Why Should Students Memorize Things?

In this article, I continue the examination of memory’s importance started in my last article.

Our students need to memorize things so that they have an increasingly large treasury of the tools they need to act virtuously. We must remember that the primary purpose of education is to teach our students those things they must know in order to be both free and responsible, and no one can be both free and responsible without also being virtuous. (That memorizing things may also help them get good grades is of secondary importance.)

Students should memorize as much as they can regardless of understanding. Take, for example, the Pledge of Allegiance. There are some big words in it: allegiance, indivisible, and republic, to name three. Five-year-olds aren’t likely to understand the meaning of these words, but they can still memorize and recite the Pledge. They can feel the rhythm of the words and take pride in having learned something difficult. As they grow in understanding, the words which they memorized at age five grow more meaningful. Memorization at a young age becomes the foundation for years of reflection on and a deeper understanding of what was memorized.

When selecting texts for memorization, it is important that I have a vision of the desired end result. Also, I must strive to ensure there is passion about what is being memorized. We better remember what we love. Then, I start small, and work toward the vision step by step. All the while, I never forget the old joke about how to eat an elephant. (Punchline: I eat an elephant one bite at a time!)

I assist students with this daunting task by instilling discipline into the process. Memorization assignments ought to be recurring, regular facets of my lesson plans during which time I model to the students’ various techniques that make memorizing things easier. During the school day, there are regularly scheduled times for math, reading, grammar, et cetera. Why can’t there be a regularly scheduled time for memorization work?

Throughout the memorization process, I must take care walking the fine line between expecting high achievement while at the same time not making the students fear failure. Some do not memorize a poem, for example, as quickly and easily as others. When an assignment — any assignment — becomes a source of fear and frustration, students are likely to underperform.

This is why initial memorization assignments should be comparatively easy, and the techniques for memorization need to be modeled for the students. When this happens, students can experience the pride that comes from succeeding at something difficult by means of their prudent obedience and diligence. Later, as memorization assignments become more difficult, the memories of earlier successes become a means by which courage and fortitude can be summoned forth so that the fear of failure can be defeated. Thus, regardless of what is being memorized, the process of memorization per se becomes a way for students to develop virtue.

But what should students memorize? Recall the first principle discussed above. Students should memorize everything they can regardless of understanding. Yes, I know. That’s not very helpful when it comes to completing lesson plans. Let’s try to put a finer point on the answer.

Obviously, students need to memorize things such as academic vocabulary, important dates, et cetera. And, as previously asserted, memorization assignments of this sort not only foster academic achievement but can also help develop virtue. So, students need to memorize examples of virtue. These examples can be poems, songs, proverbs, excerpts from novels, pithy sayings, fables, or anything else that conveys what virtuous action looks like (or doesn’t look like, as in the case of many fables, such as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”). Let’s look at an excerpt from E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, specifically the lullaby Charlotte sings to Wilbur:

“Sleep, sleep, my love, my only,

Deep, deep, in the dung and the dark;

Be not afraid and be not lonely!

This is the hour when frogs and thrushes

Praise the world from the woods and the rushes.

Rest from care, my one and only,

Deep in the dung and the dark.”

This isn’t a particularly difficult section to memorize, but it is rich in potential. There is some good vocabulary (dung, thrushes, rushes), evocative imagery (the sounds of frogs and thrushes), and an admonition to courage. The lullaby can serve as a springboard for discussions about motherhood, exploring Charlotte’s maternal relationship with Wilbur. It could also be used to highlight the difference between stereotypes (pigs are filthy) and reality (pigs do not tend to wallow in their own filth).

When committed to memory, the lullaby could provide a student with a lasting example of how a beloved character overcame fear and doubt. It’s not so much the case that any student would be in a fearful situation and then would sing this lullaby, thereby finding comfort. Rather, it is possible that in a fearful situation, a student who has reflected on this lullaby may remember some important truths, such as one doesn’t have to face fear alone.

Earlier, I mentioned modeling various techniques for memorization. Consider the lullaby again. It’s three sentences long. As an assignment, it could be “chunked” into these separate sentences. Students would work on memorizing only the first three lines. Once these were mastered, memorization could commence on the next two, et cetera. By breaking the lullaby down into three sections, the assignment becomes more manageable, and the student gets to eat the elephant one bite at a time.

Memorization works better when it is multi-sensory. Students, whenever possible, should write what they are expected to memorize. Specific gestures can also be incorporated into the memorization. Simple hand gestures indicating sleep, rest, and praise would fit the lullaby nicely. These techniques pull the kinesthetic sense into the exercise to reinforce the visual (reading the lullaby) and auditory (reciting it aloud). Related to the kinesthetic sense, students must practice memorization in the same way that the assignment is to be presented. Thus, if the student is going to present the memorization assignment standing in front of the class, it needs to be practiced standing, preferably in front of others (or, at minimum, in front of a mirror).

A more advanced (and ancient) memory technique involves establishing relationships between what is being memorized and what is already firmly in the memory. The new memory (such as the lullaby) is consciously associated with a place and context familiar to the learner. Many people already have memories of lullabies. Charlotte’s lullaby could be consciously associated through the imagination with those already existing memories. In other words, I could imagine the lullaby within the context of my son’s room at night with him in his bed and me sitting on the floor nearby trying to calm his fears of the dark so that he can get to sleep.

As a teacher, I must ensure my students have time in class to practice their memorization assignments. As a parent, I must ensure that my children not only have time at home to practice these same assignments, but also that I am available as an audience. This importance of my role as a parent cannot be overemphasized. What I make time for at home sends a clear message to my children about my priorities, which in turn shapes their ability to assign tasks their appropriate levels of importance.


Mark L. Chance
Mark L. Chance
Mark L. Chance, a Catholic convert who married his lovely wife almost 30 years ago, is the father of four children. He serves as the 7th and 8th grade English teacher in a Catholic school for boys, where he also leads the “Knights of the Mightier Pen” and “Ludi Fabularum: Games of Stories” after-school clubs. Mark has taught in public and private schools since 1996, and he holds a B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Prior to teaching, Mark served eight years in the U.S. Army. In his spare time, Mark reads about educational philosophy and writes about table-top roleplaying games, all while occasionally sipping on bourbon.

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