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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Memorisation: A Useful Pedagogy

I Had No Respect for Memory Work
When I first started teaching English, I eschewed Memory Work. Like everyone else, I sniffed at it.  Indeed, I despised it. After all, I myself learnt to write excellently well without resorting to text memorisation. Smelly Boy actually writes better than I do. He did not memorise English texts. The Daughter won local and international essay competitions. She never memorised English texts either.

Instead, Smelly Boy, The Daughter and I... we read voluminously. I used to be a book junkie. If I did not get through 2 thick books a week, I would feel depressed. 

A Digression
My addiction to books only ended during my PhD research years when I had to get through about 50 research papers in a day (for days and days on end) in order to complete an "exhaustive" literature review of a domain. Since I was still searching for a research question, it also meant doing "exhaustive" literature reviews of more than one domain of research (plus related domains). There was so much to read that I actually had to start an Excel spreadsheet to track the stuff that I had already read.


All that forced reading effectively cured me of book addiction. I still read but I don't feel depressed if I don't read. I cannot believe I actually put myself through that. If I had known the PhD would be such a difficult journey, I would not have even started. Indeed, I am DISCOURAGING both The Daughter and Smelly Boy from going the PhD route. I am pushing both children towards the Entrepreneur Route.

Make Pots and Pots of Money!

Back to Memory Work
Anyway, back to Memory Work. I made Smelly Boy memorise Chinese texts in Primary 5 and Primary 6 because he read practically no Chinese from Primary 1 to Primary 4. It was logical that if he had not absorbed words, he could not produce them. Effectively, this explained why he failed his Chinese composition regularly. 

Thanks to text memorisation, Smelly Boy gained enough vocabulary to pass Higher Chinese.

Refused to Give My Students Memory Work
Still, I was stubborn about assigning Memory Work to my students. I scolded them for memorising Model Compositions. I pushed them to read widely instead. However, there were children who...

(1) hated to read
(2) would read only books with simple words

Now, to ace the PSLE, the Primary 6 child needs to master vocabulary like my son - see HERE. Necessarily, if you are still reading books meant for 12 year olds, you are not going to absorb any such vocabulary. If none such vocabulary has gone into your head, you will produce none such vocabulary when you write.

By guiding their reading, I was able to get very good results from parent-child pairs who were conscientious about reading the right books and regularly enough. However, there were children who improved little. These did not read. The parents were too busy to ensure they read, or the parents just could not get them to read. 

Finally, Giving My Students Memory Work
In the end, desperate to put vocabulary into their heads, I assigned regular Memory Work. I put effort into searching for and creating texts that had between 9% to 12% of Power Word Density. I devised a tight process for parents to follow at home with... 

(1) in-built motivation mechanisms and... 

(2) targeted cognitive stimulation (i.e., I was targeting actual physical growth in specific parts of the brain, but not others)

(3) efficient cognitive stimulation (i.e., maximum results for least amount of work)

The results were quite spectacular. Children with poor grammar developed a good sense of the language. Children with poor spelling began to write more accurately. Children with little vocabulary began to smoothly employ some interesting words. The 4 children who were failing made 10 to 12 point gains upon 40 marks. That is a good 25% jump in marks!

Even though they memorised texts, they were NOT to regurgitate entire compositions for my marking. The point of memorising was to put words into their head. When they wrote compositions, they still had to make up their own sentences using the words that they had internalised. Remembering is necessary but insufficient for writing well. They still had to create their own stories and convert their own imaginations to text.

The Case for Text Memorisation
Today, I am humbled by my own prejudices. I wasted time with some of the children. I could have started them earlier on memorising and helped them to better results faster. On hindsight, I realise that Memory Work makes a lot of sense in language competence.

Take for example, the very common 5 Senses technique. One can teach this technique, but if the child has no access to a store of vocabulary, he/ she CANNOT write as follows...

That day had started spectacularly well for Adrian. The house was filled to the brim with a horde of cousins. The alluring fragrance of glutinous rice dumplings permeated every gaseous inch of the house. Even the bedrooms were redolent of dumplings. Plump and neatly tied dumplings hung down from makeshift bamboo racks. A cacophony of conversation and a shrill voice singing Chinese songs added to the festive air.

The child knows that he or she needs to describe the 5 Senses vividly, but can remember no words to express himself/herself. Imagine if I asked you to describe the 5 Senses in French. If you can remember no French words, you will necessarily have no French words to express your content. The 4 children who experienced huge improvements from Memory Work were intelligent kids. They had no words because they hardly read in English, or they read easy readers.

Remembering words is NECESSARY to good writing, but INSUFFICIENT. Over and beyond remembering words, you would need to work on imagination, clarity of thought and logic. However, if you have imagination, clarity of thought and logic... you can write NOTHING without remembering words.

Smelly Boy, The Daughter and I did not have to memorise English texts because we could REMEMBER just by reading. Not all children can do so. I used to do well in History simply because I could remember everything by reading the textbook ONCE at the start of the year. It took a while for me to errrr... grasp that not everyone can do this.

And so... I no longer despise Memory Work as a pedagogy.

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