Memory Scaffolding

Updated: Feb 7

Much of what we teach about memory at Got-A-Head®? might be called ‘memory scaffolding’. We call it that because it works as a support for memories. We might only need it temporarily, or we might have to keep it in place until we have built those items into long term memory.


We create memories by associating things we experience with things we already have in our long-term memory. Often, we need to forget and then repeat the experience again and again until things ‘stick’; remembering requires repetition.


But what happens when we need to remember things temporarily or only need to remember them infrequently, so we don’t repeatedly bring them to mind? What happens when we need to remember lots of things that are not easy to relate together, so it’s difficult to create the associations critical to memorisation? Our children are often in this situation. They might need to remember football boots and clarinet for school on Wednesday, recall the order of five verses of a song, and to remember all their different bits of homework.

Memory scaffolding

To help with this, we teach children to use different types of memory scaffolding. The techniques work in slightly different ways, but the concepts are the same. Namely, to give the user artificial hooks off which it is easy to hang a memory, and a structure so that groups of disconnected things can be memorised. Like scaffolding, the neat thing is that these techniques can be used again and again, because of how our brains work to solve different problems. Or, again like scaffolding, left up so you can recall the memories repeatedly until you have made them permanent.


This blog should be read in conjunction with some of our other blogs such as: “Flame, Fuse, Fire!”, “Vivid Associations” and “Weird Words, the Foreign and the Abstract”. As with all our work, we remind everyone we are not selling miracle cures. All these techniques need you and your child to put in the effort. The more you use them, the better they’ll work.


Here are some of the ‘scaffolding’ techniques we use. Check out our individual blog entries for them.


1 I REALLY LIKED…

For remembering small, simple lists for a short period of time we recommend starting with the number shape or number rhyme systems. Tony Buzan has a clear description of them in his book, “Use your Memory”. You come up with ten peg objects which either look like the numbers 1 to 10, for the number shape system, or whose names sound like the words, “one” to “ten”, the number rhyme system. You then imagine the things you want to remember interacting with your peg words. These are useful when you want to remember a few ad hoc things when you are out and about without a pen and paper, such as what pictures you liked going around a gallery so you can talk about them afterwards.


Pegs give you something to hook memories on

2 WEEKLY LISTS

Children often have to take different things to school on different days of the week: sports kit one day, a musical instrument on another, drama costume on a third. We recommend using a memory palace, with rooms, to help with this. Our memory palace is the lower floor of our house, with the downstairs cloakroom used for Monday, the box room for Tuesday, the stairwell Wednesday, the kitchen Thursday, the Lounge Friday and the hall for every day. Our daughter mentally hangs the items on fixtures in those rooms as an aide-mémoire for what she needs to take to school.


3 REGULAR ACTIVITIES

If you have children, you probably will not be astounded to read that our daughter has a problem with homework. Quite apart from doing it, she forgets to bring new work home, and she forgets to take completed work back to school. We use a Flame, Fuse, Fire! technique to help her remember to do things when she gets to school in the morning and when she leaves it in the afternoon. But that is only half the battle. She now needs to remember what to do next.


There are various ways of doing this, but what we have done is to create an acrostic for her, Clarinet, Homework, Unusual, Music Bag or CHUM. When she gets to school, she imagines she needs to take one of her CHUMs off her cloak room peg before hanging up her school bag. That’s the cue to get her to remember her music lesson, to give in her homework, to give her teacher any unusual items such as correspondence etc and to cache her music bag. When she leaves school, she takes her coat off her peg and mentally hangs her CHUM back on it, so remembering the same things for the homeward trip. Acrostics are really useful for this. CHUM was a lucky fit for our particular needs, but we could have based the acrostic on any concrete object that can be hung on a peg. We could have also ignored vowels, if necessary, or added in a filler word to make the acrostic fit.


4 LISTS OF PROMPTS

Our daughter recently had a poem to perform for an exam. She knew the words of her poem, but often missed a verse out or got the verses in the wrong order. To sort out this problem we took a strong word from the start of each verse and composed a new sentence, “Damp-eyed mice face moon”.


The two important things to bear in mind here is that the sentence should be a sentence and have meaning; a collection of words without a connected meaning won’t be memorable. Secondly, the words themselves should be strong prompts for what you are trying to remember.


In this case, this sentence with these prompt words worked a treat. She worked her way down the sentence prompt word by prompt word and each prompt was enough to allow her to recite the appropriate verse of her poem. Composing a sentence with prompt words is very effective provided you do not add too many filler words to your prompt words to make your sentence scan.


5 TAKING THE REGISTER

All of these scaffolding techniques share a common thread. They involve having a list of things that you can easily remember and link to it things you find difficult to remember. The 19th Century mnemonist Kikojiro Wadamori described such techniques as “registering”. You can make a ‘registry’ up in all sorts of ways. Another one would be to create a list of concrete nouns that have an ordered combination of consonants and vowels; for example, ‘baby’, ‘bear’, ‘bird’, ‘box’, ‘bull’, ‘cat’ et cetera. You could then use these in a link image as we did with CHUM and the coat peg, or in a mnemonic sentence such as “the BABY threatened to drop the hen” if the German word ‘drohen’, ‘to threaten’ was in your vocab list for this week. There are endless ways of composing registers and using them to help you remember things. They just take practice to use.


6 BIBLIOGRAPHY

These books are worth reading on this subject, Fiona McPherson’s being the most detailed.

They are all available on Amazon.


Fiona McPherson, Mnemonics for Study (part of her excellent study skills series)

Tony Buzan, The Memory Book: How to Remember Anything you Want

Sjur Midttun How to Build a Memory Palace


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