The University of Iowa

Keyword Mnemonics: A Strategy to Build Content-Specific Vocabulary and Unlock Informational Texts

Teacher showing students card

Using a checklist to create keyword cards can help students go through all the steps to come up with mnemonics to learn and remember vocabulary words.


Posted on: March 5, 2019

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series that will describe instructional approaches for improving students’ reading comprehension of informational texts. In our first installment of this blog post series, we identified unfamiliar text structures as one barrier to students’ comprehension of informational text. We explained how text structure instruction can improve reading comprehension of informational texts and provided a lesson outline for text structure mapping. In this post, we address a second source of difficulty for students’ comprehension of informational text: high vocabulary demands.

For secondary school students, comprehending informational text is critical to academic success across subjects, including science (Reed, Petscher, & Truckenmiller, 2017) and social studies (O’Connor et al., 2017). Yet, adolescents often struggle to understand informational texts due to high vocabulary demands, including the use of content-specific words (Cromley & Azevedo, 2007). Content-specific vocabulary words have specialized definitions and are mostly used in a particular content area or discipline (Townsend, Filippini, Collins, & Biancarosa, 2012). For example, oligarchy, neurons, and alliteration are words specific to social studies, science, and English language arts, respectively. Because informational texts often contain repetitions of vocabulary words (Eason, Goldberg, Young, Geist, & Cutting, 2012), students who lack knowledge of a single critical word may have difficulty comprehending the text. Moreover, researchers have found that vocabulary knowledge is a primary contributor to adolescents’ reading comprehension abilities (Reed, Petscher, & Foorman, 2016). Therefore, implementing evidence-based vocabulary instruction within the content areas not only may foster student success in those classes, but also improve students’ overall reading comprehension abilities (Vaughn et al., 2010).

Vocabulary Instruction and Mnemonics

There are two types of vocabulary instruction. First, teachers implement explicit vocabulary instruction to deepen students’ knowledge and use of new words (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013). See our previous blog posts to learn more about explicit vocabulary instruction, including how to choose words for instruction and implement a research-based instructional sequence. Second, teachers aim to broaden students’ vocabulary through implicit instruction, in which students are taught helpful strategies to learn new vocabulary words independently (Marulis & Neuman, 2010).

One strategy that can be used in implicit vocabulary instruction is called mnemonics. Mnemonics is the use of cues for students to learn and remember important information, including content-specific vocabulary words. Importantly, mnemonics instruction has been found to increase student learning of new vocabulary words in science (Therrien, Taylor, Watt, & Kaldenberg, 2014) and social studies (Swanson et al., 2014). Although a teacher can create mnemonics to introduce and define words during explicit instruction, this post focuses on teaching students to use mnemonics to learn and retain new words.

Keyword Mnemonics         

Keyword mnemonics is a particular strategy that helps students learn and remember content-specific vocabulary. This strategy involves creating a keyword that sounds similar to the content-specific vocabulary word (e.g., filled the bus for filibuster) and then constructing a picture (see Figure 1) that connects the vocabulary word and the keyword (e.g., a school bus filled with a speech).

Figure 1. A Keyword Mnemonic Picture for the Word “Filibuster”

A keyword mnemonic picture of a bus for the word Filibuster

The student can also can add a phrase that connects the keyword and picture to the vocabulary word (e.g., The senator’s speech filled the bus).

Using keyword mnemonics may increase the number of content-specific words students can understand and apply, thereby broadening their vocabulary knowledge and improving their abilities to access complex informational texts (Gajria, Jitendra, Sood, & Sacks, 2007). However, it is important to note that students should not be taught to create a keyword mnemonic for every single unknown word they encounter. Instead, this strategy should be applied to words that are:

  • Critical to students’ understanding of a text or topic.
  • Difficult to remember and apply.

Example Keyword Mnemonics Lesson Outline

The following lesson outline can be used to teach students how to use the keyword mnemonics strategy. This lesson is designed for a seventh grade history unit on ancient Egypt. It is critical for the teacher to practice creating a keyword card before attempting to teach this strategy with a selected vocabulary term. Doing so will ensure that the term is ideal for modeling the strategy for students. Proper planning also helps teachers to anticipate student responses or potential areas of difficulty.


