Today I would like to talk to you about memorization. I would like to say a little bit about why it’s important, but then mostly focus on techniques I have found that help students (and adults) memorize.

Stages of Formation

To explain why memorization is important, I need to talk about two things: the stages of intellectual formation, and the role memorized material plays in education. A busy friend once stopped me in the grocery store and said she wanted to read my book someday, but right now she would like the five-minute version. I understood that, so I thought hard for a few minutes and then said this: "What is essential in teaching is that the student do what is appropriate at each period of learning. He should memorize and observe at the grammatical stage. This strengthens his imagination and makes it docile, so that in the next stage of learning, the analytical (sometimes called the logical or dialectical), he will have the help of a trained imagination in following and constructing arguments. In turn, it is essential to this education that when the student is capable of grasping and marshaling arguments, he should practice doing so (in seventh through ninth grade – the desire for argument is often noticeable!). If he does, then the last stage, the rhetorical, can be given to articulating those arguments elegantly, in the service of the truly noble. The student should, at these various stages, have the opportunity to consider much of the same material in a different light, based on his ability, interest, and level of formation. These stages are natural to the student, and the activities are activities he will do, whether you tell him to or not. But knowing them helps us use our curricula, whatever it is, in the most efficient way possible to achieve our educational goals."

Now, there are two ways to learn about something: theoretically and practically. I learned about the Grammar Stage, in which memorization is such an important component, in both ways. When I began schooling my six children, I read Dorothy Sayers’ essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning". I knew that she was right that the goals of education included teaching children how to think, as well as giving them the content to think about. Her description of the three stages of early learning, which corresponded to the methods of the Trivium of the classical curriculum, also seemed right to me. It resonated.

Though Miss Sayer's proposal for the education of children seemed natural, however, I didn't, at the time, know enough about teaching or the development of children to see clearly how the method of the Trivium should fit into my curriculum.

However, over a ten-year period of trial and error, I began to see clearly that education should always capitalize on the natural capabilities of the child. When children want to memorize, which I find they do in the early school years, one should direct their memorization. When they want to argue, which I find happens at about 12 years of age, one should teach them to argue carefully. And when they want to express themselves, one should let them practice doing so.

I have a friend who taught swimming to small children. She found that at a certain age the children would begin to retain what they had learned from one summer to the next, and could build on the previously acquired skills. Before that point they would have to start over each summer, getting used to the water and learning to float anew. She finally began to say to the parents of small children, when they asked her to teach swimming to their children, "I'll be happy to accept your money, and play with your children, but if it is learning to swim that you have in mind, I advise you to wait for a few years."

When my oldest children were little, I was always trying to move them into the analytical stage, because I love analysis. I wanted them to tell me what the main point of a paragraph was, or summarize rather than re-tell a story. When they couldn't do it, I thought sadly, "Poor children, they're just mentally deficient. What on earth will they do with their lives?" Then they got older. The things that had been so hard for them to do were suddenly easy and fun. Like my friend's experience with teaching swimming, I discovered that there is a natural sequential time frame built into intellectual development. To be successful as a teacher one needs to take into account what children are ready to do when.

The Role of Memorized Material in Education

The other thing one should take into account is the role of the memorized material. I have, on more than one occasion, encountered someone who thought that encouraging memorization would actually dull the mind. The children would be little robots, dutifully repeating what they didn’t understand. Let me say, right away, that I am not claiming memorization is enough all by itself. Of course, one wants to lead the children to understand what they can recite. But memorization is helpful in three ways: it strengthens and makes docile the imagination, it gives young children material they can’t fully yet understand but which will be very useful to them later on when they need it, and it provides ‘shortcuts’ for information you often need to access.

Strengthening and Making Docile the Imagination

First I am going to talk about how memory can strengthen and make docile the imagination and why that matters. To understand this,  one must be familiar with how thinking takes place in the human person, which comes from Aristotle's De Anima. The exposition I am about to give as to how one thinks comes from a remarkably complex series of considerations. I am summarizing the conclusions of that involved argument, and therefore, necessarily, won't do justice to the whole. Nonetheless, as I think every teacher should have at least a general understanding of this process, I am going to give the summary, defective as it may be.

