The present study manipulated the nature of orientation provided at encoding in an intentional word memory task. Performance on the memory task was then compared between 23 elderly persons with amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), 13 patients with probable Alzheimer's disease (AD), and 23 healthy elderly persons. When tested following shallow (reading orientation) encoding, free-recall performance was impaired in AD compared to aMCI and healthy older adults. When tested following deep (categorical semantic orientation) encoding, both AD and aMCI groups were impaired relative to healthy older adults. The latter result was related to larger memory improvement due to semantic orientation in healthy controls than in aMCI and AD participants. Overall, these findings indicate that the encoding put up by aMCI and healthy elderly persons is comparably efficient in situations where shallow supportive cues are provided at encoding, but that healthy controls benefit more than aMCI and AD in situations where supportive cues are strong.