First Letters: A Memorization Technique
This is my site Written by bbbco on July 23, 2012 – 11:58 pm

Have you ever wanted to memorize a large piece of text, verbatim? Yes, word-for-every-little-word. Whether it is for a presentation, a recital, or personal reflection, verbatim memorization seems to just come easy or naturally to some people. But to others, its one of the hardest things in the world to do!

Take for instance this text from Hamlet’s third soliloquy:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:

That’s a fairly large piece of text that could take hours, days to memorize the hard and long way. Let’s examine some different methods you might undertake to do so.

Often times, when you determine to memorize this passage or text, you might start by reading it over and over and over again. Usually, this does some good, in that it helps you retain the basic ideas and concepts, and maybe some of the significant words. You will probably remember the first sentence because it’s a famous quote, and you might remember some other phrases like “mortal coil” and “Slings and Arrows” because they are common phrases used to describe death and life’s unexpected curve balls. But oftentimes you will struggle with the placement of such words or phrases, and it becomes easy to jumble them up, or forget one section and add it in at another place.

Another method that you might try is reading the text you are attempting to memorize aloud. By hearing yourself speak the words, you might hope to achieve some sort of multi-sensory experience that helps you retain the information you are attempting to take in. Again, this can get us closer to achieving our goal of verbatim memorization, but usually you find that you are still leaving out small little words and struggling to find accurate placement.

Instead of trying to memorize solely by reading and recitation, why don’t you try giving a different method a shot? Here, I present to you the recall strategy, where you focus on recalling what you have previously read:

This is the crucial concept of any type of memorization. The act of reading something you want to memorize fires different connections than the act of recalling. This is how you learn to memorize–your practice recalling, not repeating. This means that simply reading a particular piece of text over and over again is going to be the long road to memorization. You need to let your brain practice recalling the data so it can strengthen the same pathways that will fire when you need to remember the information later on. You can’t practice recalling until the information is at least partially contained in your short term memory.

Ok, so using a recall strategy sounds like a good idea. But how do you go about recalling accurately what you have already read? By giving your brain a small hint to each word.

If you spent a few minutes reading over the Shakespearean soliloquy above, you might find that you can fairly easily recall it word for word by following this first character of each word brain map:

T b, o n t b, t i t q:
W ‘t N i t m t s
T S a A o o F,
O t t A a a S o t,
A b o e t: t d, t s N m;
a b a s, t s w e
T h, a t t N s
T F i h t? ‘T a c D t b w.
T d t s, T s, p t D;  A, t t r,
F i t s o d, w d m c,
W w h s o t m c,
M g u p. T t r
T m C o s l l:

If you did not take the time to try your hand at memorizing Hamlet’s most famous aside, why don’t you see for yourself with this passage from a more familiar text, the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths …
t b s-e, t a m a c e, t t a e b t C w c u R, t a t a L, L a t p o H.

Sometimes its easier to read the word hints in a slightly different format with all of the letters being uppercase.

W H T T T B S-E, T A M A C E, T T A E B T C W C U R, T A T A L, L A T P O H.

If you still need some help, consult this passage listed at the bottom of this post.

Essentially, once you have familiarized yourself with the text you are wanting to memorize, you can begin to recall the text easily by implementing these “First Letters” hints. Then you just take each letter one at a time, and recall what the word that belongs to that letter is. If you can’t recall, look it up and repeat it to yourself and continue on. After you have gotten through the first chunk, go back and do it again using the first letters, and this time recalling each of the words you missed before. You will find that the words you missed before become the words that you remember the most because you had to look it up, repeat it to yourself, and then visually associate it with the first letter in that chunk of other first letters.

By using this method, you will realize that your memorization becomes very close to verbatim because your brain will recall mapping the first letters of each word to their assigned word. Your brain will also remember and recall the familiar order of the letters, though they look like gibberish at first glance.

And remember, this method can work for most passages, scriptures, speeches, notes, etc.

I hope that this new method will help guide you on to a journey of enjoying memorization!


Still stuck on the Declaration of Independence text? Here it is in full text for you:

… We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

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  1. […] of Acts in the English Standard Version (ESV). You might want to reference my earlier post on the First Letters memorization technique to understand the concept behind this variation of […]

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