In praise of rote learning

Hardly anyone has a good word to say for rote learning – except me. I regard it not only as an elementary basis for developing knowledge but also as a potential resource for advanced levels of reading and writing.

Learning things by rote is commonly associated with metaphors of imposing quasi-military discipline (like ‘drilling’) or inculcating subhuman responses (like ‘parroting’ or ‘repeating mechanically’). Countless people will tell you that rote learning is inimical to conceptual understanding and critical thinking. Some critics of NAPLAN tests in our schools, for instance, fulminate at the thought that rote learning could have any positive role in the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Perhaps there are still a few classrooms where grim teachers oppress hapless students with dreary rituals of robotic recitation, though it’s unlikely you could find many disciplinarians nowadays as harsh as those Dickensian ogres Thomas Gradgrind and Wackford Squeers. At any rate it seems there’s a widespread worry that repetitive memorisation will make monkeys out of children, and that teachers who resort to spoonfeeding – supposedly akin to instruction by rote – must be simian throwbacks. I’m reminded of the following pair of illustrations (reproduced here on the ‘fair use’ principle) in an antique Australian anthology for kids, Coles Funny Picture Book:

cfpb4         cfpb2

But setting those caricatures aside, we should ask whether it’s always harmful to memorise information systematically and rehearse it routinely until its retrieval becomes automatic.

Surely not! On the contrary, rote learning is a necessary first step in several areas of learning. It’s the simplest and most effective way for most youngsters to become confidently familiar with the alphabet, phonics, multiplication tables… And indeed repetitive utterances – rhymes, songs, chanted mnemonics – are a time-tested foundation of  first-language learning in general.

What makes rote learning seem objectionable to many people, I suppose, is the sad spectre of mere repetition without an ounce of understanding. It’s often said there’s no value in reciting anything until you’ve grasped the concept behind it. Perhaps that’s sometimes true, but does it necessarily apply to getting an infant class to learn a poem in chorus even when it contains phrases that are utterly strange to them? I don’t think so. If sing-song repetition allows young children to carry in their heads a fantastic rhyming story about The Owl and the Pussycat, it’s unimportant that they couldn’t explain what a ‘runcible spoon’ or a ‘bong tree’ looks like. I’ve heard primary school kids chant Blake’s poem ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright’ without fretting about its ‘fearful symmetry’: the concept may reveal itself to them eventually, and in the meantime the words are like a dormant magic charm.

Rote memorisation establishes mental habits that equip us to go far beyond the foundational practices of early learning. Remembering a patterned sequence of words by reciting them in a group can be like a rudimentary form of choral singing. And with maturity there may come an internalised individual practice of memorisation, as we recognise the value in becoming so familiar with certain passages of verse or prose that we know them by heart. Knowing by heart is a mode of cognition that should be cherished, not disparaged – especially in relation to the reading of literature.

If we memorise passages and keep running them through the mind, we are re-reading them, and in the process we’re allowing ourselves to pay more attention to their texture and structure. ‘A good reader,’ wrote Vladimir Nabokov in his Lectures on Literature, ‘an active and creative reader, is a re-reader.’

In an article for English in Australia some years back, I wrote about an example from my own reading experience in secondary school: while studying The Tempest, I’d committed to memory a long passage from that play – a speech in Act 5 where Prospero evokes his power over nature only to renounce it. We weren’t required to learn these lines but I liked the sound of them enough to do so of my own accord. It’s the passage that begins:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves / And ye that on the sands with printless foot / Do chase the ebbing Neptune…

Many years later those words rose up from some murky cerebral recess as I was reading The Prelude, Wordsworth’s huge autobiographical poem (I think of it as his monsterpiece), and came across these lines:

Ye powers of earth, ye genii of the springs, / And ye that have your voices in the clouds, / And ye that are familiars of the lakes / And standing pools…

