The absolute curses of retention and organisation: needlessly yawing mnemonics

I love poetry. Actually the truth is – as I often tell my pupils – I love some poetry. Whenever a pupil says “I hate poetry”, I usually tell them it’s like saying “I hate music” – a sweeping statement that doesn’t really express the truth: The Cure genuinely send shivers down my neck, whereas Nickelback make me do a little bit of sick in my mouth. Likewise, Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ stirs me, but I never really felt the remotest of interest in Tony Harrison’s ‘v.’

On paper, ‘v.’ should say more to me than ‘Prufrock’. Harrison’s poem is written in and of a time contemporary to my growing up and the class-laden references are entirely familiar to me, whereas Eliot writes of manners and allusions that I have had to work at to understand. In terms of accessibility, the directness of ‘v.’ should trump the ambiguity of ‘Prufrock’, yet for some reason the subtle, arcane and foreign emotions expressed in the latter have a far greater pull for me.

If poetry was written as a formula, I’m sure I’d be more drawn to the formula of ‘v.’ than that of ‘Prufrock’. But poetry isn’t like that. Ultimately, it’s irreducible, perhaps because it is itself a reduction (of language).

As teachers, we often try to reduce complex ideas to formulas. One way that we do this is to create acronyms as mnemonics. It’s entirely well meaning, and I’m sure there are examples of memorable and effective acronyms. But often they are clumsy attempts to reduce the irreducible.

It always surprises me to see the same comments year after year on the AQA examiner’s reports for the poetry exam. They argue that there’s an over-reliance on these acronyms, suggesting that they are holding pupils back. Despite this problem being noted by the exam board every year, here it is highlighted again (and again) in the most recent reports:

Higher Lit Poetry June 14
AQA Report on the Examination – GCSE English Literature, Poetry Across Time, June 2014, Higher paper
AQA Report on the Examination - Poetry Across Time, June 2014, Foundation paper
AQA Report on the Examination – GCSE English Literature, Poetry Across Time, June 2014, Foundation paper

And it isn’t just in poetry that these acronyms hinder pupils. The examiners’ reports for the English Language GCSE also suggest that language analysis seems to suffer because of a reliance on acronyms too.

AQA Report on the Examination - GCSE English, November 2014, Foundation paper
AQA Report on the Examination – GCSE English Language, November 2014, Foundation paper (note the pun at the end – even English examiners can’t help being playful with language)

That is not to say that acronyms can’t be useful. When I did closed book exams during my degree, I’d memorise quotes that might be helpful. And to help do this, I’d initially commit to memory the first letter of each quote. This meant that I might have 12-15 letters to remember, so I would arrange them so that they would produce a pseudoword: a nonsense word that followed spelling patterns of English words, despite it having no meaning. The reason for this is that I could commit it to memory as one, pronounceable word, rather than a series of letters – what we know as chunking.

This was perfectly serviceable for what I needed. The acronyms themselves were usually gibberish because I’d have to be pretty lucky if what I needed to remember could actually spell out real English words. Apropos of this, it means that I’m usually pretty sceptical about the utility of an acronym if it happens to conveniently spell out a word. I’m even more suspicious if that word happens to link to the topic.

Something like this, for instance, fills me with worry.

This mnemonic is suggested for pupils to use in analysing a poem. It’s awfully convenient that it spells out the word POETIC, isn’t it? Okay, let’s look at why it might cause problems…

Purpose – This is clarified by “the meaning of the poem?” Wait, do you want me to think about the purpose or the meaning? Those are different things, and it probably isn’t helpful to conflate them. Now, I can work with ‘meaning’ – that’s what we do when we read poetry: interpret meaning. But I’m not sure it’s always our place to decipher the purpose of a poem. Why did Sylvia Plath write ‘Cut’? We can read biographical information into the poem, but not sure we should be discerning purpose.

Organisation – Okay, this is useful. What we might call ‘structure’ and ‘form’.

Emotive Tone – Again, this might be useful. But I would suggest that this isn’t isolated from Organisation and Techniques. It is important that pupils see how tone is created through these things.

Techniques – Okay. But I would suggest that Language is what we should look for, and if there are specific techniques in that language we might discuss them. Feature-spotting is a common mistake made in analysing poetry.

Individual words – Ah – this is the Language I was talking about. But why is it ‘Individual words’? It goes on to specify ‘words and phrases’, so ‘individual’ is a misnomer.

Contrast – Right… isn’t this to do with language? At best it’s a technique, if we follow this mnemonic? Why does it needs its own category? If only there was some sort of justification… wait – “there will always be a contrast in a well-written poem”. Hmm. That’s a bit of a sweeping value judgement, isn’t it?

