Keyword Method: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Using mnemonics like the keyword method is a great way to memorize vocabulary words. Learn the definition of the keyword method, why it works, and several examples to illustrate this helpful memory trick.

What Is the Keyword Method?

School comes with its fair share of vocabulary tests. It can be quite tricky and perplexing to memorize 20 new words along with their spellings and definitions. Some people just have a naturally strong memory. Most rely on mnemonics, which are mechanisms, such as images and rhymes, used to help memorize something.

The keyword method is a mnemonic. The keyword method , a valuable technique used to memorize the meaning behind vocabulary words, is when a person uses what a word sounds like to visualize something memorable that will help them later recall the definition.


Let's look at the word, 'aplomb.' This is a common middle-school vocabulary word. It means, 'coolness and composure under strain.'

  • When fantasy character Harry Potter faced the villain, he remained aplomb despite the fact that he knew he was about to die.

A student studying this vocabulary word could say that 'aplomb' sounds a bit like 'a plum' and they could visualize a cold plum straight from the refrigerator that remained cool and composed even though it was underneath a lot of other fruits and vegetables ('under strain').

When it comes time for their vocabulary test, the word 'aplomb' will carry with it this visualization, which will trigger the definition.

Why Does The Keyword Method Work?

Research has shown that our brains are much better at placing things into our short and long-term memory through visual input, such as images and videos, versus auditory input such as lectures or instructional CDs. This is why the keyword method is so impactful; it relies on visual input.

Further, the stranger the image, the more likely our brain will remember that image. In the example of the cold plum, if the student visualized the plum with fuzzy orange hair, eyes, a mouth, and arms and legs, the image would probably be even more impressionable than just the image of a cold plum.

Studies have shown that the more our traditional senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste) are involved in a learning experience, the more likely the information will be placed into the long-term memory.

For instance, if a student studying the word, 'aplomb' not only visualized a cold plum remaining cool and composed under a bunch of other produce, but actually touched and tasted a plum while studying this word, they would have an even higher chance of remembering the definition at test time.

This is why school teachers use a variety of stimuli such as powerpoint presentations, props, music, experiments, and videos to engage their students and increase the chance their students will retain the information.

More Examples

Example One: Deleterious

'Deleterious' means 'harmful to all living things'.

  • The air pollution caused by the excessive burning of fuel is deleterious.

What does the word 'deleterious' sound like? In order to remember the word, you can picture someone on a computer pressing the delete button while clicking on Rio (in Brazil) and the US. If Rio and the US were 'deleted,' it would certainly be harmful to all living things in that city and country!

Example Two: La Escalera

We can venture into a vocabulary word from a different language to make a point. Using the keyword method when trying to learn vocabulary words from another language is a great way to memorize and learn those words.

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