Memory Work: Help Your Child Learn to Learn

Remember when you had to memorize that LONG poem, then stand in front of everyone to recite it? How about when you had to say parts of the multiplication table to prove that you had learned it? Scary stuff, and most of us who went through it were not pleased at the time. Educators in many areas have replaced that rote memory work with more interactive forms of learning.

However, there is a movement back towards memory work in some school curriculums. Educators are discovering that the purpose of rote learning was not only to get the facts or passage into the student’s mind for all eternity, but it also had several other benefits. Memory work encourages and develops concentration skills and beginning study habits. Memorizing a poem or group of math facts paves the way for understanding how to study from a textbook later in the school career. Children learn which memory aids and tricks work best for them, and discover the conditions that help them learn most efficiently. Memory work also (Surprise!) develops memory skills. In other words, the more memory work that most people do, the easier it is to remember things when they choose to do so. Memorized facts and poetry are also more accessible to children, and so are more readily used. Finally, most children are naturally good at this task. The feeling of accomplishment when a person has mastered material after working hard at the task is irreplaceable. Memory work accomplishes many things that are important for school and later learning.

Perhaps the single most important reason to encourage memory work, however, is the level of learning involved. Throughout the school career, and most of life, material is learned to the mastery level. This means that things are learned well enough to take the test on them. That’s a fine short-term goal, but it’s simply not enough for vital learning that people will continue to need long after school is over. Material learned to this level can be forgotten, sometimes quite quickly. As an adult, do you remember much about your fourth grade social studies? Chances are that a few of the ideas have stayed with you, but the details are probably blurred with time or completely gone by now. Now consider those multiplication facts that you probably learned around the same time. It’s a good bet that you can still rattle off the answer to seven times eight.

The difference is in the level of learning. Your social studies material was learned to the mastery level. You passed the test on it, but then did not continue to drill and drill until it stayed with you for life. Those multiplication facts, on the other hand, probably were retested several times throughout the rest of elementary school. This higher level of learning is called automaticity, and it is what allows us to keep information forever and ever in our minds. We learn many reading skills to automaticity, as well as those basic math facts. Children’s songs, Scripture verses, and nursery rhymes are also practiced and practiced until they reach this level. Material that has been learned this well will remain accessible in your mind. You will be able to call upon it nearly any time. What a gift to give to your children!

What if your child’s school curriculum doesn’t seem to be addressing this area? You can build memory skills at home or in daycare as well. Play games with your family or group that call for players to use their memory. An example would be some variation on “I’m going on a picnic and I will take _____.” Each person repeats the items listed before their turn, then adds one more. Who in the family can memorize a poem or quote to liven up dinner conversations? There are numerous books of short quotations on the market that contain marvelous pearls of wisdom. Have a weekly contest to see who can memorize a favorite poem or passage. Try reciting while bouncing a ball or doing another rhythmic task instead of simply standing up and reciting. Another idea is to have the child recite the piece into a tape recorder instead of in front of an audience. The tape would make a wonderful way to show distant relatives what is being learned. The recitation is often the most difficult part of these activities, but also will help your child develop poise and self-confidence that will later become assets when going to job interviews or doing other important communication tasks. Young children will enjoy a game of “What’s Missing?” Put several toys or other familiar items on a blanket or rug. Allow the players time to study the group, then have them leave the room or hide their eyes. Remove one item and see who can figure out what’s missing. Other memory exercises include the card game Concentration and the game where many small items are put onto a tray, studied, and covered. Challenge players to name or write down as many of the items as possible.

Keep learning alive with memory tasks, whether poems, passages from important literature, spelling words or math facts. The skills involved are too important to allow to atrophy, and your children’s efforts will pay off in improved academic work and skills for later life.

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