Educational Memory Aids 
What a child can remember is more important than what a child is taught
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Review of Cognitive Research

by Susan C. Jones

1996 Presidential Award Elementary Mathematics

RE. Jones, Susan C. Memory Aids for Math. Fayetteville, AR: Educational Memory Aids (1995) p.2, 57-60.

Cognitive researchers have unraveled many of the mysteries concerning the brain's storage and retrieval systems, yet few educators use this information to enhance learning in the classroom. The student struggle with memorization of addition, subtraction, and multiplication has prompted some educators to suggest delaying instruction to a later grade or to simply give the students calculators as "they will be using them in the real world anyway". Discussing memory systems Robert J. Marzano notes:

"Cognitive psychologists have taught us a lot about storing information in long-term memory. In fact, we know more about how information can be stored for easy retrieval than we do about almost any other aspect of learning. Unfortunately, what we know is usually not taught in the classroom (p.48)."

According to O'Neil (1992, p.5) "not all types of learning are conducive to constructivist practice" and "memorizing basic facts is often essential".  "The learning of facts and procedures is a legitimate and important part of a student's education" (O'Daffer, 1993, p. 376). "At some point students must be encouraged to put away the manipulatives and function with symbols alone" (Bohan and Shawaker, 1994, p.247). Picture associations make bridging the gap between the concrete state to the symbolic easy. When the number components of a math fact are pictured as a character, memorization of that fact is easy.

Unlike the rote system of repetition this system is quick and easy to use. Zellman (1992) who teaches a course in memory enhancement techniques describes the rote system as, "a mechanical method based on repetition that takes up so much time it distracts us from the real purpose which is to understand information. It is a stressful way to learn and it is even more stressful when you try to access the information. "According to Zellman, "turning information into a silly picture is an easier and more pleasant way to study....the more silly or absurd the image the more likely you'll remember or recall it". He further states that we should learn this system and "make it our mission to teach it to the children in our lives."

Concrete manipulatives are used to foster understanding of mathematical process. Just because these manipulatives are "hands-on" and fun does not necessarily mean that students can make the symbolic connections necessary to become advanced mathematicians.Many students have trouble bridging the gap between the concrete manipulative stage and the symbolic number stage

Students enjoy turning math facts into characters which can be taken apart in subtraction or built in addition. This is their way of constructing meaning to abstract symbols so that numbers can be as easily manipulated in problem solving as their concrete counterparts. Tie a rhyming word to describe the addition character and presto the child has a mnemonic for the multiplication fact.

Math is a sense making, problem solving mental activity. It's not rote memorization of isolated facts, nor is it typing a student to manipulatives because the child fails to grasp the symbolic connections of number components. Memory aids allow students to organize, structure, and use numbers mentally to become advanced problem solvers. On achievement tests students have scored extremely well on the high-order thinking and problem solving components of a test. This program has been used effectively, not only in my classroom, but in classrooms throughout Arkansas. This program was funded by the Arkansas Department of Education's School Recognition Exemplary Program Grant in 1988-89 and the U.S. Department of Education's Christa McAuliffe Fellowship Program in 1990-91 for dissemination and research. Data analysis showed a highly significant gain in teachers' class summary scores after having used my memory aids in reading and math (Jones, 1991). This finding was consistent with an analysis of research by the authors of The Self Renewing School who found that the initiatives that produced the largest "dramatic" effect on school learning were those that used models to assist memorization. The authors went on to say that for "basic knowledge like....computation skills..we want, in fact, to have a very high degree to success for all students because anything less is terrible disadvantaging for them" (Joyce, Wolf, and Calhoun, 1993, p.74). Mnemonic aids make mastery of addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts quick and easy so that students can concentrate on the higher educational goal of critical thinking.

If I could modify our existing mathematics program, I would introduce mnemonics into the curriculum. If I could modify our existing educational system as a whole, I would teach all students how to use picture associations to learn on their own whatever they wanted to learn. After all no one can learn everything there is to know. What we do learn we tend to forget if it is not interesting or useful to us (Squire 1985). But more importantly, we do not know what students in the future will need to know to succeed. As Marzano states, "ultimately, it might be better to help students develop mental habits that will help them learn on their own whatever they need to want to know" (p.131).

That my memory aids for reading and math work is no surprise. I used memory aid associative techniques that experts in the field of memory enhancement have known about all along. It is my hope, that as teachers and students become more familiar with memory aid devices, there will be less talk about postponing or giving up on learning, and that students will actually embrace learning knowing that they will have the secret to unlocking the brain's mysterious storing system. 

