The peg word system is a mnemonic technique used to help people hold information in working memory. It works by associating ideas or facts with a sequence of numbers or words that are easier to remember.
This system relies on using concrete “pegs” (words) as anchors for abstract ones you want to remember.
For example, if you wanted to remember the order of the planets in our solar system, the peg words could be: “My Very Enormous Mom Just Sat Under Nine Planets.”
Each word in this phrase corresponds to a planet—Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto—making it easier for someone to remember their order in the Solar System.
The peg word system can be a useful memory aid for many different types of information, from shopping lists and task lists to studying for exams.
The key is to create strong, memorable associations between the peg words and the items to be remembered.
Definition of the Peg Word System
The peg word system is a mnemonic strategy that enables individuals to encode and recall information by associating specific words with ideas, facts, or objects (Terry, 2015).
It relies on the use of an artificial structure (i.e., “peg”) to associate concepts or ideas with concrete words.
The peg word system is a cognitive memory-enhancement technique that employs a pre-determined set of words, or “pegs,” corresponding to numerical positions, which are then linked to the target information through visual or auditory associations.
According to Baine (1986),
“…in the peg word mnemonic method, an individual prelearns a number of words, each of which rhymes with the ordinal number one, two…” (p. 27).
In cognitive psychology, the peg word system is a mnemonic method that facilitates the encoding, storage, and retrieval of information by associating items to be remembered with a pre-established set of keywords, which serve as mental anchors or “pegs” (Groome et al., 2016).
For instance, an individual who wishes to remember a list of items may associate them with meaningful words or phrases which follow a set pattern, such as the first letters of the alphabet, “A is for apple, B is for banana…”
Simply, the peg word system is a memory technique that uses words as anchors for learning and remembering information. It relies on the use of an artificial structure (i.e., “peg”) to associate concepts or ideas with concrete words.
Peg Word System Examples
- Grocery shopping: Create a mental image of your peg words interacting with the items on your shopping list. For example, visualize a bun filled with apples, a shoe pouring milk, a tree adorned with loaves of bread, etc. It will help you remember your grocery list without needing to write it down.
- Remembering phone numbers: Assign peg words to different digits (0-9) and create visual associations between them to remember a phone number. For example, 1 (sun) – 4 (door) – 7 (heaven) could represent 147.
- Studying for exams: Associate key terms or concepts from your study material with peg words. For instance, if you need to remember that photosynthesis occurs in chloroplasts, imagine a shoe filled with green plants representing chloroplasts.
- Presentations and speeches: Create a mental outline of your speech by associating peg words with key points. For example, imagine a bun containing the introduction, a shoe stepping on the main argument, a tree growing sub-points, etc.
- Learning foreign language vocabulary: Pair new vocabulary words in a foreign language with peg words to reinforce learning. For example, imagine a bun made of “pan” (bread in Spanish) or a shoe filled with “lait” (milk in French).
- Historical dates and events: Link significant historical events to peg words to recall them more efficiently. For instance, associate the year 1492 (Columbus discovering America) with a “vine” growing on a “gate,” representing 1492.
- To-do lists: Create visual associations between peg words and your daily tasks. For example, envision a bun with a list of work assignments or a shoe kicking a pile of laundry to remember household chores.
- Learning scientific processes: Remember a sequence of steps in a scientific process by associating each step with a peg word. For example, imagine a bun being digested to recall the first step in cellular respiration or a shoe producing energy for the second step.
- Remembering appointments: Associate appointment times and places with peg words. For example, visualize a tree at a doctor’s office to remember a 3 o’clock appointment.
- Learning formulas or equations: Use peg words to remember elements of a mathematical formula or equation. For example, to remember the Pythagorean theorem (a^2 + b^2 = c^2), imagine a tree (3) with squares hanging from its branches representing the equation’s components.
Types of Peg Word System
From the rhyming system to the PAO approach, the different types of peg word systems are designed to meet a user’s specific needs and preferences.
Here is a brief overview of the main types of peg word systems:
1. Rhyming Peg Word System
In the rhyming peg word system, the peg words are chosen based on their ability to rhyme with the numbers they represent. This is the most common type of peg word system (Madigan, 2015).
- Bun (rhymes with one)
- Shoe (rhymes with two)
- Tree (rhymes with three)
- Door (rhymes with four)
- Hive (rhymes with five)
Using this system, you can create associations to remember a list of items, like fruits:
- Bun – Apple (imagine a bun filled with apples)
- Shoe – Banana (picture a shoe stuffed with bananas)
- Tree – Cherry (visualize cherries hanging from a tree)
- Door – Orange (see a door made of oranges)
- Hive – Grapes (imagine a beehive with grape clusters)
2. Visual Peg Word System
In the visual peg word system, peg words are chosen based on their visual similarity or connection to the numbers they represent. This approach focuses on creating visual associations (Long & Williams, 2012).
- Candle (resembles the number one)
- Swan (shape resembles the number two)
- Heart (has a resemblance to the number three)
- Sailboat (shape resembles the number four)
- Hook (resembles the number five)
Using this system, you also can create visual associations to remember a list of items, such as colors:
- Candle – Red (picture a red candle)
- Swan – Blue (visualize a blue swan)
- Heart – Green (imagine a green heart)
- Sailboat – Yellow (see a sailboat with yellow sails)
- Hook – Purple (think of a purple hook)
3. Alphabet Peg Word System
In the alphabet peg word system, peg words are associated with letters of the alphabet instead of numbers. This method can be useful for remembering items alphabetically or relating them to specific letters (Turkington & Harris, 2009).
