Learning by Heart
Alan Maley, UK
Alan Maley has been involved in ELT for over 40 years. He has lived and worked in 10 countries, including China, India, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. He is series editor for the Oxford Resource Books for Teachers, and has published over 30 books and numerous articles. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Learning material by heart has long been consigned to the dustbin of non-communicative, outmoded techniques, along with repetition, dictation, reading aloud and the like. I want to argue that it is a technique well worth re-examining. I am not arguing that it should be made a central part of any particular methodology - but for certain individuals or in certain contexts or as a component of a programme along with other activities, it may well be worth using judiciously.
There are many traditions worldwide which value rote-learning. The committing of long texts to memory is an integral part of Koranic schools, of monastic education in Buddhism, and in secular contexts like China. Of course, learning a language is not the same as memorising a set of texts. Language in use cannot be memorised precisely because it is not wholly predictable. So what uses might rote memorisation have?
The answer to this question depends partly on who decides what to memorize, what they memorize, why they memorize and on how they go about it. Let us look at each of these in turn.
In much ‘traditional’ teaching it is the teacher or the syllabus which decides what shall be committed to memory. In many cases this leads to a resistance to what is being learned. Why should I have to learn a Shakespeare sonnet when I’d rather learn a Bob Dylan song perhaps? It is essential that it is the students themselves decide whether, when and what to memorise.
What is memorized?
All too often the texts students have been made to learn have been too long, unmotivated exercises in memorization. My suggestion is that memorization can be applied to a wider variety of material. Here are some examples
- Students choose a list of words they like the sound of to memorise. After a week or so,
they share their favourite words in class. They can then add words taken from others’
- Students collect advertising slogans or jingles. These are often highly memorable
because they use literary devices such as repetition, rhyme, rhythm, parallelism, etc.
(an example would be; ‘you shop: we drop’ a supermarket home delivery ad) I can
still recall ads from languages I learned in the past: Du beau, Du bon, Dubonnet; ‘non
fa male quando si leva: Salvetox.’ Again these can be shared in class from time to
- Students commit aphorisms or witty sayings to memory. For example, Wilde’s famous reversal of a common English saying: ‘Work is the curse of the drinking classes.’ Or quotes, ‘Isn’t life a terrible thing? Thank God!’ They keep a record of these and perhaps organise an exhibition of them for the class notice board or website. Again these are highly memorable partly because of the witty content or the literary devices they deploy
- Students collect jokes to retell from memory: elephant jokes, knock-knock jokes are particularly suitable because they are short and rely on language play for their effect, e.g.:
I don’t know. Sorry!
- Students who enjoy poetry can decide to learn one short poem a week. They may
decide to put on a performance of the poems they have learned at the end of the course.
There are plenty of short 3 or 4-line poems available – and, of course, limericks galore.
I had written to Aunt Maud
Such poems often appeal because they are irreverent, or downright rude! Or highly romantic:
While on a trip abroad,
When I heard she’d died of cramp:
Just too late to save the stamp!
West wind, when will you blow?
In all these cases they become memorable.
The small rain down does rain.
God, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.
- Learning songs by heart is one of the most appealing and least painful forms of memorisation. And one of the longest lasting. I can still recall the words of French popular songs from the time I was learning French secondary school – over 50 years later!
- Learning a part in a play for public performance. Provided the students are motivated to cooperate in a theatrical production, there are few better ways to put memorization to use.
In terms of motivation, students may wish to memorize in order to increase their vocabulary, to build up a repertory of entertaining things they can display in English, to practise pronunciation, stress and intonation patterns by getting their tongue around the language, to prepare for some kind of public performance. A further reason is that there does seem to be some permeability between memorized material and active use. It is as if the memorized texts are like a filing cabinet: when active use requires it, the right file can often be retrieved instantly from memory.
How to go about it?
Different strokes for different folks, of course. But a singular advantage of memorization is that you can do it anywhere and any time that suits you, and this will be outside class time. So memorization is a powerful support for autonomous, individual learning. However, memorization for ensemble work, as in rehearsing a skit or a play can also provide a supportive framework for trial and error.
The key factor in the successful and productive use of memorization would seem to be choice. Students can hardly be expected to choose to memorize unless the advantages are explained to them. Once that has been done through class discussion, the choice of what to memorize and how to go about it and keep a record of it should be left to them. As the old saying goes: ‘One volunteer is worth ten pressed men.’
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Drama course at Pilgrims website.