Whilst there are arguably some useful directions for pupils in this acronym, they are often clouded by distant synonyms which obfuscate the real meanings – Purpose actually means ‘meaning’, which is a different thing entirely, and  Individual words isn’t just asking for individual words, it’s asking for phrases. And if it isn’t clouding meaning, it’s deviating from the utility of the mnemonic by adding in things that don’t need to be there – Contrast is an unnecessary focus. By needlessly yawing off course like this, we are asking pupils to store redundant information in their memories.

Here’s another example of an acronym that might actually make things harder for pupils. This is for close reading of a text.


Yet again fortune has given us the letters to spell a word linked to the topic! But if you look at the words that CLOSE helps us remember, you’ll notice that they aren’t actually content words – they aren’t the actual things we want pupils to remember. CheckLookObserveStudy and Examine do not only arguably operate as function words in the sentences they are in, they are also almost synonyms of each other (making it even more difficult to discern them from one another). What we would want pupils to remember in each of these sections would be unknown wordsideas and detailsbook and text featuressentence structures and author’s message or theme. How CLOSE helps us remember those is really a leap of faith.

I absolutely understand the intentions behind using these – they are utterly well meaning. We desperately want to break down information for our pupils, and acronyms seem a good way of doing this. However, in breaking it down this way we often make common mistakes.

If we must use mnemonics like this, perhaps it is best to first ask the following question:

  • Am I trying to reduce the irreducible? For example, can this topic really be studied effectively using a formulaic approach? Or better still, should it be studied this way?

And if we then decide to use an acronym as a memory aide, it is important that every word represented in that acronym counts. Avoid deferring to a synonym because its initial fits the acronym more neatly – synonyms carry with them different meanings and so confuse what is needed. And then we should make sure that we don’t add extra information just so that we have letters that neatly spell out a word. This is unnecessarily deviating from the purpose of the acronym. Why would we want someone to remember something they don’t need to?

We need pupils to remember stuff. But perhaps we should be a bit more precise when using acronyms. In the battle to get pupils to remember, we have created these absolute curses of retention and organisation: needlessly yawing mnemonics.

Now if only there was a way I could remember that last statement…

13 thoughts on “The absolute curses of retention and organisation: needlessly yawing mnemonics”

  1. I think English teachers also use acronyms because they want something more concrete and specific to point to in their marking and feedback. Pupil asks, “How could I get a higher grade?” and the teacher has a pat response, “Use more SMILE.” Then it all becomes terribly self-reinforcing, as the pupil strives to use the acronym more and more. Using exemplar answers instead could avoid this kind of over-simplification, as a really good answer will never be formulaic.

    1. Yes, I think it’s a short cut, isn’t it? And we are so busy and teaching is difficult so I don’t blame teachers for trying to find them. It’s just that they often create more problems than they solve.

  2. I use a mnemonic, though not an acronym, for unseen poetry analysis, and essay structure, and now I’m wondering about its value. I’ve been using it for too long without reflection, I think.

    For the record, the mnemonic is “What’s poetry? Something I Like, perhaps.” where the initial letter of each word is taken to stand for :

    What’s it about?
    Perspective or voice,
    Personal response.

    It is supposed to offer a quick essay plan and structure as much as to determine content, but I’ve probably been guilty of relying on it too heavily.

    Nice post; thanks.

  3. We don’t use many acronyms in maths, but you might be interested to hear that one commonly used mnemonic leads directly to serious misconceptions. The acronym BIDMAS helps students remember the order of mathematical operations (brackets, indices, division, multiplication, addition, subtraction). But it is unforgivably misleading, in that the order of the acronym suggests that division should come before multiplication, and addition before subtraction, when in fact these operations are equivalent so one does not take priority over the other. The acronym, which is used in both primary and secondary classrooms throughout the world, leads directly to incorrect mathematics. Our students, made to memorise a misleading mnemonic, have no chance of getting it right. Unfortunately many teachers don’t know the correct order of operations either. This is an excellent example of a mnemonic doing more harm than good.

    1. Thanks for sharing that Jem – I’m certain that these acronyms can do damage across lots of subjects. Yours is a great example of where we do harm when the intention is well meaning.

  4. I think that like all things they have their place – as a ‘writing frame’ they are a disaster as students demonstrate little towards assessed skills, equally as a a way of teaching the text they limit a students engagement with it – however I have still been using them this year.

    For some students, usually capable and confident writers, exam conditions squeeze their ideas out of them and they don’t know what to write here is an example of how I have used STAR WARS as an acronym to help unpick the ideas in a poem if stuck. Definitely not as a way to write a response and only as a last resort!

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