Memory Enhancement Techniques

According to research, there are three main components to be considered in memory enhancement techniques:

  1. Teach to all the sensory modalities.

  2. Information is remembered best if it is interesting or useful.

  3. New information is easier to remember if it can be linked to something already stored in the memory bank.

Recent success in education can be traced to these components. Hands-on instruction, math manipulatives, graphing. recording data, and generally writing in all subject areas make learning easier for the visual and tactile learners.

The literature based approach to reading is effective because it is story based and interesting. (There is no need to throw out phonics because phonic instruction is dull. Add stories and make phonics story based.) Today's math instruction focusing on real problems make math meaningful and useful to students.

According to research, educators are forgetting about the third main component in memory enhancement techniques - associations.

Information can be multi-sensory and interesting, but not stored for quick recall. Using well established pictures in the memory bank to link new information triggers a strong electrical impulse to help recall the new information. The same pattern that the brain uses to store information is activated to recall the information. The stronger the electrical impulse, the easier something is remembered. This is the reason memory aid systems use association type aids.

A word like "cat", "dog", "alligator", and "rhinoceros" is easier for a child to remember than a word like "the" because the brain usually has a stored picture of a dog or cat, etc in the memory bank. The picture triggers a strong electrical impulse to connect the word to be stored. The brain can not visualize a "the" or the number components of a math fact and memory aid associations help to provide a storage area for this new information. My memory aids for phonics and math are hands-on, tactile, story based aids that are also associative to help the brain store the new information thus using all three components of memory enhancement techniques.


Christa McAuliffe Fellowship Program 1990-1991

A Picture is Worth a 1,000 words...

This program was funded to assist school districts and Education Service Cooperatives with staff development, as well as, evaluating the effects of incorporating visual and tactile "hand-on" association techniques into existing reading and math programs.  Susan Jones traveled over 6,500 miles and conducted 30 workshops training over 2,000 teachers in memory aid techniques.  As a follow-up, achievement scores were evaluated to determine the effectiveness of this program.  Stipends were paid to teachers who agreed to evaluate reading, math, or both.

Teachers who did not give MAT-6 Achievement tests sent written comments.  Comparisons were made of teachers' classes to see what effect memory aids had on over-all achievement scores.  Scores were eliminated for comparison if teachers ranked their classes higher or lower in ability from one year to the next.  The average over-all percentile gain comparing the same teacher's Class Summary scores from one year to the next after having used memory aids in similar classes was 15 percentile points in reading and 14 percentile points in math!

Teacher Comments:

1. The students used the memory aids as a reference point throughout the year to recall the sounds associated with letters. The retention of sounds was improved over previous years when the letters were introduced using memory aids.

2. I feel that the letter memory aids were a wonderful start to the year. We introduced a letter a day through the memory aids then we began our weekly study of a letter. The sounds they learned through the memory aids helped them with all we did throughout the year. The frustration level was much lower than all the years before.

3. I used the memory aids at the beginning of the school year to introduce letters and sounds. We talked about one letter each day and many times did the art activity. After all letters were introduced, we studied one letter and sound per week in depth. I found that during the second introduction (week lessons), the children were much more apt to remember the letter, sound, and picture than in previous years. I will certainly use it next year.

4. The memory aid cards and activity page allowed us to introduce each letter at the beginning of school and not push to expect mastery of a letter when we should be still adjusting to the school. It gave us something to build on as we studied each letter more intensely. It also blended in with our plans to include more whole language activities. We will use the memory aids again next fall.

5. The children seem to be able to refer back to every memory aid when we do activities with letters. They've never forgotten the characters and seemed to enjoy them so much! I leave the 26 cards up year round and they're so colorful and fun!

6. The children really seemed to enjoy the stories and memory aids. They were very beneficial in retention of the beginning consonant sounds. The character or idea for each letter was fun, and easy to remember.

7. Memory aids was a wonderful introduction of the alphabet for my kindergarten class in the fall. As we studied each letter through the year the children remembered the story of the letter.

8. My children enjoyed the stories and drawings of the alphabet cards. I introduced the letters in order (one a day). Then after that time, we studied each letter for a week. The memory aids did help the children in recalling the letter sound. I will be using them again next year.

9. The reading memory aids proved very effective with young children -learning disabled mentally handicapped, and deaf children.

