When I was a girl, the homeschool group in Williamsburg/James City County and Charles City Counties in Virginia decided that it would be a good idea to have an annual “Speech Meet.” The idea was that homeschool students needed an opportunity to practice speaking in front of an audience—and why not have the children each memorize something and then have a little competition? Students from William and Mary could be the judges, and everyone could have a good time and learn about public speaking as well.
I thought this was a great idea. I read a lot of poetry, I could usually remember a poem after having read it over a few times, and I have always loved having an audience! In fact, I can still recite the poems I learned—and the poems my younger siblings learned, as well!
Fast forward twenty years or so, and I’m now trying to work some formal memory work into our schooling. Some of the children are like me and can memorize something simply by reading it over a few times. Other children need a bit more help, and I have had to figure out how to teach them how to memorize something!
For Preschool–Early Readers
Young children are at the perfect place to memorize! They are sponges, retaining and repeating almost everything they hear (which is why the toddler walks around singing Latin vocabulary songs!). They can often learn quite lengthy poems or songs, but they will need some help since they can’t read yet, or may not be reading at the vocabulary level that they can comprehend.
How to Do It:
- Choose a poem or passage you wish them to learn and read it aloud, explaining any new words or concepts. Either read it aloud every day for a week, or compress the time somewhat by reading it several times a day. (This will depend on the child.)
- After they have heard it several times, say, “Now I’m going to read it but leave some words out, and you see if you can fill them in without my telling you.” Continue through the poem this way, and repeat the exercise over the next several days, gradually progressing from leaving out individual words to leaving out the last half of the line for the child to fill in.
“Wynken, Blinken and _____ (and they chime in “Nod”) one night,
Sailed off in a wooden ______(and they say “shoe”).”
- Now start at the beginning and say, “You’ve learned almost half of this piece! Let’s see how far you can get without my helping you.” Start them off at the beginning and see where they are still unsure, giving little prompts as needed and perhaps finishing the end of the poem together if that is what’s needed. Give plenty of encouragement and, when necessary, murmur the beginning of a word or phrase, but try hard not to jump in too quickly! It may take a week or more to learn a long piece, but the sense of accomplishment for both of you will be quite high!
Some older students will be able to memorize by reading and/or hearing a passage or poem multiple times. Even if they can do so, the discipline of going through the steps of memorizing will help ensure the words are firmly fixed in their minds and will teach them good habits for more advanced studying.
What to Do:
- Give them a printed copy of the piece to be learned. Read it aloud yourself. Pay close attention to your own use of expression and observation of commas and other punctuation—your students will model their recitation on yours.
- Have the students add the printed work to a binder or notebook. We usually cut the poem out and glue it onto a piece of notebook paper, then draw illustrations around it. You could also have them write it in a notebook as a handwriting exercise, then illustrate it, but they may find it tricky to memorize from their handwritten version unless they have very lovely handwriting!
- Have each student stand and read the piece aloud once from start to finish. Take notes on where they need to observe the punctuation, raise or lower their voice, slow down etc.
- Have them go back through their reading as you correct their delivery. There may be tears, arguments, and whining at this point. Be persistent. Part of the reason for memorizing pieces is to recite them, and there is a huge difference between “The Charge of the Light Brigade” delivered in a deadpan, monotone voice, and the same piece recited with the tones of the voice lending depth and emotion to the recitation!
- Set aside time each day for the students to read the pieces aloud, and then close the book and try to say it from memory.
- Optional but useful if you have the wall space: type the piece and enlarge so it may easily be read from across the room and then post on the wall of a room the children are in frequently. Without really intending to, they will read the piece throughout the day, which will help cement the words in their minds.
Finally, be thoughtful in what you choose to have them memorize. Scripture is excellent, of course, and other passages and poems should be asked to pass the test of beauty, truth, and wonder. Is the concept or sentiment true? Are the words and structure of the poem beautiful? Does the poem or passage lead to further engagement with the truth expressed? Words that may well be recited to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren should be selected with care!
This article originally appeared on HEAV.org and is used with permission.
Photo by Richard Clyborne of Music Strive