are then discussed below.

Mastropieri et al. (1985) conducted two experiments comparing three in- structional strategies (i.e., mnemonic instruction {pegword, keyword}, questioning and free study) used with students with and without LD. Their aim was to find out which instructional method helped respective students recall the greatest number of scientific facts (i.e., hardness level of metals) and to find out whether they would perform at comparable rates as students without LD using the same instructional strategies. The first experiment included ninety ninth graders with LD. They were placed in two achievement groups, with lower and higher reading comprehension groups each containing 45 students, respectively. Then, each group was broken into three subgroups where 15 students were randomly assigned to mnemonic instruction group, questioning procedure group and free study group, each. In the end, there were six groups of 15 students with LD. Students in the mnemonic strategy groups recalled the hardness level of metals at a higher level than those in the other instruc- tional groups (i.e., questioning, free study). This result was statistically significant.



Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal 14(2), 207–224, 2016


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