10. Thanks for sharing your program. It really helped my students in learning the letters and sounds.

11. My class has really enjoyed the pictures associated with learning/reviewing multiplication's facts. It was a big help to those students who never mastered all of the basic multiplication facts.

12. The students enjoyed the memory aids (math) and they made retention of facts from day to day much higher.

13. I used these ideas for "new" ways to present the letter sounds to the children in addition to the things I've found successful over the years.

14. I borrowed the memory aids (multiplication posters) from Mrs. Clark to use with my slower 4th grade student. It really did help them. I only wish I had gotten the posters from Mrs. Clark before I did.

15. Multiplication memory aid posters were used in my class. My low student were able to memorize their facts just by glancing at the posters. When posters were taken down students still had no problem with their multiplication facts.

16. The children loved the "Let's Pretend" art activities and stories. We have had them hanging up in the room all year. They took the stories into their own puppet stories; and also into their writing. When stuck for a sound we used the cards to help remember the letters.

17. I have enjoyed using the memory aids for math. They made teaching the math fact more fun. My student really liked the math memory aids, too. I would display each poster as we covered each math fact. My student would continually refer to the posters as they were learning the fact. I think it helped them memorize the math facts much quicker than in past year. I plan to use the math memory aids again next year. I am looking forward to seeing how next year's class does. I also displayed the vowel digraphs. It helped having them up for the children to see.

18. I only used addition memory aids. It was very successful and fun.

19. Susan, using your memory aids for math was great. They were helpful in keeping the student interest for a longer period of time. The student also enjoyed the bright colors. Thanks for sharing your ideas with us.

20. Susan, my special education class does not take achievement test. The aids are wonderful posters to display. I laminated mine to preserve the bright colors. The student thought the characters were funny and the concept of rhyming names makes it easy to remember. I plan to use the aids next year with a younger group who will begin multiplication. I believe the posters will really help my student learn their facts. Thanks for sharing.

21. This year my kindergarten group was a less mature group which I feel benefited from your teaching ideas. Of particular good use is the method of teaching the numerals 1-10 using the rhymes and form the letter sound devices. The least able child who did not always remember the numeral's name always remembered it rhyme. The letter sound devices used in our art projects were just downright fun! Keep up the good work.

22. The colorful witty math posters to help aid retention of math facts are great. The kids (grade 6,7,8) thought they were a little silly at first, but when they started using them- "surprise" they really were pleased at how the memory aids helped them experience success on class work and math test.

23. The children enjoyed the stories and remembered the sounds of the letters. I know this because they liked the motions and used the "inflections of the voice" when remembering the sound.

24. The memory aids we got at the Hot Springs workshops in Sept. 1990 have made our working year much easier and more rewarding. Our students have benefited from using them. Our migrant students regular classroom teachers and classmates have enjoyed and benefited from these aids when we used them in their rooms. I truly believe that our migrant student will retain more of what they learned from these materials compared with our material we have had on hand. Memory aids are super!

25. I am a migrant tutor. I used the memory aids for teaching letter name and sound. I think that this memory aid helped my kindergarten student learn to write and say each letter of the alphabet. It also helped with the sounds of each alphabet.

26. Memory aids along with a math program raised my MPI scores.

27. I used the memory aids with my slow learners. They could see the pictures, touch them, and were able to relate the clues, to come up with an answer to the question.

28. Memory aids helped my children tremendously when they worked with their vocabulary flash cards. They associated the sounds and stories with the words. So remembering the vocabulary word was no problem when it was found in a reading story.

29. The phonic memory aids made a great difference. The student enjoyed the stories, as well as, learned their letters and sounds. It was like a game to them. I had parent come to the school telling me about their child coming home talking about the different stories and letters. So the parent were pleased with the memory aids program, as well as, the student and I.

30. My children really enjoyed the alphabet cards and the math cards.

31. The memory aids helped my class in retaining vowel sounds. They were fun and the children were able to remember those sounds from the cute little stories. It was delightful to see them progress so in reading and spelling. The alphabet memory aids were made by the children and put on display after the study of each alphabet and remained until June. Many times I could see them looking at these memory aids on display for help with the answers to questions being asked. I can not remember how in the past I was able to teach without Susan Jones' invention.

32. In my classroom memory aids for math made an excellent motivator for student who were having difficulty memorizing basic math facts. The aids acted as "mind openers" for some of the children who seemed to feel they could not master those facts. The memory aids made learning facts more fun and less frightening.

