Memorization is NOT a Four Letter Word

Yolanda Wheelington Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Uncategorized

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The start of a new academic year had materialized, and I decided to start it off right. I asked myself “What is something that will make a big positive impact in my class right away?”  The answer came quicker than I thought it would. “The students need to memorize fundamental classroom survival information”.  I consider “fundamental classroom survival information” things that will promote independence and free the child to focus on deeper concepts. In my class, this includes computer passwords, procedures for accessing websites, important personal information, math facts, and key academic/ high-frequency words.

In the current education arena, memorization is often shunned when it comes to any type of academic content.  Most would agree with the required memorization of all but the last two items on my list. Memorization of math facts and vocabulary easily equates to the dreaded phrase “drill-n-kill”.  Yet, I argue that memorization has been undervalued in our current classrooms due to a misunderstanding of its place and how it should be used.

I would love for all of my students to have the opportunity to naturally take in information in a manner that supports their natural curiosity and development. I would be naïve to believe that this is always the case. According to the Montessori philosophy, children have a natural developmental plane that includes a sensitive period for absorption up to about age 6 or 7. During this time, it is relatively easy for a child to take in whatever is provided to her by the environment. For example, think of small children living in multi-lingual communities that can speak all of them!

After that age, there is a shift as this period for absorption closes. The child is ready to use and apply the information gained as he enters the elementary classroom. This is a wonderful time for learning, discovery, and experimentation. Yet, the natural ease for absorption is no longer available in most children after age 6.  Direct effort must be employed to help the child internalize new data. This is evident in the need for high impact, engaging learning experiences for the elementary child when the primary child is just as satisfied by simple observation and repetition.

Although this is something that I can accept, Common Core standards cannot. By 3rd grade, there are sophisticated multistep learning expectations that require the child’s full attention. Many times in math, I saw students master the process and understand the algorithm but fail because of computation skills. Or students struggle through the process, then give up when time to compute due to fatigue. Knowing math facts at the level of automaticity would have benefited the students in both of these situations.

Then there is language and the ability to communicate thoughts clearly. Simply stated, correctly spelling high-frequency words will have a direct positive impact on written and verbal communication. For example, I had a student that consistently spelled a word wrong. Upon investigation, I learned the child habitually spelling it the way she pronounced it. Once she learned the correct spelling (which she had to memorize), she self-corrected her pronunciation.

Lastly, it must be stated that there is value in the memorization of poetry, plays, essays, and any other information of cultural value. The ability to hold information in the mind independent of external stimulation aides in the development of the capacities of the child overall. It provides him with on-demand stimuli to meditate upon. Also, it is free.

Some memorization techniques that I have seen success with:

  • Chants and Songs
  • Short class plays and skits (no papers to read from after day three, invite parents, principals, and peers to the performance)
  • Jump rope while reciting
  • Perform the piece as a different character (i.e. an elderly person, a baby, a princess)
  • Learn the piece with a peer and each says one word until complete
  • The spelling game Sparkle (
  • Engage the family
  • Hand clapping while reciting
  • Play basketball (get a correct answer, take a shot)
  • Involve students in learning goals (they like to see themselves improving)
  • Have community discussion on the values of memorization of certain information as an aid to learning more complex skills (memorization is not an end but a means to an end)
  • Random review, spot checks, and repetition


Montessori 4 Planes of Development:

Montessori Sensitive Periods:

Opinion: Memorize That Poem (NYTimes)

The Case for Memorization (EdWeek)


Yolanda Wheelington

Phoenix, Arizona

Yolanda has taught for the past 7 years in the Phoenix Elementary School District. Her passion for developing and supporting the human potential is evident in the cross-curricular work done her classroom. She is a member of the Association Montessori International and is a RODEL Scholar. Yolanda earned a Bachelor’s in Psychology from The Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.), a Master’s in Social Work and a Master’s in Education (Special Education) from Arizona State University, and a diploma in Lower Elementary Education for ages 6-12 from the Montessori Institute of North Texas.

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Comments 3

  1. Donnie Lee

    I agree with you about memorization. I think it is crucial that students remember certain pieces of information. However, I think some people don’t understand that students can’t memorize it alone; they have to understand what they are memorizing. This is where I struggled as an educator. Do I focus first on memorization and the understanding later? Or focus on the understanding first and hope they memorize it? I have memorized that 5 x 5 is 25 but I have a deep understanding of why 5 x 5 is 25. How can we help our students get there?

    1. Yolanda Wheelington

      Hi! I actually do both in my class. In word problems, we spend a great deal of time discussing vocabulary, key terms, and comprehending the problem. Solving is not the focus. Fact memorization is an aid for fluency and automaticity…a tool to be used upon demand. As the students get into more complex problems, they appreciate memorizattion of constants such as math facts becasue the problem comprehension and strategy development can take so much energy, they do not want to also have to figure out 8 x 6. So I break “memorization worthy/appropriate” into constants or rules that are needed in order for the student to function at the required academic level OR a good exercise for the mind to increase holding capacity (ie. a poem).

  2. Miss Buzan

    THANK YOU! This is such an important perspective. When I attend international education conferences, my peers from Asia often joke about how U.S. teachers prioritize critical thinking without prioritizing knowledge, particularly memorized facts. I worry sometimes that our kiddos can argue anything without knowing anything.

    Your post is particularly great because you analyze the concern on balance with other factors and in context with natural learning. This was a great read.

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