In Defense Of Memorization

By Julie Nagem

6th Graders performing “Jabberwocky”

Memorization is an essential part of the Grammar phase of the trivium. In fact, in the first quarter of school alone, Westminster Grammar school students have already memorized hundreds of lines of poetry, scripture, and script. From the first graders beginning the foundation for the Christmas story to the sixth graders wrestling on stage while reciting lines like “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe”, each and every day consists of some form of memorization for these students. Some of the works they have committed to memory in these first weeks of school include: All of John Chapter 1, the first several stanzas of Beowulf, the beginning of the history timeline, a play about St. Augustine, the poem Jabberwocky, numerous Catechism questions and responses, as well as scripture verses every single week in JK through 6th grade.

So what is the “why” behind our teachers integrating memorization into so much of the Grammar School curriculum? As Michael Knox states in In Defense of Memorization, “The memorization and recitation of classical utterances of poets and statesmen form part of a tradition of learning that stretches back to classical antiquity. When the Greeks discovered that words and sounds awakened the mind and shaped character, they made poetry the foundation of their pedagogy.” In short, to awaken the mind and shape their character!

The many works they learn, including vast passages of Holy Scripture, are essential in shaping the character of our students. “Memory work of all kinds is wonderful for young minds,” says Mrs. Peckham. “First, the students still have a remarkable ability to store large amounts of information. Why not fill that storage space with quality materials from which the students may draw for years to come. Scripture memory has immense value, because we call it to mind for the rest of our lives in order to apply it.”

Further, memorization at a young age, sets students up for success later in their academic careers. Not only are older students able to draw on their “storage” for use and expansion later in their learning, the actual skill of memorizing serves them when they reach the rhetoric stage and begin delivering longer oral presentations. “Memorizing anything for recitation benefits the student in rhetorical skills, because the more he is able to recite with confidence, the greater ability he will have to express himself in front of an audience,” Mrs. Peckham notes. “This is where memory of lines for a play comes in. Not only will he deliver the lines, but, free of a paper script, the student is able to focus on movement and inflection, which connects him to his audience.”  

Finally, memorizing serves the students by providing a foundation, a virtual “reference room” for the rest of their lives. “Have you ever had the experience of coming to a new grasp of something you memorized as a child?” asks Mrs. Peckham. That “lightbulb” moment allows you to appreciate the piece on a whole new level. It’s a joy! Our students experience this wonder – and may they never stop expanding those beautiful minds!”

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