Using Mnemonics to Comprehend Narrative by Evan Vargas

Stories are everywhere; they seem to be things we gravitate to. As teachers we see the importance of narratives, for they allow us to make connections to the world and deepen our understanding of ourselves. Teaching students how to both enjoy a story and notice patterns that help them better connect to the world, however, can be a struggle. During my teaching career, I have noticed students struggle comprehending the difference between a conflict in a story and its climax. Such misunderstandings tend to reveal gaps in their understanding grander things such as morals and personal connections that create deeper meanings for the reader.

One spring semester in particular, close to the time of yearly high-stakes testing, my learners were struggling with elements of plot. Students were confusing terms such as “resolution,” “climax,” and “turning point.” They also seemed to struggle connecting those terms to the fiction they read. After looking over Freytag’s famous pyramid or mountain for the hundredth time, I thought how could I condense this diagram of essential plot elements into a simple phrase that was not only easily remembered but applied.

I knew that mnemonics were a great way to help memorization, for these were things that I had used in my early education. I could recall acronyms that helped me retain the colors of the rainbow from educational television shows like Beakman’s World (ROYGBIV). According to Putnam, mnemonics help improve memory. In the case of reading, as Freed et al. have found, the process of reading is a “complex skill, involving both domain-general and language-specific abilities” and “multiple component processes” (135). A mnemonic to aid one aspect of the reading process can help learners reflect on their own learning, as they then ask themselves, after using cues from a mnemonic, what are they to do next. Also, as Swart et al. have found, vocabulary knowledge is strongly associated with reading comprehension skills—not just knowledge of word meanings, but also knowledge about the connections between words. Knowledge of words and word relationships is of particular importance to speakers of languages other than English (Joh and Plakans 115). In short, I saw great potential in any tool that could help students retain the terms and relationships in the crucial concept of narrative structure.

Mnemonic Based on Freytag’s Pyramid: “Spra Climt Far”

Since mnemonics are memorable and easy to implement, I thought about how I could incorporate the plot elements into an acronym in order to have learners be able to recall them during their exams. Since Freytag’s model is sequential, I decided to lay those terms out, subtract here and there, and arrive at this acronym: spra climt far. It is three one-syllable words, consisting of two made up words and one real word. (Savill et al. have argued that nonwords, like real words, can be powerful tools for recall.) Setting, problem, and rising action, “s-p-ra,” are grouped together in the made-up word: “spra.” Similarly, climax and turning point are grouped together in the made up word “climt.” Finally, falling action and resolution are grouped together in the real word “far.”

As I implemented this tool, one thing that became immediately clear to my learners was the sequentiality of the mnemonic: spra climt far. They realized that the concepts moved from left to right, essentially from beginning, middle, and end. With one direct teaching of this concept in under two minutes and simply handing my learners an index card, I could see that they were able to write down the mnemonic and explain their parts. After checking their index cards, ninety-percent of the students were able to get both the acronym and the plot elements correct.

Figure 1: Freytag’s pyramid

However, after I had compiled more data from a catalyst benchmark exam taken by the same students, I had other suspicions concerning their ability to summarize, determine theme, and spot character traits. According to Yang et al., “‘Evaluation’ may be a determining factor for vocabulary learning” (39). Therefore, it seemed logical to me to extend the mnemonic with concepts related to summary and evaluation of a story. To incorporate those elements, I added one more made up word to the acronym: dats. Drawing, adjectives, theme, and summary.

What I had students do in order to construct this graphic organizer is simply utilize a blank sheet of paper. Typically allowing a learner a blank sheet of paper is permissible during high-stakes testing. This depends on the criteria per exam, and would require the teacher to check with their administrators for prior approval. A blank sheet of paper provides the best results, for this paper can be kept besides them as they acquire the needed information to document their comprehension. Students simply fold the paper in half lengthwise. (This is called “hot dog style” in Texas.) Next, fold it in half so it appears to be a big wallet. Then fold one more time as if you are closing that wallet. After unfolding the paper, you should see eight rectangles. Students then fill in the boxes with the acronym, as illustrated below.