First, one receives the form of external objects by means of his five senses. He sees, hears, smells, tastes, or touches the objects around him. That information is received by one or more of the five proper senses and passed on to what Aristotle calls the common sense. He reasons to the existence of this faculty because he sees that though the eyes can tell, for example, that the object on the table is white, and the tongue can tell that it is sweet, the eyes can’t tell that it is sweet, and the tongue can’t tell that it is white. Yet the person knows that it is the same object that is both white and sweet. Therefore, there must be some place in one where this information is integrated, and Aristotle calls that place the common sense.

Then, this integrated object is passed on (via nerves, I suppose) to what Aristotle calls the ‘vis cogitativa’, or 'thinking power' which is in the brain. As the image is sent to the brain it is funneled into parts of the brain where other things like it are received. So the function of this power is to sort the objects into like kinds. It doesn’t require universal knowledge, but only deals with the particulars in front of it, simply sorting them into like kinds (This looks like that, sort of). There is no general consideration of ‘treeness’ or ‘chairness’ to do that, just seeing a likeness in two particular things.

Then the integrated, now sorted object is received in the imagination and Aristotle compares the reception to the way a seal is received in wax. The imagination (brain) is like a wax slate. The image, received from the senses (sight, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting), is like a wax seal, which is pressed into the wax slate. Sometimes the wax is too hard and the seal has to be pressed over and over in order to make the image. Sometimes the wax is too soft and the seal makes an impression the first time, but the wax mushes and the image is gone. Sometimes the wax is just the right consistency and then the image is nice and clear, sharp around the edges, a faithful image of the original.

Next we get to the crucial part. This image is used by what Aristotle calls “the agent intellect”, the active power of the mind, which, so to speak, shines a light on that image in the imagination. In virtue of this light, the universal form of the object is abstracted from the like things, and received into “the possible intellect”. In that reception, understanding takes place.

Given this process, clearly, the condition of the image in the imagination is of great importance in the effectiveness of the understanding. So, as educators, we should be concerned about perfecting whatever we can of every part of the process of thinking. There is not much one can do about the way the form is initially received (though you can get glasses or a hearing aid) or how the common sense works (though it is those things with which the special education teacher largely concerns himself), but the formation of the imagination, largely achieved by memorization and observation exercises, is something that one can and should address.

You can see, then, that working on how well that image is received is important. And we do that by exercise, just like we do with any other bodily part. We strengthen our receptivity by exercising it. So sequencing, observing, and memorizing provides us with the activities that exercise that power. Memorizing, and recalling information in general, do something else as well. They make the imagination docile. We all know that a docile child is one who comes when called, and does what is asked, when it is asked. We want our imagination similarly to perform as and when it is asked. We want it to call up this image, the one that is needed, and not others that will be distracting. We want it to be a servant to the intellect, not the leader of the intellect. This is often a difficulty for very quick, bright students. Their imaginations are strong but not docile. They don’t serve, they lead. And that causes trouble when the student needs to learn something specific right now. Regular exercise of the imagination through memorization can really help with that issue.

Gives Children Useful Material Which They Will Someday Need

I had the Baltimore Catechism in first grade, but by second grade it was no longer in use in my school. Nonetheless, when I was an adolescent and started wondering about the point of life, what came to me was “God made me to know, love, and serve Him in this life, so that I can be happy with Him in the next.” I had learned those words when I didn’t need them in a practical way, and certainly didn’t understand them, even as well as I did 15 years later, but they were there, in my mind and heart when I was ready. Further, using the catechism, learning by heart the answers to those important questions, trains the mind to understand distinctions. The words of the Baltimore Catechism are precisely the right words, and learning them trains the mind in a habit of thought that makes distinction easy.