- Apple (starts with A)
- Ball (starts with B)
- Cat (starts with C)
- Dog (starts with D)
- Elephant (starts with E)
Using this system, you can create associations to remember a list of items, such as countries:
- Apple – Argentina (imagine an apple with the Argentinian flag)
- Ball – Brazil (picture a ball with the Brazilian flag)
- Cat – Canada (visualize a cat wearing a Canadian flag)
- Dog – Denmark (see a dog with the Danish flag)
- Elephant – Egypt (think of an elephant in front of Egyptian pyramids)
4. Major System
The Major System is a mnemonic device for remembering long sequences of numbers by converting them into consonant sounds, which can then be combined with vowels to form words, phrases, or sentences (Madigan, 2015).
The technique involves assigning a consonant sound to each digit from 0 to 9 and then constructing words using those sounds.
Here’s a common consonant assignment for the Major System:
- 0: S, Z
- 1: T, D
- 2: N
- 3: M
- 4: R
- 5: L
- 6: J, SH, CH
- 7: K, G (hard G)
- 8: F, V
- 9: P, B
Vowels (A, E, I, O, U) and soft consonants (H, W, Y) are not assigned any numerical value, so they can be added to the words to make them more coherent and easier to remember.
Imagine you want to remember the number 7249. Using the Major System, the consonants assigned to these digits are:
- 7: K
- 2: N
- 4: R
- 9: P
Add vowels and soft consonants to form a memorable word or phrase, such as “KiNGRoPe.” Then, convert the consonants to their corresponding digits when recalling the number.
5. PAO System (Person-Action-Object)
The PAO System is a mnemonic technique that involves encoding information by creating vivid mental images composed of three elements: a person, an action, and an object (James, 2021).
This method is particularly useful for remembering long sequences of numbers, as each PAO image can represent several digits.
To use the PAO System, you first create a list of people, actions, and objects, each associated with a specific number or digit.
The numbers can be assigned using the Major System, or you can create your own associations.
For example, assume you have assigned the following PAO elements:
- 1: Albert Einstein (Person) – Writing (Action) – Chalkboard (Object)
- 2: Mona Lisa (Person) – Painting (Action) – Canvas (Object)
- 3: Michael Jordan (Person) – Slam dunking (Action) – Basketball (Object)
Now, imagine you need to remember the number 312. Using the PAO System, you create a mental image based on the assigned elements:
- 3 (Person): Michael Jordan
- 1 (Action): Writing
- 2 (Object): Canvas
Visualize Michael Jordan’s writing on a canvas. Then, to recall the number, simply translate the person, action, and object back into their corresponding digits: 312.
Benefits of Peg Word System
The peg word system is a helpful memory tool that can be used to remember facts, figures, words, and concepts more easily.
Some of the main benefits of using a peg word system include the following:
- Easier to remember information: By associating words or phrases with specific images, recalling items in certain orders or concepts in greater detail becomes simpler when needed.
- Improves understanding: The peg word system creates bridges between abstract and concrete ideas, which increases comprehension of difficult subjects over time.
- Quicker learning curve: Connecting unfamiliar topics with familiar or easier-to-remember ones makes it possible to learn new things faster than traditional methods alone.
- Increases confidence: Since the mnemonic device helps quickly compile information for rapid access, it also boosts confidence levels as material is better retained and accessed quicker during exams, interviews, and other stressful situations.
Critique of Peg Word System
The peg word system is an effective method for improving memory. Still, it does have its drawbacks since it may be time-consuming, not suitable to all situations, and has limited practice opportunities (Delprato & Baker, 1974).
Here are some of the main critiques of using a peg word system:
- Memorization can be time-consuming: Since the peg word system involves creating individual images or phrases for each piece of information, this can take longer than traditional methods.
- It may not apply to all situations: This type of mnemonic device may not be suitable for all topics as it relies on creating connections between concrete and abstract concepts, which may not always be achievable.
- Can be difficult to recall: If the images used in the phrase don’t correspond accurately with the material they are meant to represent, then they can be harder to remember when needed.
- Limited practice opportunities: Unlike other forms of memorization, there aren’t many chances to practice using a peg word system outside of specific learning activities or drills.
The peg word system is a versatile and effective mnemonic technique that enables individuals to improve their memory and retention of various types of information.
It can help people remember sequences, concepts, lists, and more by associating abstract ideas or facts with concrete words or images.
There are several types of peg word systems, including rhyming, visual, alphabet, Major System, and PAO System, each catering to different preferences and learning styles. It’s also linked to the memorization concept called memory linking.
While the peg word system has limitations and may not be suitable for all situations, its benefits, such as making it easier to remember information, improving understanding, facilitating a quicker learning curve, and increasing confidence, make it a valuable memory-enhancement tool.
With practice and perseverance, individuals can use the peg word system to overcome memory challenges and enhance their learning abilities, helping them excel in various aspects of their personal, academic, and professional lives.
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Delprato, D. J., & Baker, E. J. (1974). Concreteness of peg words in two mnemonic systems. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 102(3), 520–522. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0035888
Groome, D., Eysenck, M. W., Baker, K., Bull, R., Edgar, G., Edgar, H., Heathcote, D., Kemp, R., Law, R., Loveday, C., Maguire, M., Milne, R., Newell, B. R., White, D., Wilson, M. R., & Yiend, J. (2016). An introduction to applied cognitive psychology. Routledge.
James, R. (2021). Accelerated learning. Alakai Publishing LLC.
Long, C. J., & Williams, J. M. (2012). The rehabilitation of cognitive disabilities. Springer Science & Business Media.
Madigan, R. (2015). How memory works and how to make it work for you. The Guilford Press.
Terry, W. S. (2015). Learning and memory. Psychology Press.
Turkington, C., & Harris, J. (2009). The encyclopedia of the brain and brain disorders. Facts on File.