33. We enjoyed using memory aids for math. The children thought they were funny and responded as f they were games. We learned a lot I enjoyed using the spelling list and the home reading. When we used the making system posters the children could see the various rules.

34. The student enjoyed the stories, as well as, the colorful pictures that helped the student learn the information more easily. They thought it was fun and made it easier to learn their multiplication tables.

35. The boys and girls really enjoyed using the math memory aids this year. It made understanding math concept easier.

36. As you know, my field is elementary music K-2. I was able to make and use materials to teach basic concept of music such as note value, note identification, basic signs, scale reading and rests. This was a tremendous help in teaching these things. Now I have even kindergarten children who can identify notes, their value, and the letter they have depending on staff placement, and the results go up from their. These chart and posters are on my walls and make easy referral to them so that they have become an integrated pan of instruction. Children who only thought music was singing are now beginning to express some interest in writing music. (Note: This is an example of a teacher using my ideas to develop his own memory aids.)

37. In my classroom I had some children who could not recognize upper and lower case letters out of sequence, and the memory aids helped them. The vowel rules were fun and exciting to the children. The bullies as consonants were something the children could relate to, therefore making it easier to understand and enjoyable. There was also an increase in retention of math facts due to the visual aids.

38. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas with Pine Bluff. My children remembered easier this year than before with the memory aids. They were away to remember. For those having trouble with sounds, it was made easier for them.

39. I have been teaching 23 years and never has teaching reading been so exciting. We not only used the story cards and art activities, be we also added our own little dramatic touches. Teaching vowel rules was a breeze. The early stories and creative touches sparked such creativity in my first graders that they were writing their own stories shortly after Christmas. An educational reading specialist visited my room in February and was absolutely overwhelmed by the expression and drama my children used in their regular daily reading lessons. She wanted to video them. She couldn't believe first grader could do this. Although I had a low ability group the materials helped us finish within average range in national norms on the MAT-6 Test and what fun we had doing it.

40.  Multiplication memory aid posters were used in my class. My low students were able to memorize their facts just by glancing at the posters. When posters were taken down students still had no problem with their multiplication facts. 

4l.  Never before have the facts from 11 to 18 been so fun to learn or so easy to learn.  I plan to reuse the memory aids every year. 

42.  The children really enjoyed the art work and posters for the math facts.  They were the major force in retention of these facts.

43.  We made math memory aid booklets.  This was a great motivator and really enhanced their learning.

44.  My kids are resource so I do not have a "homeroom" as such.  But I took each of their individual scores from 89-90 and 90-91 and totaled and divided by 9 (my total) for the class summary scores in math.  Using the memory aids in math produced positive results.  The textbook was the same as last year.

45.  Your visual aids on the diagraphs are fantastic.  The students learned them faster and remembered them!   I have taught first grade for 17 years and last year was the first time I used your aids!  They were great!  I intend to use them from now on.  Your memory aids for vowels are also great.  Thanks again for your ideas.

46.  With your memory aids I was able to teach my kindergarten students their math facts.  It was amazing.


Boham, Harry J. and Peggy Shawaker.  "Using Manipulatives Effectively: A Drive Down Rounding Road." Arithmetic Teacher 41 (January 1994) 246-248.

Frust, Bruno. You Can Remember. Chicago, Il: Memory and Concentration Studies (1963).

Jones, Susan C. "Memory Aids for Reading and Math." Final Report U.S. Department of Education's Christa McAuliffe Fellowship (1991)

Joyce, Bruce, James Wolf, and Emily Calhoun. The-Self Renewing School. Alexandria, VA ASCD (1992).

Marzano, Robert J. A different Kind of Classroom Teaching with Dimensions of Learning. Alexandra, VA ASCD (1992).

O'Daffer, Phares G. "Its Time to Use our "OOB" Detectors!" Arithmetic Teacher 40 (March 1993) p.376

O'Neil, John. "Wanted: Deep Understanding "Constructivism" Posits New Conception of Learning" Update. 34 Alexandria, VA ASCD (March 92) p5.

Squire, Larry R.  "Unlocking the Secrets of Memory." Science Year. Chicago: World Book (1985) 169-181.

Zellman, Anton J. Memory Magic. (Audio Tape) Burroughs Wellcome Co. (1992)

Wolfe, Patricia.  BRAIN MATTERS Translating Research into Classroom Practice.  Alexandria, VA ASCD (2001)

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