Tell students that it can be difficult to remember all of the specific people, places, and concepts that are required to understand history. Explain that, during this lesson, students will learn to use the keyword mnemonics strategy to help themselves acquire and remember new vocabulary words. Define a keyword as a word clue that helps a person remember another piece of information, like a definition. Compare the unlocking function of a key to how readers can use keywords to unlock information about a concept. Stress that this skill is important because knowing the meanings of a wide range of words will improve students’ comprehension of content-rich texts and equip them with the vocabulary they need to write and speak about specific topics in history. Finally, inform students that they will be developing their own keyword mnemonics by creating keyword cards.


Announce that you will begin by modeling the process for creating keywords and how they can be used to remember the definitions of important vocabulary about ancient Egypt. Throughout the modeling portion of the lesson, display the Keyword Mnemonics Checklist (see Supplemental Materials for Teachers) and check off the important steps and attributes of the strategy as you complete them.

Tell students that you have chosen a word that is deserving of a keyword. On a blank index card displayed with a document camera or interactive whiteboard, write the word cataracts and its student-friendly definition: shallow parts of the Nile River where many rocks break the water’s surface. Explain that you chose cataracts not only because it is important to learning about ancient Egypt but also because it has been difficult to remember and correctly use its meaning. Tell students that the first step in the strategy is to determine a keyword that can serve as a clue to the meaning of cataracts. Highlight the attributes of effective keywords:

  • Sound similar to the target word, or a portion of that word
  • Easy to visualize

Think aloud about possible keywords, including at least one non-example.

Teacher: “The word are sounds like cataracts. Perhaps I could use are as my keyword. However, it is not an easy word to imagine or draw because it is a linking verb. Therefore, I do not think it is the best keyword to help me remember the definition of cataracts.”

Then, narrate your thoughts as you choose the more appropriate word cat to function as your keyword. Emphasize that cat meets both criteria for a helpful keyword: it sounds like a part of cataracts and is easily visualized.

Inform students that the next step in the keyword mnemonics strategy is to create a simple image that combines the keyword and target vocabulary word. Emphasize that artistic talent is not necessary to develop these pictures. Instead, the purpose is to sketch an image that easily can be remembered. Explain to students that in order to connect your keyword cat to the target word cataract, you will draw a cat perched on top of the rocks in a river and swiping at the water. Quickly create your drawing on the back of the word card and display it to students. In addition, include a phrase that connects the keyword and picture to the target vocabulary word. For example, you could add the phrase, “The cat reacts to the water,” to approximate the sound of the target vocabulary word (cat reacts = cataracts) and to trigger the definition (breaking up the water’s surface).

Conclude your modeling by explaining that the last step of the strategy is to practice using the keyword to remember the definition of the target vocabulary word. Be sure to underscore the importance of planning how the keyword will facilitate retrieval. Outline that when you encounter the word cataracts, you will think of the keyword cat. Then, you will remember that in your image, the cat is teetering on rocks in the river and swiping at the water. The cat is reacting to the water. This will help you recall that cataracts are shallow parts of the Nile River where the water’s surface is broken by rocks. Demonstrate that you can check the accuracy of your remembered definition by viewing the front of the word card.

Figure 2. Example Keyword Card for Target Vocabulary Word Cataracts

Figure 2 Keyword card

Guided Practice

Display a new vocabulary word for the unit, such as nomadic, and introduce its student-friendly definition. Explain that students will work in pairs or small groups to create a keyword for nomadic. Direct students’ attention to the Keyword Mnemonics Checklist. Remind them to follow the previously modeled steps and ensure that their keyword meets the necessary criteria before creating a relevant image and associated phrase.

Monitor students as they work, stopping periodically to have them share with the class their ideas for each step in completing the strategy. Hearing how peers are developing their keyword mnemonic cards can stimulate the thinking of students who might be struggling with the strategy (Boardman, Klingner, Buckley, Annamma, & Lasser, 2015). While students select keywords, be prepared to redirect those that are difficult to illustrate or picture, and probe for understanding of the target definition. In the next step, ask students to detail their plans for the drawing and associated phrase, including how these components will help them connect the keyword to the target vocabulary word. When groups or pairs are finished, call on representatives to share their plans for how the keyword will help them recall the target word’s definition. 