Provides 'Shortcuts' for Information We Often Need to Access

There are things we know, and could reason to every time they were needed, but memorizing them provides a shortcut. We don’t have to go over the whole process, every time. We can reason to the cardinal virtues, for example, because they correspond to the powers of the intellectual soul. So you can think that through. As a rational being I have intellect and will, and I also have appetites (namely the concupiscible and irascible) that are, or should be, under the control of reason. So there will be a right use of each of those powers, and that is what I will call the virtue of that power. For the intellect, that would be prudence, because that is the chief moral virtue – the most necessary right use of that power. For the will it is justice, giving to each its due, and for the concupiscible appetite it’s temperance, and for the irascible appetite it’s fortitude (staying and fighting when needed, but leaving when that is what is needed). Now I can reason through that every time, but memorizing the cardinal virtues is easier. Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. It’s true in many areas of life and we will talk about some more examples of this later on.

Just as an aside, a strong and docile imagination is also needed for comparisons and for all the liberal arts, which are the beginning of classical education in its fullness. To compare two things, one must be able to have both of them in front of him, at the same time, in some way. To compare two pieces of music, for example, one can hear one piece with his ears, but he has to hear the piece he is comparing it to in his imagination. He can’t hear them both, simultaneously, with his ears, but he needs to hear them both, simultaneously, in some way, to make the comparison. This is true for every comparison. Somehow the two items must be simultaneously present to the person making the consideration. That is going to require the imagination and the memory.

In all arts, you will notice, there is something made. That is what art means: a habit directed to making that involves a true course of reasoning. In the fine arts, and the practical arts such as architecture, painting, carpentry and the like, the making occurs outside the maker. In the liberal arts the making occurs in the maker, specifically in the mind and the imagination. This is different than the strictly philosophical or theological sciences, to which these arts are ordered. They are not arts because they don’t involve a making. These sciences do not make, even in the imagination, the objects which they study. But the Liberal Arts do. And to do those well one must have a developed imagination, an imagination which is able to make the object of the art. Clearly then, the training of the imagination is something we should make an important part of early education. In the exposition I gave earlier of the way one thinks, the importance of the imagination is obvious. Additionally, making comparisons, which are involved in judgments, use the memory and therefore the imagination. The liberal arts require the imagination to make the objects of those arts (number, speech, lines, notes).

How to Develop A Good Memory and How To Memorize

In other places I have talked about how the imagination and memory are formed by nature observation, reading and retelling good literature, and undertaking intellectual disciplines like Latin. In our curriculum we have many opportunities for exercising the power to memorize: Poetry, catechism, states and capitals, Latin vocabulary, etc.

Today I want to concentrate on some helpful techniques I have found over the years.

  • First of all, keep it short. Spending about five minutes a day working on memorizing the states and their capitals, or the questions and answers in The Baltimore Catechism, will enable the student to have this material ‘down cold’. If you spend too much time you will actually be developing an impediment to memory in the student. With my oldest children I kept going over and over the Q&A, saying, "No, that’s not quite right, try it again." We could spend 20-30 minutes on the BC. I found I was reinforcing their perception that they couldn’t get it right. As my family grew I just couldn’t spend that kind of time on those activities and I found the children got them much faster. Nonetheless, repetition is key. You will see that over and over in the following suggestions.
  • Always keep your voice neutral; don’t let your exasperation show that they can’t yet remember whatever it is you are working on. If you do, it will make it harder for them to memorize. One of my kids was having a hard time remembering to put in capitals and periods in his work. We did dictations and those items just weren’t present. I went to a training with a friend – it was about using the Wilson Reading program – and something the presenter said really caught my attention. She said if you want someone to remember something you have to expect that it is going to take a long time and many repetitions and just set your expectations that way. Keep your voice neutral, she said. You are going to have to say the same thing many times and if you expect it you won’t be annoyed. Your annoyance can cause an inability in the student to remember. The student is feeling instead of thinking, he is sure he is a problem and he is sad or angry about it. So I went home and said to my child, “Ok, honey, let’s correct this dictation. Now what does every sentence start with and end with?” He said, “It starts with a capital letter, and ends with a period, or some ending mark.” “Great! Now look at your first sentence. Read it to me. Does it have those marks?” “Yes, see!” “Super! What about the next sentence? Read it to me. Does it have those parts?” “Oops! Well, now it does, mom!” “Great, let’s read the next sentence. What about it?” And so on. He started anticipating me and the next dictation was so much better.
  • Games can help with exercising the memory. There is a parlor game one often plays at birthday parties, where someone brings out a tray filled with objects, displays it for a minute or two, and then takes it away, leaving the audience trying to remember all the objects that were on the tray. People get better at this when they do it often and it helps them with other kinds of memory work. I think the idea is it actually trains them to observe.
  • A variation of that game, using beautiful works of art, is fun to do with children. One brings out the picture, displays it and then puts it down. The children (or child) try to recall everything they saw in the picture, and then they each try to draw the picture from memory. After they are done drawing, the picture is brought out again, and the children compare their pictures to the original.

