Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Volume 1: Memorization

Miss Mason's suggestions regarding memorization here are short and simple: she advises reading a poem to the child casually (when brushing a daughter's hair, for example) once a day, and after just a few listenings, they should know it by heart and be able to recite it "quite beautifully and without hesitation."

That's exactly how it works in your homeschool, right?  No?!  ;) 

Certainly, my littles do pick up on quite a lot--my preschooler can happily recite Stevenson's "The Swan" or Milne's "Rice Pudding" (some of big sister's memory work for this year) "without hesitation" and with quite a bit of rhythm and flair.  But let's take a look at what a Form 1 (early-elementary) student would have been responsible for in one of Charlotte Mason's schools:
"A & B To recite a poem (each child may choose a different one), to learn two hymns, Psalm 111, and two suitable passages of six verses each from (a) Numbers, Chapter 22,(b) St. Matthew, chapter 25. IA, The Fairy Green, by R. Fyleman (Methuen, 1/6). IB, Recitations for Little Children, by G.H. Tuffley (1/-)."  -- from the Programme for Term 93
or from another term,
"A & B To recite a poem (each child may choose a different one), to learn two hymns, Psalm 84, and two suitable passages of 6 verses each from (a) Exodus, chapter 13, (b) St. Matthew, chapter 16. The Golden Staircase, (B) Vol. I., (A) Vol. II. (Nelson, 4d. each). The Fairy Green, by R. Fyleman (Methuen, 1/6)." -- from the Programme for Term 92
So for one term, the child is to memorize a poem, two hymns, a psalm, and several 6-verse passages from biblical and literary sources.  According to exams, they would also be memorizing several poems and songs in foreign languages.  Multiply that by three terms, and that's quite a bit of memorizing for a young child!  To meet these requirements, more than a few readings-aloud would be necessary--or at least it would for us.

So I went looking for her suggestions for how to do memorization with Form 2 and 3 children, who are memorizing a great deal more than even that each term--surely she had some advice on how to go about the more structured memory work required for that age group.  And I was surprised to find that she said nothing else on the subject in any of her volumes, as far as I could find.  (Someone please correct me if I am wrong!)

So how can we take her comments here and apply them to memory work, rather than the kind of casual memorization she is specifically referencing?  Can we take from this some main principles and use them to chart a plan for more structured work?

:: First, we must remember that it is indeed memory work--emphasis on the work.  A child's mind may seem as if it just sucks up knowledge like a sponge and wrings it back out effortlessly. Not so.  Memorization may come naturally to the child, but it is not without mental effort:
"It is possible that the disengaged mind of a child is as free to take and as strong to hold beautiful images clothed in beautiful words as was that of this lady during her convalescence. But, let me again say, every effort of the kind, however unconscious, means wear and tear of brain substance. Let the child lie fallow till he is six, and then, in this matter of memorising, as in others, attempt only a little, and let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination." (emphasis mine)
The point is not to avoid that mental work altogether--no indeed!  Memorization is an integral part of education and, as she says, a true "treasure."

And as we can see in the PNEU programmes, when Miss Mason means "only a little," she means quite a lot by modern standards. :)  But the key here is that...

:: We must be particular about what we choose for our students to memorize--or better yet, what they choose for themselves. The purpose of memorization is to have food always available to the mind, "beautiful images clothed in beautiful words."  The purpose is NOT to cram children's minds with facts simply because they seem to be able to handle it.  Therefore, the emphasis should be on literature, Bible verses, and hymns and songs in English and foreign languages.  (And as a Catholic, I must add traditional prayers here.  Mind-food and soul-food, for sure!)  But facts without context are not what Miss Mason has in mind here.

::  In the same vein, they should not waste their time memorizing twaddle.  I'm pretty sure this goes without saying. :)  Truly, though, have you looked at most modern poetry compilations?  So it's something to keep in mind!

:: Whichever way we go about it, memory work should not be wearisome.  I think she leaves room here for a variety of methods.  But daily repetition may not be the best approach to memorizing if the child finds it drudgery.  It should be as easy and natural as possible.