It dawned on me that what the little verbal echoes hint at is a fundamental relationship between the two texts. Wordsworth conducts parts of his account of ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ (that’s The Prelude‘s subtitle) in the form of an oblique conversation with the Shakespearean play, just as other parts of the poem rework imagery from Milton’s Paradise Lost. His allusions to Prospero’s world – which I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t memorised that passage long before – have much more than a decorative function in The Prelude. They serve as a metaphorical framework that allows Wordsworth to draw out some latent implications of The Tempest, and restate them in relation to his own cultural situation. I’ve written in detail about this intertextual linkage in a chapter of my book Narrative Exchanges, so I won’t go on about it any further here. But for me that moment of recognition when I saw Shakespeare’s lines hovering behind Wordsworth’s was a satisfying reminder of the potential value of learning by heart – underpinned by early rote habits.

Recently I’ve come across a couple of essays by readers who share my view that rote learning can be beneficial. One is an article by Justin Snider in The Huffington Post; the other is a blog post by Erica Meltzer. If you’re not convinced by what I’ve said on this topic, perhaps you’ll find their observations more cogent.

Anyway, I’d be interested to know whether any of you who read my blog attach as much value as I do to learning things by heart.

10 thoughts on “In praise of rote learning

  1. Thank you for this Ian. I bless my 50’s and 60’s education that did have a wise amount of rote learning, from which many of the things I love have not been forgotten. Not only are they useful, but simply remembering them brings the time and place vividly to life.

  2. I’m glad my thoughts resonate with yours, Pat. Knowing passages of verse or prose by heart, so that they can be recalled many years later, is a great resource for keeping past times and places alive, as you say. Thanks for your eloquent response.

  3. Ian
    I absolutely agree about the importance of learning lines or indeed multiplication tables. Lines come back unbidden to surprise you. I shall be forever grateful to my high school English teacher ( she taught me for four years) who made us learn 100 lines of every Shakespeare play, and had us recite and read poetry regularly. So still today the poems I most hold on to are those we read and discussed with her. The sense of rhythm in writing – prose and poetry – was constantly with us as students.
    Have you read The Unexpected Professor – An Oxford Life in Books, by John Carey?
    His is a life of poetry, the book is thus a reflective life journey in words about the words that captured him.


  4. Interesting post, Ian. I wish I had committed to memory more of my favourite passages of prose, but alas they are remembered more in my heart rather than by heart, and I have to look them up. Strangely enough, useless mnemonics (like a recitation of the German prepositions that have to be followed by the dative case) stubbornly remain!

  5. Like you, Amanda, I find that memorised particles of foreign-language usage are still lurking in corners of the brain. For some favourite passages of verse or prose I do sometimes need to look them up, as you do – but I’m glad that I can summon up numerous bits without having to check them. If I’m ever shipwrecked on a desert island, I can console myself by walking up and down the beach declaiming an assortment of excerpts from poets and prose writers.

  6. Hi Claire – thanks for your testimony to the value of being required to focus on the rhythms of memorable writing. If only more teachers these days understood how important that process can be! No, I haven’t read Carey’s book, but will now look for it – I’m always grateful for suggestions about books to read.

  7. I wish I had been required to memorize more prose and poetry while young! I imagine that as one memorizes and then recites, there is a rhythm that is internalized, which expands one’s skill with language–both the input and the output. Learning something until one “knows it by heart” also forces one to slow down and really consider the words that are being memorized. Thanks for this post–I found it very interesting!

  8. Hi Liz –
    You’ve summed it up exactly! The slower pace and closer attention that are necessary for memorising and reciting will eventually yield rich results, even if (for a young rote learner) full conscious engagement with the details of language doesn’t occur at first.
    It may be interesting for you to find out how many of your Literary Masters group members have learnt passages by heart, and whether that shapes their attitude as readers.

  9. For the first three years of school we would sing our times tables every day. That worked, and reciting poems fueled my love of words and the music that they could create. Nice post.

  10. Good to know, Iris. I wonder how many classrooms today engage the minds of young students in the same way?

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