There are other games as well. We did catechism bees, where the children formed teams, or were each their own team, and they won points for every correct answer. Now, I want to say, an answer was not correct unless it was answered word for word. Understanding and articulating the gist, while laudable, is not the same thing. For our purpose of strengthening and making docile the imagination and memory, we want word for word memorization. It’s better in other ways as well. The language often conveys more to you later on, when you have more knowledge. If you don’t memorize the exact definition, you won’t have the original to go back to with your increased understanding. Further, the Catechism Q&A's are very formal. Those words are used because they are precisely right. If you memorize the answers word for word, your vocabulary increases, as well as your familiarity with distinction.

  • A variation on the Catechism bee was putting the Catechism questions, or their numbers, on pieces of paper, and having the children draw them out of a hat (sometimes I used two hats – one for the children using the grey catechism and one for the children using the pink catechism). Each correct (word for word) answer received points and the idea was to get the most.
  • Another technique that I highly recommend is “Turn the Tables”. Let the children ask you the questions, or help you learn the poem. I can’t tell you how successful that has been. I think there is no anxiety for the student, and he is seeing the material over and over. That makes it easier to memorize.
  • I have found that hand motions, or body motions, associated with what is being memorized, can help the student retain the information. Once one of my grandchildren was having a hard time remembering the Q&A about the Holy Trinity. (Q. How many Persons are there in God? A. In God, there are three Divine Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.) We extended three fingers for the first part and drew a triangle on his hand as we said the words of the second part. With that association he was able to remember. Other examples of the same type of technique would be games that use bodily activity. My daughter had a student who would set up two jars for her types of verbs and run them across the room to put them in the right jar. It helped her remember the verb types. Eventually she got family members involved and told siblings to run them to the right jars. That helped everyone. Similarly, my grandson once memorized the beginning of the Iliad this year when he was only six. He LOVES battles and heroes, so his sister and mom decided to give this a shot. He memorized quite a bit of the text because he and his older sister came up with hand motions to accompany the words. The hand motions were attached, in his memory, to the specific phrases, and they helped him remember large selections.
  • Drawing pictures helps, too. My granddaughter used to have trouble memorizing her poems, but once she started choosing pictures to go with the poems and drawing them, she could remember just about anything. So, for example, she was memorizing “America for Me”. She drew a castle for the first verse (‘Tis fine to see the old world and travel up and down), then she drew another palace and a row of houses for the next verse (Among the famous palaces and cities of renown). She drew a statue of a king for the next one (To admire the crumbly castles and the statues of the kings). Then she changed her voice definitively for the last verse of the first stanza (But now I think I’ve had enough of antiquated things). She had had real trouble memorizing before we started doing this, but once we use this technique she memorized seven ("The Cow", "The Puffin", "The Owl and the Pussy Cat", "Where Go the Boats", "Little Christ Jesus", "American for Me" and most of "The Children’s Hour").
  • I would like to interject here that success is important. It’s like becoming a fluent reader; you have to start reading below your comfort level. Start with easy Q&A's, easy and short poems, a small number of facts. Success in any endeavor breeds success.
  • Variety helps, too: one of my children had a hard time with the multiplication facts. We instituted a regime of a different reinforcement every day: Monday flash cards, Tuesday wrap ups, Wednesday worksheets (timed and untimed), Thursday computer game, and Friday a little test. Where she had been having difficulty she soon had fluency.
  • It’s important to use various modalities in working on memorization and retention. That is part of the reason the variety I just mentioned helped. Now, that does mean that it is helpful to know that someone is an auditory or visual learner. One of my friends was trying to teach the cycle involved in photosynthesis. Her daughter just could not remember it. The mom remembered that this girl was a visual learner and had her make a chart to explain the process. She could remember it forever after that. But this doesn’t mean visual learners should just use visual learning techniques. We want to work with the strengths, but also work to strengthen the areas of weakness. The fact is that even if one type of learning modality is stronger, using more than one is stronger yet.
