Too rigid. Boring. Irrelevant.
That’s how a lot of kids (and parents) feel about memory work. The discipline of rote memorization seems to many like an outdated method of education. Why should kids commit to memory math facts, poems, geography, historical dates, famous speeches, Bible verses, or catechism answers—especially in the modern age? As one popular educator puts it: “Anything worth memorizing can easily be looked up online.”
Why is memory work critical?
1. Brain Training
In Dr. Norman Doidge’s brilliant book, The Brain That Changes Itself, he offers readers a fascinating look at the capabilities of the human brain. He writes, “Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory.” However, starting in the 1960s educators dropped these traditional exercises from the curriculum, and as a result we’ve lost a lot of auditory brain power as a culture. This means we have lost a lot of our ability to process information presented orally, analyze it mentally, and store it to be recalled later.
By doing memory work from a young age, children are giving their brain a workout, setting themselves up to become sharper thinkers.
2. Inspiring Creativity
Memorization is the bedrock of creativity. Often we hold to the opposite belief: we think rote memorization boxes our kids into a rigid way of thinking. Nothing could be further from the truth. When our kids internalize foundational concepts, their minds are freed up to understand more complex ideas.
Think about it: A boy who has his math facts down cold can more quickly embrace complex math. He doesn’t feel bogged down by elementary ideas and is encouraged to advance. The operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are second nature to him. The girl who knows famous historical dates, people, and places, when introduced to new concepts, can more easily make connections and build on what she knows.
The more information you have stored up in your brain the greater the opportunity for really creative insights.
3. Language Training
We can’t expect our students to be great poets, or write fantastic compositions, or be eloquent speakers if they don’t have exceptional examples stored in their minds.
Just like when you recite nursery rhymes to your young children, they’re learning rhythmic patterns; you’re teaching them balance and symmetry. As children memorize longer passages of literature they develop a greater feel for the intricacies and complexities of the English language. This truly is indispensable in learning to speak and write. When students memorize poetry, Biblical passages, and important speeches they are learning language skills by example.
4. Character Training
There is a big difference between googling something and having it as part of your being—just like there is a difference between looking up Michelangelo on Wikipedia and standing in the Sistine Chapel. When we memorize critical truths, they have a way of shaping our thinking, feeling, and acting.
This is especially true when it comes to the Word of God. Psalm 1 talks about the blessing one received when he or she meditates on God’s law day and night. Colossians 3 commands us to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, giving God’s Word ample space in their hearts. Romans 12 says we will be transformed by the renewing and renovation of our thoughts.
7 Tools & Techniques for Memory Work
Inserting memory work into your school day isn’t difficult. It will take dedication, but once you’re into the routine, it gets easier.
1. Oral Recitation
Oral recitation is the backbone of memory work. Everything else is just reinforcement.
In preliterate cultures memorization was essential to pass stories on from generation to generation. Oral recitation and repetition was the central method of memorization. Yemenite Jews had their children memorize the first five books of the Old Testament, and they did this chiefly through oral recitation.
Oral recitation is pretty simple. Pick a bite-sized chunk of text and recite it orally. Have your kids repeat after you. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Do this day after day until you think your kids have it mostly memorized (with only a little help or prompting from you). Then add a second chunk to the first chunk.
Mix it up. If you have multiple kids, let each one take a turn and saying as much as they know until they get stuck. You recite the next chunk they missed. Move to the next child and do the same thing. Play a fill-in-the-blank game: start with a word or two and let your kids say a few words that follow. Go back and forth until you’ve recited all that you have memorized.
2. Flash Cards
Flash cards can be very helpful for memory work. You can find flash cards for Bible verses (A Beka has several card kits), math facts (such as Math in a Flash), science facts (such as those made by Flash of Brilliance or Brighter Child). Of course, you can also make your own to match what you are learning in these subjects.
Kids needs to learn handwriting anyway. Use your handwriting practice as another way to reinforce what you are memorizing. If you’re memorizing a passage have your child write out the verse using his or her best manuscript or cursive writing. (Write Through the Bible has a growing list of downloadable workbooks that provide you with a whole school year of handwriting practice.)
Reinforce your oral memory work with music. There are hundreds of Bible memory songs you can download (for free or cheap) to sing along with your kids. There are also songs available formath memory, geography and history, and phonics and grammar. This can be a great way to add some fun to memory time.
There are many DVDs, apps, and online games you can use to enhance memory. We’ve loved the Times Tales DVD and the online game Timez Attack to help with math. We’ve used the Stack the States app to help with geography. There are also many online programs for Bible memory.
7. Memory Box
A Charlotte-Mason-style memory box is useful to move memorized facts from short-term to long-term memory. It is an easy way to keep track of what you are memorizing, helping you to review materials on a decreasing frequency until things are firmly stored in long-term memory. You can make your own memory body very easily (you can print out all the memory box parts from our blog).
3 Important Ingredients For Memory Work
Don’t underestimate the importance of prayer for your children in the task of memorization. Ask God to help them to retain it. Ask God to help you remain steady and consistent in it. This is especially true for Bible memory. Repeat the prayer of Psalm 119:18 for your kids, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” We don’t just want our kids to know the Word by rote, we want them to see wonders in the Word and be fascinated by it.
2. Positive Reinforcement
Give your kids all the positive reinforcement you can when they succeed in memorizing something, even a small portion of something. Don’t ride them about not getting things right. If they are making any effort at all, this is a good thing and it should be praised. For little kids, clap, cheer, hi-five, do whatever will make them feel like they’ve accomplished something.
3. Practical Living
Kids need to see that the stuff they are memorizing applies to real life. If you’re memorizing a Bible passage, take time to actually study it as a family. If you’re learning math facts, take your kids shopping with you and ask them how much a number of items will cost together.
Start with 5 Minutes a Day
Don’t feel like you need to start big. Find a few things you want to start with and carve out 5 minutes in your day. Get into the routine. As you memorize more things, this time will naturally grow. The important thing is to start. You won’t regret it.