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How to Memorize Using the This Old Man Technique

"This Old Man" Memory Strategy

“This Old Man” Memory Technique

The “This Old Man” Technique can be a helpful tool to help you memorize many seemingly unrelated items or ideas. The “This Old Man” Technique connects the items or ideas we want to remember to the numeric rhymes and key words in the children’s song. As we all know, songs can be powerful memory aids. Think of the “Alphabet Song” and how the rhyming and rhythm helps children learn their ABCs. Click “New Alphabet Song” to get the updated versions (one for beginning readers and one for older ESL and reading intervention students, which avoid the “lmno” issue. Or check out these eight great memory raps and songs for the conventional spelling rules. Or help your students memorize their parts of speech with the “Parts of Speech Song.”

The principles of this memory technique have been confirmed by recent hemispheric brain research. Our brains act as computer file folders, slotting newly learned information in the same file as already-learned information that fits within that same file. This technique associates ideas or items together with the rhyming numbers and key words of the song, just like our brain file folders do. If we take the time to organize new information in same way as our brains, we can improve our retention of that information.


The trick is to associate the items you want to memorize with each key word in the song in a memorable way. As much as possible, relate each key word to each other to form one connected visual. Substitute concrete objects for any key words that are too abstract to remember well. For example, substituting the concrete ear for the abstract listening would be a much more memorable object with which to pair. If you need to memorize more than ten key words, simply start over with a second set of ten, etc.

To refresh your memory, here’s the first verse of the song:

“This Old Man”

This old man, he played one.

He played knick-knack on my thumb.

With a knick-knack paddywhack, give a dog a bone.

This old man came rolling home.

The key words are “one” and the rhyming “thumb.” Not an exact rhyme, I know; however, I didn’t write the song. The song continues on with a new verse for numbers two through ten.

Here is the list of the verse numbers and their key words, with a few more concrete substitutions, that I suggest using from “This Old Man.”

  1. one-thumb
  2. two-shoe
  3. three-knee
  4. four-door
  5. five-hive (picture a bee hive)
  6. six-sticks
  7. seven-heaven (picture an angel or fluffy white clouds and say “up to heaven”)
  8. eight-gate
  9. nine-spine
  10. ten-hen (better than “again”)

Let’s say you have a list of fruit to purchase for a nice summer picnic. The list includes the following:

  1. one-lemons
  2. two-oranges
  3. three-watermelons
  4. four-grapefruit
  5. five-bananas
  6. six-cherries
  7. seven-raspberries
  8. eight-red apples
  9. nine-green grapes
  10. ten-yellow pairs

Using the “This Old Man” Memory Technique, you associate the key words of the song with each of the fruit you wish to purchase. Develop a mental picture that connects each item.

  • one-lemons-You are standing outside of your front door with a lemon stuck on your right hand-thumb
  • two-oranges-and an orange on top of your right-shoe
  • three-watermelons-with a slice of watermelon on your right-knee.
  • four-grapefruit-You are pushing the grapefruit doorbell next to your front-door
  • five-bananas-because you are trying to get inside your house, away from a swarm of angry bees buzzing around a banana placed on top of their-hive
  • six-cherries-which is in the front yard cherry tree, propped up by a cluster of branches-sticks.
  • seven-raspberries-In front of the tree stands a statue of an angel outlined with raspberry-shaped lights illuminating the-angel
  • eight-red apples-who stands behind a white picket fence, with a row of red-apples stuck on the pickets of the-gate.
  • nine-green grapes-Attached to the angel’s back is a chain of green grapes running down its-spine
  • ten-yellow pairs-to two eggs in a nest, on the ground next to the gate. The eggs look like two yellow pairs, guarded by a nearby clucking-hen

Now prompt yourself to remember each object by singing the song with each of the objects serving as the focus of a verse. Works well, doesn’t it? A little rehearsal will place these facts into your long term memory.

Memorizing using the “This Old Man” Technique will enable you to retain the memory of many seemingly unrelated items. This memory trick is useful for upcoming tests, speeches, and shopping lists. It also makes memorization fun.

Check out these other brief articles on helpful memorization techniques: catch sentencescatch words, linking, association, location, and grouping.

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