  • Latin charts as we do them in our Beginning Latin Program show the value of repetition. If you actually fill in those charts as instructed in the syllabus, week after week, you will retain the forms and the stems and the rules. It’s a great program and a great technique. It could be translated to other subjects.
  • Along those lines, when someone is working on memorizing something, having them, in their exercises, cross the midline of their body helps them retain. If you sit straight at a desk and then reach from your right side all the way over to the left side of the paper, you cross the midline. It’s interesting that many studies show the importance of this activity: Crossing midline is the ability to move one’s hands, feet, and eyes not only together, but across and to the other side of the body. Crossing midline requires the involvement of many skills including: body awareness, hand-eye coordination, muscular strength, and most importantly brain communication. Crossing midline builds new pathways in the brain which are building blocks for the development of additional complex motor and cognitive skills such as reading, writing, self-care tasks, and physical activity.
  • There are other similar exercises that can help with retention, like having the student copy something from a paper to a board, or a copying technique I have often recommended because I have seen many associated growth spurts from doing this: Start by having children copy directly under whatever you have written that you want them to learn. Then have them copy the same information from the top of the page to the bottom, then have them copy that information from one page to the next, and then from paper to board. It improves hand-eye coordination, and helps with retention.
  • My daughter has had great success with students who had trouble remembering Latin when she had them color code the stem and endings, and use that process every time. One particular student went from failing to getting As once she had a system that helped her remember what to do with these different parts of the words. As you can see, taking small steps, and having patience are important. A technique like the one my daughter used prepares students for learning and retaining more advanced and difficult materials. Euclid’s Elements, for example, is best done by isolating the steps and remembering those, and their order.
  • There are other mnemonic devices that we have used over the years: There is a 'rat' in 'separate'. The letters for ‘bed’ make a bed. A lowercase 'b' is a line letter – the line comes first, and your mouth makes a line when you say the word. A lowercase 'd' is a circle letter – the circle comes first, and your mouth makes a circle when you say it.
  • Categories of mnemonic devices include acronyms like EGBDF (notes of a staff) or ACTS (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication), or HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), which can be super helpful. Notice that they work in both directions, too. That is, for the notes of a staff you start with the phrase, but with the types of prayer you start with the acronymic word. Rhymes are another category that can help: Thirty Days hath September; so is making a picture to go with a name, like a pirate with a peg leg to remember Peggy.
  • I was reading a text about how to get students in public schools to learn. For the public school teacher, the first requirement is to get their attention, and forge emotional connections and a working relationship. She needs to figure out the students' learning preferences and has to think about making the material relevant. We already know our students, we have their attention, and we know their learning style. We have a relationship. So we are in a much better starting place. But sometimes, with adolescents particularly, you do have to think about these preliminary things, especially when it comes to getting their attention. Why is this relevant, they are thinking? You need to set the scene. Explain what you are going to do and why, and how much fun it will be. With my kids I explained the De Anima and I told them, "If you do this regularly you will get better at doing it, because exercise perfects, and that will make your life easier!"

This is to say that you need, in working on memorization, as in every other part of education, to have the hearts of your children. Obedience is no good without their hearts. So work on that. In my experience you gain their hearts by laying out yours. Tell them what is on your mind, what you want to do and why. Talk to them, explaining your understanding of reality. It’s not the same as negotiation - it’s really explaining why you aren’t negotiating. Love and enjoy your children and every part of your schooling will be better.