Learning by heart

Memorization — or “learning by heart” — is underrated, writes Justin Snider on HechingerEd. As an English teacher, he makes students memorize poetry.

First, it’s a challenge, and one in which those who succeed can take pride….

Second, it’s good exercise for your brain….

Third, and most importantly, new insights are gained in the process of memorization. You see things to which you were previously blind; you uncover a play on words, assonance, alliteration, analogies.

With multiple readings (or viewings or hearings), “we actually begin to understand, see and hear,” Snider writes.

I memorized Wordworth’s The World Is Too Much With Us in high school English 42 years ago. I still know about half of it. I say it to myself sometimes.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

“Hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn” always gets to me.

About Joanne


  1. Exactly why is memorization given the brush off? When I was in elementary and middle school (before 1978), we were required to memorize the multiplication tables, states, continents, and basic historical events and dates.

    Memorization (what we called ‘drill and kill’ in my day) isn’t a bad thing for anyone, as some employers give prospective employees on the spot questions like:

    Can you tell me what 15 percent of 200 is?

    How much carpet would you need to cover a room 40 feet by 30 feet?

    and so on. Many employers are appalled at the lack of basic skills and concepts which high school students (and graduates) should know, but do not and this is simply unacceptable in a society where many people will be left behind in years to come.

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    I can tell you what 15 percent of 200 is in a second (30), but certainly not because I memorized that fact! I didn’t memorize 40 times 30 either. Bill, you’re confusing memorizing with knowing how. I memorized 4 x 3. I know how to compute 40 x 30.

    Snider is obviously good at memorizing, which helps him in his chosen career. However, he is vastly overrating the ability of the average student to memorize. He asserts, without the tiniest bit of evidence, “Most people, I think, could learn the first 100 digits of ? in an hour.” Well, he could. I could too, and probably most of this blog’s readers could. But most people? No way. And if they could, would that be a good use of an hour? Nope. I have managed to live a happy life only knowing the first fifteen digits of pi.

    Moreover, I disagree that memorizing helps one understand what one has memorized. Quick, parse the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner. “O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming…” You have to think about it, don’t you? And most people, even after thinking, don’t get it right.

    OK, the Star Spangled Banner has odd syntax. But how about the Gettysburg address? Can most people who have memorized it explain it? (Not you blog readers, but most people.) No, they can’t.

  3. What I’m saying is that some things which should be known as ‘common knowledge’ is vanishing very rapidly, as students more often than not lack knowledge of geography, history, government, etc.

    I mean, if you take a look at the new questions on the US citizenship test, that’s exactly the type of knowledge any high school student SHOULD know by the time they graduate from high school (covers the three branches of government, the constitution, US history, and so forth).

    I had a very good teacher in world and US history in high school, we got writers cramp in 6th hour, but we learned why certain events in history happened, not just the places and the dates (US civil war was fought mostly over the issue of slavery between the slave states and the free states).

    I didn’t have to look that up, I happened to remember that from a lecture on US history.

    That’s what I call the benefit of memorization (and being able to apply that knowledge when needed), and like everyone else, I use google to look something up which I might need while I’m working or surfing :)

  4. I don’t know about other pieces of knowledge, but what he says about poetry is true — memorization pulls out the nuances. I have my kids memorize short poems, too. At the end of the recitation test, I tell them it was my present to them: they have that poem forever.

  5. Cardinal Fang,
    To answer your question: yes, memorizing can lead to understanding. Last year my 11 and 12 year old sons memorized the Gettysburg Address as part of our history studies. None of us memorize easily, so it took us quite some time – probably a month – to really own it. Obviously, we discussed the context of the speech prior to memorizing. We also discussed it line by line at various times duing our recitation periods. Memorizing poetry, geography, and other science and history facts are part of our school day. Poetry is particularly enjoyable.

    My youngest son wacked his knee on our coffee table yesterday and commented that his patella hurt. He was able to identify the right bone because he had previously memorized all the major bones in the body.

    Very definately worth the effort.

  6. The relative emphasis between learning through ‘memorization’ or developing critical thinking skills is also very age dependent. For two thousand years elementary school kids in ‘Western’ education have focused on learning facts, from vocabulary to multiplication tables. Logic and critical thinking generally came later, as children’s knowledge base grows and ability for abstract thought develops.

    We agree with Mr. Snider – the merits of memorization are underrated, especially for elementary school kids.


  7. I don’t know if school kids are required to even learn the multiplication table and have it committed to memory (I’ve seen high school graduates who didn’t know how to figure out what 2/3′s is on a digital scale). I can only go by what I know, and in the early 1970′s when I was in elementary school, we were required to memorize many things like the multiplication tables, etc.

  8. My son has a poor memory and has a difficult time memorizing things like math facts. It definitely slows him down when he has to remember 6X8. He has been taught strategies to keep going – using a calculator, special counting methods etc. He understands the bigger picture problem and the more complicated math, but not being able to produce the basic math facts is a hinderance. Luckily, he is not afraid of hard work, but it does slow him down.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    I support having kids memorize the times table. I’m arguing against forcing them to memorize reams of poetry and prose, which is what this post is about.

    Adults need to be able to figure out what four lattes at $3 a latte will cost, but they don’t need to be able to stand up in Starbucks and recite the Gettysburg address.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I don’t think it matters, really, which poems or speeches or whatnot that one memorizes. I think that what matters is that SOMETHING gets memorized — something passes through memory to activate its channels, and something becomes the object of instantaneous, on-demand apprehension and study.

    I didn’t have to memorize much when I was in compulsory school (1979-1992) — what I absolutely had to memorize was pretty much limited to lines for elementary school non-optional school plays and a Shakespeare scene in 7th grade. I think there were some speeches that I wrote for classes that I had to memorize, too. If there was anything else, it didn’t stick.

