What is a mnemonic system?
A mnemonic system is an aid to memory. It's a way of helping learners to remember something. In phonics we are introducing young children to a large complex system of letter shapes that correspond to sounds (then trying to put it all together to read and write words). For some children, simply looking at the letter shape and hearing (then saying) the sound, repeated day after day, is all they need for them to remember. However there are lots of children who struggle to remember which sound goes with which letter/s.
Examples of mnemonic systems:
Jolly Phonics uses actions. Look at this video by Little Learners to see the Jolly Phonics mnemonic system.
Read Write Inc uses pictures that are drawn onto the letter shapes. Look at this video to see the mnemonic being used in a phonics lesson.
Phonics International and Floppy's Phonics both use key pictures and key words. Here is Debbie Hepplewhite demonstrating some sound and letter correspondences using her key pictures and key words.
The case against using a mnemonic system...
When I was teaching phonics to Reception aged children (aged 4 - 5 years) I mostly used the Jolly Phonics programme. The children adored the characters, storylines - and the mnemonic system with its actions. The problem was that after a few weeks of teaching I wanted the children to be able to look at a letter and say the corresponding sound without doing the action and repeating the sound multiple times "a - a - a - ants on my arm". I needed to hold up a flashcard with the letter shape on 's' and for them to reply with the sound /s/ - and nothing else. But they didn't. Every letter I held up induced a chorus of repeated sounds and actions. This meant that when children came to blend for reading they read 'pan' as "p, p, p, p, p, a, a, a, ants on my arm, nnnnnnnnnn net". I just wanted "p - a - n, pan". Was it so much to ask?
Poor children - the mnemonic system that was helping them to initially remember the sound for the letter was in fact causing a barrier, preventing them from moving forwards. I found myself needing to actively unteach the very mnemonics that had been designed to help them.
So, do the benefits of having the mnemonic system outweigh the bad habit that becomes quickly engrained and must be untaught? Should we bother with mnemonics? Can the children manage without it?
I decided to experiment one September by not using a mnemonic system. I introduced each letter/sound correspondence in as pure and simple a way as possible. I held up the letter on a flashcard and said, "This is /s/. You say it, /s/". The result? 50% of the cohort managed completely fine without, the other 50% struggled and we needed to do far more over-learning and repetition to help them to remember.
I learned that a mnemonic system is worth it - but you need to move on from it as soon as the children are ready and don't allow it to linger around unnecessarily, becoming engrained and preventing a smooth transition to blending. Mnemonic systems can be extremely useful when talking about spelling alternatives too. I'll save that for a separate post and link it here.
I must mention that in recent times I have been working with some schools who have completely abandoned the use of a mnemonic system. Although it's not what I personally would do, you can't argue with their excellent consistent results. They've focused on purity, repetition and consistency. They've eliminated and stripped back anything not essential to teaching the Synthetic Phonics Teaching Principles.
Abigail Steel is an Education Consultant for Early Years (EYFS) and Primary (KS1 & 2) Language and Literacy. Her specialist area is Synthetic Phonics.
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