Memory Improved By Saying Words Aloud

Say it out loud
New study finds memory improved by vocalising or sub-vocalising words.

Committing words to memory is a notoriously hit-and-miss business. Over the last forty years psychologists have found three methods which consistently improve memory for words:

  1. Imagery: recall is aided by creating an image of what you want to remember.
  2. Elaboration: thinking of associations helps anchor words in your mind.
  3. Generation: memory is improved when you have to put some work in to generate the target. E.g. guess the name of your favourite blog from this cryptic clue: _sy_log.

In research on trying to remember lists of words, these three methods have each produced memory improvements of 10% over simply reading words once.

That might not sound much, but it is an average over many studies and often for things that are hard to remember. Psychologists like testing people with non-words like ‘trackle’ or ‘nosting’ that could be words, but aren’t.

Speak it…

Now, in a new series of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, there’s solid evidence for a fourth which could join the other big three memory enhancers (MacLeod et al., 2010).

And, you’ll be happy to hear, it’s very, very simple. It only involves saying the word you want to remember out loud to yourself. It doesn’t even seem to matter if you don’t vocalise the word, it only has to be mouthed. That’s it.

According to MacLeod et al., saying a word out loud, or at least mouthing it, improves memory by increasing its distinctiveness, i.e. making it unusual compared to others.

Across 8 experiments in which participants were asked to read and remember lists of both words and nonwords, the researchers found memory improvements sometimes greater than 10%. They also ruled out some alternative explanations, finding that improvements were not:

  • At the expense of unmouthed words. The effect was all benefit for the mouthed words and didn’t decrease performance on unmouthed words.
  • A result of “lazy reading” of words read silently.

…but be selective

Of course just reading all the words out loud would destroy the effect because then there’s nothing for words said out loud to be distinctive in comparison with. It’s only going to work when some words are said out loud compared with others not.

So if you’re revising, or reading a report or a book and want to retain more of the important points, the key is to identify the right words and vocalise or sub-vocalise them.

This finding ties in with the general idea that we tend to remember people or things that stand out from the crowd. One gentle reminder though: if you are spotted mouthing random words in public, it’s you that will stand out from the crowd.

Image credit: Florian Seroussi

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 9 June 2010

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