So what is a visual mnemonic? It's a specially designed picture that helps you remember something. In this case, we use visual mnemonics to help remember difficult spellings. There are word mnemonics for spelling too. You may be familiar with Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants, for remembering the spelling of because.
These can be useful, but sometimes they are over-complicated and they can be harder to remember than the spelling itself! Also, vision is our dominant sense, and we are missing a trick if we don't exploit our strong visual preference for meaningful objects. All day long, much of what your brain does is look for meaning in your environment. This is something all learners can use their advantage.
There are two very important features of our visual mnemonics. First, they only focus on the letter or letters within the word that people typically struggle with. When you are spelling broccoli, for example, it is usually the number of Cs and Ls that causes difficulty. Try this for yourself - ask someone to spell broccoli out loud and see where in the word they pause to think.
The second step is to link the letters to the meaning of the word. In the case of broccoli, we have the shape of the vegetable to help us. The 2Cs can be seen in the rounded florets at the top, and the single L becomes the stalk. Fix this image in your mind and you will never spell broccoli wrong again.
This is the first visual mnemonic I ever drew. I was teaching adult literacy at a local community centre and one of my students was a keen cook, so we tended to focus on words she would find in recipes and out shopping. She struggled in particular with broccoli, so I sketched this for her. She found it so helpful that she kept my sketch and never looked back.
However, the experience of one student does not mean that this approach works for everyone. In particular, I wanted to know if it worked for primary school children, as they seem to spend an extraordinary amount of time learning and being tested on spellings.
Therefore, I took an MSc in Educational Neuroscience at Birkbeck / UCL Institute of Education in London. My dissertation research was a controlled trial of teaching spelling using visual mnemonics to Y4 (8-9 year olds) in a classroom setting. My methodology drew on the work of Partz, M. P. D., Seron, X., & Linden, M. V. D. (1992), who used a similar visual imagery approach for the cognitive rehabilitation of a patient following a stroke.
I recruited 54 primary school children and split them into two evenly matched groups. I taught both groups 20 words using either visual mnemonics, or a comparable conventional method (definitions and contextual sentences) over a period of four weeks.
When the children were tested on the words one week after teaching, those using visual mnemonics remembered 50% more correct spellings than children taught the same words using the conventional method. If you like statistics, here they are: The experimental group had a greater proportion of correct spellings (20.4%) than the control group (13.3%): χ2 (3) = 13.41, p = .003. This corresponds to a medium effect size: Cramer’s V (df=3) = .15.
If you are really keen, email me and I will send you my thesis. (If you are really, really keen, you might even read it.)