The Value of Mnemonics for Teaching Letter-Sound Relations

© 2016, Capit Learning, Inc.


Why Letters Make the Sounds they Do?

  • Why does the letter “s” make the sound /s/?

  • Why does the letter “L” make the sound /l/?

Kids ask tough questions. There is no reason the letter “s” makes the sound /s/, or that the letter “L” makes the sound /l/. This is what has been decided, and we are stuck with it. In other words, the relationship between letters and their sounds is entirely arbitrary. Students must memorize multiple arbitrary correspondences between letters and their sounds (a task known by psychologists as PAL: Paired-Associate Learning).

This is why “reading” has a “decoding component, and “writing” has an “encoding” component. All “codes” must be hidden, or they would be decipherable. Hence, all relationships within a code MUST be arbitrary.

What happens when a student can’t remember a correspondence between a sound and a spelling? For most instructors the answer is: Repeat! Repetition almost always works…eventually. But there is a better way.

Visual Mnemonics as Cognitive Super Glue
Research and experience indicate that Visual Mnemonics are an efficient (and fun) method of helping students remember the relationship between the sound of a letter and its visual representation. A Visual Mnemonic is like “cognitive super glue,” magically and quickly pairing together “Sounds” and “Spellings” to one another with a lasting bond.

Below is a quote from the National Reading Panel Report (2000) regarding the value of mnemonics for teaching letter-sound relations:

The value of mnemonics for teaching letter-sound relations to kindergartners is supported by evidence. In a study by Ehri, Deffner, and Wilce (1984), children were shown letters drawn to assume the shape of a familiar object, for example, s drawn as a snake, h drawn as a house (with a chimney). Memory for the letter-sound relations was mediated by the name of the object. Children were taught to look at the letter, be reminded of the object, say its name, and isolate the first sound of the name to identify the sound (i.e., s snake -/s/). With practice they were able to look at the letters and promptly say their sounds. Children who were taught letters in this way learned them better than children who were taught letters by rehearsing the relations with pictures unrelated to the letter shapes (e.g., house drawn with a flat roof and no chimney) and also better than children who simply rehearsed the associations without any pictures. Application of this principle can be found in Letterland (Wendon, 1992), a program that teaches kindergartners letter-sound associations. In this program, all the letters are animate characters that assume the shape of the letters and have names prompting the relevant sound, for example, Sammy Snake, Hairy Hat Man, Fireman Fred, Annie Apple. The task of learning the shapes and sounds of all the alphabet letters is difficult and time-consuming, particularly for children who come to school knowing none. The relations are arbitrary and meaningless. Techniques to speed up the learning process are valuable in helping kindergartners prepare for formal reading instruction. The motivational value of associating letters with interesting characters or hand motions and incorporating this into activities and games that are fun is important for promoting young children’s learning. If the task of teaching letters is stripped bare to one of memorizing letter shapes and sounds, children will become bored and easily distracted and will take much longer to learn the associations. (NRP 2-125)

(To learn more about The National Reading Panel, CLICK HERE. To download the full report, CLICK HERE. It is long, but well worth the read.)

Mnemonics are memory aids. The reason mnemonic devices help students learn to read is because they remove the “arbitrary” nature of reading and offer “objective” explanations. Let’s revisit our original questions:

  • Why does the letter “s” make the sound /s/?

  • Why does the letter “L” make the sound /l/?

Let’s supply a mnemonic—in our case, a Visual Mnemonic—to answer these questions:

The letter “s” looks like a “saxophone,” and the letter “L” looks like a “Laptop.” A visual mnemonic helps establish an objective association in the student’s mind between the Sound and Spelling, unburdening the student’s memory, and easing the learning process. The letter “s” looks like something real, a “saxophone,” and the word “saxophone” begins with the Sound /s/. The letter “L” looks like something real, a “Laptop,” and the word “Laptop” begins with the Sound /l/. The relationship between the letter and the sound is no longer arbitrary. Instead, it is objective and real.

Finding the Right Mnemonics
Finding the right Visual Mnemonic for every letter in the English alphabet—both lowercase and uppercase—is not an easy task. For the Visual Mnemonic to work its magic, it has to both “Look” like the letter, and begin with the same “Sound” (phoneme).

This would disqualify all Auditory Mnemonics—which are mnemonics based on a sound association alone—but don’t have a visual resemblance to the letter. For example, words like “Light, Ladder, or Lamb” are Auditory Mnemonics for the letter “L,” but because they do not look like the letter “L,” they cannot play the role of a Visual Mnemonic. When a student gazes at the letter “L,” she will not be reminded of the “Sound” of the letter simply by looking at its shape, because the shape of the letter “L” will not remind the student of neither the “Light, Ladder, or Lamb.” 

This would disqualify the “snake” from being used as a visual mnemonic for the letter “s,” as a snake does not look like an “s” most of the time, but rather like the lowercase letter “l” (meaning: a straight line). It is easy to bend the mnemonic into any shape you desire, but then it won't work as a mnemonic device.

At this point an objection might be raised: children are more familiar with snakes than saxophones, and there are many children who have never heard of or even seen a saxophone. Perhaps the snake would serve as a better mnemonic for the letter “s”?

In our experience, the saxophone beats the snake every time. Here are the reasons why:

  1. The snake DOES NOT look like the letter “s” in its natural shape, and therefore cannot, and does not serve as a Visual Mnemonic. The saxophone does not suffer from this problem.

  2. Children's minds are built to acquire new vocabulary words at a staggering rate. When students did not know what a saxophone was, we told them, and they remembered (it usually took about two to three repetitions). The Visual Mnemonic stuck and did its job.

The moral of this digression is clear: choosing a Visual Mnemonic is extremely delicate, and cannot be done willy-nilly. In order for the Visual Mnemonic to do its trick, it has to look like the letter in its natural position.

The mnemonics used in the CAPIT Reading program were carefully selected. We combed the dictionaries and toy stores, conducted focus groups with 5 year-olds, and then tested them for over 4 years on students of all ages and backgrounds. So far they work. But we are constantly learning and making iterative changes based on feedback from our users—both students and teachers.

If you have ideas of your own, please share them with us. We love feedback.

How We Got Our Name

Our name—CAPIT—was carefully chosen. It is an acronym for Concept And Personality Integration Technique and is reflective of our educational philosophy: we take deep Concepts and give them Personality so students can Integrate them into their growing body of knowledge.

Our Visual Mnemonics help students remember the relationships between Phonemes (abstract Concepts) and their corresponding Spellings by giving each Spelling a Personality. This is done by transforming the Spelling into a real-world object (saxophones and Laptops). In short: our Visual Mnemonics dress abstract Concepts (/s/ and /l/) with Personality (saxophone and Laptop). Hence our name: CAPIT: Concept And Personality Integration Technique.