Make it sticky: helping students to remember technical vocabulary

The 15 Minute Forum was led by Andy Tharby and focussed on a simple, but effective technique of helping students to remember technical vocabulary.

As Daniel Willingham states:

“… memories are inaccessible mostly due to missing or ambiguous cues. Thus, to minimize forgetting, we [need to] focus on ways to ensure that we have cues and that they are distinctive.” – What will improve a student’s memory? (2008)

In addition to this, students are being asked to remember an increasing amount of and increasingly challenging Tier 3 vocabulary. The new GCSE specifications demand that students use accurate subject-specific vocabulary in their writing to reach the higher grades. But, more importantly, having a knowledge and understanding of this ‘technical’ language will help increase student’s social mobility beyond GCSE.

However, technical vocabulary is an issue that students often struggle with. As Andy stated, there are two reasons for this:

  • students sometimes understand the concept but forget the word
  • words with similar spellings and concepts are easy to confuse
    • fibula/tibia
    • metaphor/simile
    • stalactite/stalagmite

Whilst, it is important for students to develop their own memory techniques, the responsibility for providing accurate and memorable ‘cues’ lies with us (the teachers). These ‘cues’ will then provide a starting point and stimulate a student’s recall ability.

The solution?picture2

One simple, but effective strategy to help students memorise this ‘technical’ vocabulary is to introduce the idea of mnemonics. Mnemonics which are effective, will help strengthen word memory and concept memory. This is particularly true, when the concept is abstract or removed from the student’s personal experiences. Andy suggested three ways of approaching the creation of effective mnemonics:

  1. Word stories (etymology)
    • an example would be oxymoron
    • oxy (from the ancient Greek oxus – meaning sharp)
    • moron (from moros – meaning stupid person)
    • in essence the word oxymoron is an oxymoron as it means a ‘sharp, stupid person’
  2. Associations (linking new words to familiar concepts)
    • an example would be stalactites
    • tights hanging down from a washing line
    • the important aspect of this mnemonic is that students develop a mental image and link that image to the vocabulary.
  3. Word attack (morphology) – looking at how words are formed
    • an example would be socialism
    • through questioning of the students, they are able to unpick their understanding of the word social and then link this to the term socialism.

The most important aspect of an effective mnemonic is that it is memorable. A fellow English teacher at Durrington had said that she had never forgotten the order of the fibula and tibia because of the following mnemonic:


‘fibula has a u in it, therefore it is under the tibia’

Andy concluded the 15 Minute Forum by suggesting the following tips:

  1. Make a list of the words that students struggle with in your subject. What are the common misconceptions?
  2. Invent mnemonics, look online or ask other teachers.
  3. Teach the mnemonic when you introduce the topic. Start the student’s learning by associating that concept with the mnemonic.
  4. Regularly practise using the mnemonic to help students remember it more effectively.


Posted by Martyn Simmonds

Tharby 15 min forum from Jason Ramasami on Vimeo.

This entry was posted in 15 Minute Forums, General Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Make it sticky: helping students to remember technical vocabulary

  1. Reblogged this on Design Technology & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    Helping students to remember technical vocabulary…

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