Independent Practice

Introduce a third vocabulary word for the unit, such as hieroglyphics, and its student-friendly definition. Direct students to follow the steps of the keyword mnemonics strategy as they independently create one keyword card for the selected word. Circulate the room as students work, and check for understanding by questioning them about the strategy and the definition of the chosen word. Redirect any student misunderstandings. For example, students may mistakenly try to illustrate the target word itself or choose keywords that are difficult to illustrate and recall. Finally, ask each student to share his or her keyword card with a small group and outline the plan for connecting the keyword and target word.

Conclude the lesson by asking students to reflect on the purpose of the keyword mnemonics strategy. Reiterate the importance of learning content-specific words to reading comprehension and writing in academic and non-academic contexts. Challenge students to practice applying the keyword strategy in other subject areas.


Across the secondary school curriculum, students are often required to read complex informational texts (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). Consequently, students must understand and apply a broad range of content-specific vocabulary words (Crowley & Azevedo, 2007). Teaching students to use the keyword mnemonics strategy can provide them a tool to unlock vocabulary words critical to academic success.

Supplemental Materials for Teachers

PDF iconKeyword Mnemonics Checklist

Students can use this checklist to make sure they are properly following all the components of the keyword mnemonics strategy in order to remember the definition of the target vocabulary word.


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford.

Boardman, A. G., Klingner, J. K., Buckley, P., Annamma, S., & Lasser, C. J. (2015). The efficacy of collaborative strategic reading in middle school science and social studies classes. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 28, 1257–1283. doi:10.1007/s11145-015-9570-3

Cromley, J. G., & Azevedo, R. (2007). Testing and refining the direct and inferential mediation model of reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology99, 311-325. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.99.2.311

Eason, S. H., Goldberg, L. F., Young, K. M., Geist, M. C., & Cutting, L. E. (2012). Reader-text interactions: How differential text and question types influence cognitive skills needed for reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 515–528. doi:10.1037/a0027182

Gajria, M., Jitendra, A. K., Sood, S., & Sacks, G. (2007). Improving comprehension of expository text in students with LD: A research synthesis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40, 210–225. doi:10.1177/00222194070400030301

Marulis, L. M., & Neuman, S. B. (2010). The effects of vocabulary intervention on young children’s word learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 80, 300-335. doi:10.3102/0034654310377087

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Key shifts in English language arts. Retrieved from 

O’Connor, R. E., Beach, K. D., Sanchez, V., Bocian, K. M., Roberts, S., & Chan, O. (2017). Building better bridges: Teaching adolescents who are poor readers in eighth grade to comprehend history text. Learning Disability Quarterly, 40, 174–186. doi:10.1177/0731948717698537

Reed, D. K., Petscher, Y., & Foorman, B. R. (2016). The contribution of vocabulary knowledge and spelling to the reading comprehension of adolescents who are and are not English language learners. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal29, 633-657. doi:10.1007/s11145-015-9619-3 

Reed, D. K., Petscher, Y., & Truckenmiller, A. J. (2017). The contribution of general reading ability to science achievement. Reading Research Quarterly52, 253-266. doi:10.1002/rrq.158

Swanson, E., Hairrell, A., Kent, S., Ciullo, S., Wanzek, J. A., & Vaughn, S. (2014). A synthesis and meta-analysis of reading interventions using social studies content for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47, 178–195. doi:10.1177/0022219412451131

Therrien, W. J., Taylor, J. C., Watt, S., & Kaldenberg, E. R. (2014). Science instruction for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Remedial and Special Education, 35, 15–27. doi:10.1177/0741932513503557

Townsend, D., Filippini, A., Collins, P., & Biancarosa, G. (2012). Evidence for the importance of academic word knowledge for the academic achievement of diverse middle school students. The Elementary School Journal, 112, 497–518. doi:10.1086/663301

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