Practically Painless Poetry Memorization

I can read pretty well and I know ever so many pieces of poetry off by heart—"The Battle of Hohenlinden" and '"dinburgh after Flodden," and "Bingen of the Rhine," and most of the "Lady of the Lake" and most of "The Seasons" by James Thompson. Don't you just love poetry that gives you a crinkly feeling up and down your back? There is a piece in the Fifth Reader—'The Downfall of Poland'—that is just full of thrills. Of course, I wasn't in the Fifth Reader—I was only in the Fourth—but the big girls used to lend me theirs to read.
–Anne Shirley in response to Marilla’s question about her prior education (Anne of Green Gables, Chapter V)

Back in the day, as one of my sons likes to say, poetry memorization was a routine part of a child’s education. Sometime after the 1940’s however, this practice fell out of favor with “progressive” educators when what they disparagingly called “rote memorization” became a disdained method. Before this “in every epoch of Western history we find educators insisting that their pupils serve an apprenticeship in the work of masters of poetry and rhetoric.” (From In Defense of Memorization by Michael Knox Beran– an absolutely fascinating discussion of the history and purposes of memorization!)

Augustine memorized large portions of the Aeneid, British schoolchildren committed to heart scads of Shakespeare, and American pupils recited the Gettysburg Address. Poetry memorization built cultural literacy and developed young minds. By the time of my childhood in the 1960s and ‘70s, memorization was pretty much a thing of the past. I remember learning only one poem in school, and that was to include as part of a presentation on the Hoosier Poet, James Whitcomb Riley. (Even with my sieve-like memory, I can still recite the first stanza of “The Jaybird” with a bona fide Hoosier accent.)

Happily, many homeschoolers have returned to practice of memorizing poetry, and with good reason, too. Encouraging your children to learn poetry by heart is one of the most powerful things you can do to build a library of complex English syntax and a rich vocabulary in your little scholars’ brains, serving to “turn on kids’ language capability" (Beran). In fact, Andrew Pudewa, creator of the Institute for Excellence in Writing series goes so far as to say that the two most important things parents can do to help their children become good writers are to read aloud regularly to all ages of children, and to require their children to memorize quantities of poetry. (One Myth and Two Truths).

I can imagine some readers thinking, “OK, Anne. That sounds great. But we are already struggling to get through the basics each day while trying to keep the laundry from overtaking the house! Now you are telling us to add on one more thing!?!?”

So, here’s a practically painless method for poetry memorization that has worked for us for years. It really has been very easy to implement, but does take some thought and a bit of preparation beforehand. This past summer I neglected this prep, and guess what? We have been sporadic in our poetry memorization this year until a friend gave me a gentle nudge a few months ago. We’ve done better in April and May, and I’ve renewed my determination to spend the time needed this summer to better plan for next year. Hopefully we’ll pull off a complete year more successfully. And that’s why I’m writing about this now – not to give you a guilt trip about one more thing to do, but to give you some ideas for the coming year.

1. Choose one piece to memorize for each month of the school year.
Read through your favorite poetry collections. Think about seasonal events, and keep in mind the ages and interests of your children. Come up with a nice variety of humorous, inspirational, thoughtful, and just lovely poetry.

Side note: Work on building a well-rounded and beautiful collection of poetry books. Must haves include nursery rhymes, A. A. Milne’s two collections, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, and several collections with a wide variety of styles of poetry and illustrations. Try books from your library to see what you like before buying your own. If you want to see what kids were memorizing a century ago, you can check out Poems Every Child Should Know by Mary Burt. It's still in print, but you can download a copy for free from Gutenberg. (I have a copy on my Kindle.)

2. Make copies of each poem to be learned, preferably with illustrations. Print a copy for each reading child and one for a family book. The pictures will help prompt your non-reading children.

3. Put one set of the poems into sheet protectors and compile them into a family poetry binder. You will add to this each year, and can use it to review poems previously memorized.

4. To memorize – we simply read through our poem of the month a couple of times each day right before our daily read aloud period. If that timing doesn’t work for you, pick some other period of the day you can hit with consistency. Children may read along with their copies or just listen and chime in as they are able. As time goes on, I have them say more and more on their own. Usually within the month, everyone knows the piece.  Try posting your piece on the fridge and reciting together as you eat lunch. Simple repetition, with regularity, should do the trick.

5. Don’t forget to review pieces previously learned.

If you want to read more about memorization techniques, here are a couple of helpful links:

A. Step-by-Step By Heart :

B. Poetry X - More on how to memorize


emily said…
Thanks, Anne. This is really helpful for me as I begin looking for memorization resources!

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