:: The primary method of memorization should be visual imagination.  Now, I can think of several different ways to memorize just off the top of my head: Some learn by the sound of the poem, the rhythm.  Some see the words on the page, subconsciously taking in their form and shape, and then "read" from the text they have mentally filed away.  Some naturally visualize the descriptive scene or the events of a narrative poem.  They then go back over this mental impression when they recite.  Miss Mason seems to privilege the last means:
"The child must not try to recollect or to say the verse over to himself, but, as far as may be, present an open mind to receive an impression of interest. Half a dozen repetitions should give children possession of such poems as 'Dolly and Dick,' 'Do you ask what the birds say?' Little lamb, who made thee?' and the like. The gains of such a method of learning are, that the edge of the child's enjoyment is not taken off by weariful verse by verse repetitions, and, also, that the habit of making mental images is unconsciously formed." (emphasis mine)
Elsewhere she uses a similar description, calling upon educators judiciously "to store [students'] memories with images of delight" (Volume 2, p. 194, emphasis mine).

Visual work for a child educated in this style is nothing new; we see this same skill honed in just about every other subject: mental "picture-painting" of a landscape in nature study, recreating an art piece as part of artist study, whole-word reading lessons, and so on.  She considers this a very valuable skill and suggests it be applied to memorization as well.

So, looking at these basic principles--how can we apply them to the more rigorous schedule of memorizing that she suggests for her school-aged students?  We can make sure we choose quality pieces, primarily from literature and the Bible.  We can make sure the pieces are delightful to the child and suitable to his age.  And we can use methods that make memorization as effortless as possible, relying heavily on the child's visual memory.  Does this sound doable?  Yes, I think it does!  It may take a bit more than a few readings while brushing my daughter's hair, but we can store up plenty of "images of delight" without too much "wear and tear" at all.


  1. Celeste, I'm wondering what memory work looks like for your kids. I've gone through the memory work index on your blog (which seems like more than what CM expected to be done, correct? I'm feeling like I have to live up to that impressive list!!!) , but I'm interested learning more about how it's done. Do you all do memory work as a group, in a single sitting, as some people seem to work memory work into a group setting? Do you send kids off to work on it independently? Aloud or silent? Are there tips and tricks for helping aid the process (i.e. Using memory work as copy work? Writing the memory work on a board and "erasing" lines as they are learned?)
    Right now, I have my son go off with his memory work and read through it all independently, but that seems so disingaged and boring for him. I thought about including it in a collective morning time, and having him read his memory work aloud to younger siblings, but that seems a bit too forced. Do your kids use a piece of memory to practice recitation (rather, can memory work and recitation be combined?) Do you have your kids run through all their memory work every day?
    I'm sorry for all the questions! Thank you, as always 😉💗

    1. Hi Rachel,

      My rule of thumb has been to always be working in the categories Charlotte Mason had students memorizing in her schools. Despite not putting much emphasis on memory work, her students actually did have quite a few passages assigned each term, some quite long. I think the amount we have covered is comparable to what they did in PNEU schools, or at least that is what I'm aiming at. *However* my rule of thumb has always been to make lists we can pull from, but then just work at my kids' pace, doing the next thing on the list when we have finished. There is no list to live up to!! The amount you do will just depend on your family's abilities and priorities. :)

      What CM did NOT include in her schools is review of prior memory work, at least as far as I know. But I find review to be both fun and valuable, so that is what I use for Recitation in our homeschool. That means we have two slots in our daily schedule: memory work (where we read or sing our new selections) and recitation (where we recite some old ones as a review).

      We do not run through all the memory work each day -- just a bit that usually takes about five minutes. I have our review strategy written up here:

      We do Memory Work as a family. We all learn the same hymn, folk song, Bible passage, and Shakespeare. My kids choose their own poems. We read it aloud all together in one sitting, usually. I try to make it a fun time when we are enjoying truth, goodness, and beauty through these lovely passages. So the emphasis is on appreciation, not necessarily on memorization -- the memorization is the side result, if that makes sense. :) They do sometimes use their memory work as copywork, but that is their choice. (They choose their own copywork for the most part.)

      Hope that helps!

    2. Yes! It does, thank you! Seeing it as a time of fun appreciation and being together really puts memory work in a different light, one I hadn't arrived at yet (being so concerned with the mechanics.) Thank you!