    But I did a *lot* of choir and drama, and that means memorizing LOTS of things. Now as it happens, that meant Shakespeare — both in plays and in songs (Blow, blow thou winter wind…. Take oh take those lips away that so sweetly were forsworn… Hark, hark the lark at heaven’s gate sings….) as well as a lot of poetry set to music and a lot of Latin (Glorias, Requiems…) which I didn’t understand (on a grammatical level) then, but which I do understand now that I’ve taken some Latin.

    My point is this: I think my brain turned out pretty darn well, but I wouldn’t necessarily prescribe that kids memorize the same things that I did. That seems silly. There’s too much out there.

    But I would prescribe that kids memorize something: plays, songs, poems, speeches… I don’t think it matters what.

  11. Michael E. Lopez says:

    A side note about how one memorizes things: When you are performing in a play, you don’t just learn your lines. You learn all the lines. It just happens — because you’re hearing them over and over and over again.

    It’s a different process of memorization: memorization not from practice but from sheer exposure. But I don’t think it works any less effectively.

  12. Cardinal Fang says:

    Michael, I’m sure that you’re telling the truth. You (by choice) memorized a lot of poems and speeches, and you turned out well.

    As an argument that everyone should memorize, your claim is astoundingly weak. Every day before school, I used to swim 3000 yards. I turned out well, and my swimming was good for me. Using your argument, I should claim that everyone should swim. But of course that’s ridiculous.

    People who swim well gravitate to swim teams. People who memorize well gravitate to theater. But non-swimmers can find some other way to exercise, and poor memorizers can find other, better ways to exercise their minds. We’re not a pre-literate society. We don’t need to memorize.

  13. Two points of view are talking past each other here. One says that memorizing material is necessary and can be gratifying. The other says that can be hard and for some children, very hard. Both of these takes on memorization are true.

    It’s intersting that the main point of contention is over memorizing literature and historical material of various sorts. No one is arguing that you don’t need to memorize lots of stuff when you study geography, chemistry, foreign languages, or any of a host of academic and non-academic topics (football players have to memorize playbooks, after all). Memorizing poems and speeches, though, is seen as the icing on the cake and therefore something that should be optional or even discouraged. I think a good compromise would be to recognize that for some children memorizing poems/prose/theatrical pieces is gratifying, and for some it is a difficult chore; being very flexible about when, how, and how much this “learning by heart” of literary texts should be introduced, timed, and graded makes a lot of sense.

  14. To really appreciate poetry, you have to recite it aloud, and to capably recite a poem, you really have to memorize it. There is a world of difference between a poem read off the page and a poem delivered by someone who has memorized it. Despite all the foofaraw about “poetry slams” and the national poetry out loud competition, poetry really does get hind tit in the performing arts today which is a shame.

  15. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The Cardinal spaketh thusly:

    Michael, I’m sure that you’re telling the truth. You (by choice) memorized a lot of poems and speeches, and you turned out well.

    As an argument that everyone should memorize, your claim is astoundingly weak. Every day before school, I used to swim 3000 yards. I turned out well, and my swimming was good for me. Using your argument, I should claim that everyone should swim. But of course that’s ridiculous.

    Actually, I think that — given that I expressly said that there were different processes and subjects of good memorization — the proper comparison would be “that you should claim everyone should exercise, even if they don’t like swimming.”

    And that’s hardly ridiculous. Even nerds should exercise, even if it hurt their tiny little arms. And even the dimmest of bulbs should get out there and memorize something, even if it hurts their straining little hippocampi.

  16. I love love love the anti-intellectual strain developing here. I have such a weakness for irony.

  17. Michael E. Lopez says:


    I’m confused. What you said sounds interesting, but I’m not seeing either the irony or the anti-intellectualism.

    Could you explain? Many thanks in advance if you do!


  18. The classical curriculum (Bauer and Wise have one version) is composed of three stages; grammar, logic and rhetoric. The grammar stage (grades 1-2) is concerned with learning the basic foundational language and knowledge (heavy on facts) of the disciplines, the logic stage (grades 5-8) deepens the knowledge and emphasizes connections and relationships and the rhetoric stage (grades 9-12) stresses analysis and synthesis. I’m all for it.

    I am also a fan of memorization because it stretches the mind and underlies higher-order thinking.It’s much easier to evaluate a bargain if you really know percentages and it’s much easier to understand a passage about Grant, the Blue and the Gray and the burning of Atlanta, if you know they relate to the Civil War. Yes, you can pull out a calculator and you can look up all of the terms, but having to do so does not enhance analysis. Try listening to a radio report of an advancing storm system; it makes much more sense if you have some idea where Tulsa, Nashville and Cincinnati are.

    I have read recent complaints from college professors that their undergrads (and even some med and law students) have difficulty with reading complex texts, partly because they tend to forget the beginning of the sentence before they get to the end. That’s less likely for kids who have regularly exercised their memory.

  19. Michael: why, railing against memorization because it is,of all things, *hard*. And poetry and literature. What useless things to know! The irony, of course, comes when you peruse other comments threads…. Well, “a mindless consistency is the hobgloblin of little minds” after all.

    When my kids choose up poems to memorize, “The World is Too Much with Us” and Yeats’ “Second Coming” are favorites. My daughter and I have so much William Carlos Williams memorized, his poems have become our private jokes. I read them to her when she was younger to catch a break from the kid books.

    I memorized the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in college. The middle English was a little tricky! I’m by no means a quick memorizer, and it was hard for me, but it worked to make the rest of the stories much easier to read (and all the other ME works we read that semester) — not something everybody has to do, but very valuable for an English major and a concept transferable to other areas.

  20. Roger Sweeny says:

    There was a young man from Nantucket.