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Guest Post: Helping Children Memorize

Updated: Sep 26, 2019

By Wendy-Irene Zepeda

(Years ago, we had an Epiphany party with a short Nativity play. When we needed a narrator, Wendy's oldest child, perhaps 6 or 7 at the time, recited the story straight from Scripture. It was a beautiful moment with a child's voice saying the words we had heard many times, without even opening the book. -Jen)

When something's memorized, it's part of you in a way that simply reading the same material cannot match. It will shape the language of your mind, your habits of thought, your spoken and written words. Kids naturally have memorization abilities (how many cartoon soundtracks have you heard them recite verbatim?) Childhood is a perfect time to give them an interior framework of great and beautiful speech to draw on.

The act of memorizing also strengthens your "memory muscles" for remembering all sorts of things, which is a big help for any academic endeavors. Once a child has experienced memorization, you can help him to know consciously what the process is for committing something to memory; how to remember something he wants to remember.  So memorizing great works has multi-layered benefits.

The strong support for memorization by great educational experts like Laura Berquist and Raymond Moore, and the example of my own parents and grandparents (my grandmother was still memorizing poetry in her 80s!) has helped me be proactive about memorization. In our homeschool, we memorize Sacred Scripture and great poetry, both serious and comic. Here are some of the techniques and tricks I've found helpful.

With memorization, you're imprinting on your imagination powerful sense impressions so that you can draw later on the thoughts the spoken words convey. You can make your sense impressions more powerful, and so more imprinted, by combining the senses you use. (Your brain is more impressed when it hears the same thing from different senses!) So, for memorization, don't just read with your eyes: speak, out loud, so that you both hear the words, and feel how your mouth moves. Hearing is the most important sense for memorization, and hearing the poem read correctly, probably several times, should always be the first step. That can be combined with the touch sense by having the child himself read the poem out loud several times, if he is a fluent reader. If a passage is not "sticking", I'll have the kids over-enunciate, exaggerate each consonant, for several repetitions.

I've found it's a major key to successful memorization to figure out how to do lots of repetition while avoiding boredom and keeping focused. This is part of the reason I usually have my very differently aged children memorize the same passages at the same time; each time one recites, it helps the others learn a bit better. I'll read aloud, or have someone read, a line or two -- some very manageable chunk. Then we repeat it together at least five times, until we've pretty much got it word perfect.

If it becomes clear that people are stumbling, I'll break it down into smaller chunks; we perfect those by several repetitions, then connect them and repeat that together until the whole is word perfect. It's important not only to memorize the individual parts, but the connections between them. Then, each child recites by himself:  I'll usually call on them from oldest to youngest, because the older ones are more likely to have mastered the poem, and that means the younger ones get that many more accurate repetitions in their ears. I find it's actually quite important that a child not stop and try to figure out the word; during memorization, it's better to supply the word right away, so that the most powerful sense impression in their imagination is the correct line.

Sometimes a kid will want to try to stumble around and remember on their own, but I explain that they'll learn the mistake that way -- the trying-to-remember pause will become part of their sense memory. Supplying the word may seem like the wimpy way out, but it's actually the smart way ahead. Shinichi Suzuki, the great violin teacher, said a mistake should be unlearned by doing the passage in question five times right. I've found that principle holds good for poetry memorization as well...but that it usually takes more like ten repetitions, and sometimes more. You'll want to be sensitive to how much repetition a child needs and whether they're losing interest. Figure out how to do many repetitions with enough variety to keep interest. Recite together; then have each child recite on his own. Do one line 7 times; now do the next line 7 times; now do both lines together 7 times. If necessary to draw the child back in, say the passage together in goofy lugubrious voices, or dancing about. (This should be used cautiously, since it can produce a very strong sense impression!)

Use gestures to give an additional touch sense reinforcement, especially on hard-to-remember passages. Gestures might be acting out the text, or a simple emphasis helping draw the child's attention to a needed focus. When my child has accidentally learned a wrong word and has a hard time unlearning, it's helped him to "unlearn" to clap the table while saying the right provides a little aid for the brain to keep it from going on auto pilot and providing the wrongly-learned word.

Include expression. Monotonous tones not only make boring listening for your victims -- whoops, I mean audience -- but are also hard to remember. From the first reading of the poem, model for your child good expression, the tones of voice and rhythmic emphases that express the meaning of the text; and have the child learn the whole package together, rather than adding expression later. Think of how well you remember certain lines from movies complete with expression; you remember "My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father..." with, and because of, the emphasis, intensity and quick speech of that actor. You can create some of the same sort of experience by making expression intrinsic to your memorization. 

Working on expression is a good opportunity to check if the child understands the poem, and to explain some of the parts they don't. Ask if they know the meaning of words; explain why you're having them use certain forms of expression. Fear not, this doesn't mean you have to be sure they understand every jot and tittle; one of the benefits of memorization -- especially when that memorization includes the proper expression -- is that it can open the way for more understanding later. 

Memorization provides good opportunities for performance, either just to family members (Grandmas love this!) or, if you're lucky enough, at poetry recitals. This is a valuable time to help the child realize that the performance is not just about them; that it is a gift for the audience. I emphasize very clear enunciation and adequate volume, which is almost always about 10 times louder than the child thinks!

I will sometimes have them recite from a distance, up to 50 feet away, and interrupt them if they're not loud enough, or not saying the words clearly enough to be understood. Of course you don't want to frustrate them too much, but I've found interruptions, combined with explanations of why you're doing it, can be very effective. The child needs to realize what it feels like, to his senses, when he's too quiet, and what it feels like to be loud enough. I let them know that we don't want to keep the audience captive, or annoyed that they're being made to pay quiet attention to someone who won't speak loud enough for them to hear. We want recitation to be a gift of love, not of penance!

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