S setting* … is the place where … live, which can be described as …   P problem*   A problem I see is … because the text said, “… ” I think the problem is external/internal because … and I can predict … because …D drawing
R rising actionsA adjectives
Clim climax     T turning pointT theme
Fa falling action     R resolutionS summary
Figure 2: “spra climt far” organizer with sample sentence stems

S Drylands of Kansas   P The hare challenged the tortoise.D   [see sample picture here]
R The hare accepted the challenge. The hare sped off and took a nap. The tortoise kept on.A The modest tortoise. The arrogant hare.
Clim The tortoise crossed the finish line.   T The hare became forlorn while the tortoise became honorable.T Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Fa The hare left town.   R The tortoise was seen as a hero.S A challenge is made in the drylands of Kansas. An overconfident hare neglects his adversary, the tortoise, and loses the race when he wakes up. Afterwards, the hare leaves town, and the tortoise is a local hero.
Figure 3: Example using “The Tortoise and the Hare”

Scaffolding and Extending the Mnemonic

There are many existing technology tools that can assist with comprehension and integration of mnemonics. To list a few, MindMup, shared Google Docs, and Padlet are wonderful applications with most allowing interactive feedback, such as the ability to offer notes or intervene when learners are flummoxed. When an individual learner is having trouble with the problem in their spra climt far dats—which the teacher can easily make by using the tables function in Google Docs—the teacher might click on the cursor and edit live. MindMup is another great tool for brainstorming or gathering ideas, allowing learners to take notes on characterization or simply compile important text evidence from their books, which they can later integrate into a spra climt far dats summary sheet. Below is an example of a Mindmup characterization concept for the book The Outsiders.

Figure 4: Mindmup characterization example using The Outsiders

As students begin to analyze stories according to my mnemonic, I have found several ways to apply and extend this sort of thinking. For instance, I sometimes have them create twists on children’s stories that they are familiar with. I  tell them to change two to three plot elements and see where that takes them. Students create versions that reflect their interests—sports, fashion, folklore, etc.—and I am able to get to know them better. Similarly, I have students utilize the mnemonic when they develop personal narratives. After having learners brainstorm a few ideas, they can easily fill the mnemonic for two to three stories and garner a better discussion with their peers as they advise each other about their choices. Students can also use this mnemonic for creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction. In short, this  mnemonic is very useful in showing learners how fictional patterns apply across different genres, as well as being able to create nonfiction narratives based on facts from famous people that catches the learner’s interest.

Finally, I help speakers of LOTE and other students develop academic language and syntactic complexity by having them follow specific sentence stems as they complete the plot analysis. Hopefully, through the use of mnemonics like this one, teachers can help bridge the complexities involved with understanding plot, comprehending texts, and developing syntactic complexity.

Works Cited

Freed, Erin, et al. “Comprehension in Proficient Readers: The  Nature of Individual Variation.” Journal of Memory and Language, vol. 97, 2017, pp. 135-153.

“Freytag’s Pyramid” (image). Retrieved from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg

Joh, Jeongsoon, & Lia Plakans. “Working Memory in L2 Reading Comprehension: The Influence of  Prior Knowledge.” System, vol. 70, 2017, pp. 107-120.

Putnam, Adam L. “Mnemonics in Education: Current Research and Applications.” Translational Issues in Psychological Science, vol. 1, no. 2, 2015, pp. 130-139.

Savill, Nicola, et al. “Newly-Acquired Words Are More Phonologically Robust in Verbal Short-Term Memory When They Have Associated Semantic Representations.” Neuropsychologia, vol. 98, 2017, pp. 85-97.

Swart, Nicole M., et al. “Differential Lexical Predictors of Reading Comprehension in Fourth Graders.” Reading and Writing, vol. 30, 2017, pp. 489-507.

Yang, Yingli, et al. “The Effectiveness of Post-Reading Word-Focused Activities and Their Associations with Working Memory.” System, vol. 70, 2017, pp.  38-49.

Learn more about Evan Vargas on our Contributors page

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