Memorization “Learnt Without Labour” by Tina Fillmer

My children and I are currently reading Laddie: A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton Porter. Many Charlotte Mason principles are intertwined throughout this book, especially the recurring theme of poetry. This book gives a glimpse into early colonial education, and the eight-year-old narrator, “Little Sister,” effortlessly weaved poetry into her everyday conversation. I discovered that the Little Sister learned poetry “without labour” which was recommended by Charlotte Mason in Volume 1, pgs. 224-225.
….”Some years ago I chanced to visit a house, the mistress of which had educational notions of her own, upon which she was bringing up a niece. She presented me with a large foolscap sheet written all over with the titles of poems, some of them long and difficult: Tintern Abbey, for example. She told me that her niece could repeat to me any of those poems that I liked to ask for, and that she had never learnt a single verse by heart in her life. The girl did repeat several of the poems on the list, quite beautifully and without hesitation; and then the lady unfolded her secret. She thought she had made a discovery, and I thought so too. She read a poem through to E.; then the next day, while the little girl was making a doll’s frock, perhaps, she read it again; once again the next day, while E.’s hair was being brushed. She got in about six or more readings, according to the length of the poem, at odd and unexpected times, and in the end E. could say the poem which she had not learned.”

To read what Ms. Mason had to say about a particular subject and then to identify it in literature furthers cements the meaning of what she was trying to convey. Look at what Little Sister had to say about her memorization techniques…. “The night before he (father) had been putting me through memory tests, and I had recited poem after poem, even long ones in the Sixth Reader, and never made one mistake when the piece was about birds. At our house, we heard next day’s lessons for all ages gone over every night so often, that we couldn’t help knowing them by heart, if we had any brains at all, and I just loved to get the big folk’s readers and learn the bird pieces.”

Ms. Mason implemented this plan which was suggested by her friend and found that it worked. “The child must not try to recollect or to say the verse over to himself, but, as far as may be, present an open mind to receive an impression of interest. ….The gains of such a method of learning are, that the edge of the child’s enjoyment is not taken off by weariful verse by verse repetitions, and, also, that the habit of making mental images is unconsciously formed.” (Volume 1, pg. 225). A child should naturally delight in poetry without the pressure of being forced to learn it line by line. It should not be wearisome. Little Sister further comments after being sick in bed for a period of time….”I might have been lying there yet, if it hadn’t been for the book Frank sent me, with the poetry piece in it. It began:

“Somewhere on a sunny bank, buttercups are bright,
Somewhere ‘mid the frozen grass, peeps the daisy white.”

“I read that so often I could repeat it quite as well with the book shut as open, and every time I read it, I wanted outdoors worse. In one place it rain:”

“Welcome, yellow buttercups, welcome daisies white,
Ye are in my spirit visioned a delight.
Coming in the springtime of sunny hours to tell,
Speaking to our hearts of Him who doeth all things well.”

“The piece helped me out of bed, and the blue gander screaming opened the door. It was funny about it too. I don’t know why it worked on me that way; it just kept singing in my heart all day, and I could shut my eyes and go to sleep seeing buttercups in a gold sheet all over our Big Hill, although there never was a single on there…”

I attended a seminar entitled “Nurturing Excellent Communicators” by Andrew Pudewa, author of the Institute of Excellence in Writing. Charlotte Mason’s ideas were heavily incorporated into his presentation, and as a result, I have been contemplating the concept of memorization for months. Mr. Pudewa stated that children educated today do not typically memorize poetry and therefore tend to have lower intelligence compared to children centuries ago who memorized huge “chunks” of information and were actively involved in recitation. Children would say “I have to go to school and SAY my lessons.”  Mr. Pudewa once taught preschool, and his students memorized large “chunks” of poetry by listening to the poems multiple times. One day a little girl informed him that she had a problem, and this is what she said, “In her busyness, my mother forgot my lunch, and what we shall do, I haven’t a hunch.” Sound familiar? This child had no idea that she had assimilated a poem into her own vocabulary. Like Little Sister, the poetry became a part of her daily life “without labour.” For an MP3 of this talk, you may refer to

Rafe Esquith, a well-known Los Angeles 5th grade teacher and author of Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, directs his “Hobart Shakespeareans” (students) in performing plays across the nation. How do they memorize their lines? He attributes it to this:  “I burn CDs of the scenes for all the actors, who listen to them at home. Shakespeare is just like music. Instead of memorizing thousands of lines of pop music, the Hobart Shakespeareans use the same energy to memorize beautiful language. It is astonishing how quickly children learn by listening.” This 21st century teacher uses the same techniques that Charlotte Mason once suggested but with an advancement in technology.

A friend of mine devised a creative way for her daughter to memorize Bible verses for AWANA. The child seemed to hit a roadblock when memorizing scripture line by line, so her mother recorded the verses into a free software program, Audacity, and downloaded them into her child’s iPod. What a difference this made for her daughter! After listening multiple times to the recordings throughout the week, this child walked into AWANA with a high level of confidence and was able to perfectly recite verse by verse. Many iPods now have a “recording” feature which allows a child to record his or her own words. This is a wonderful way to effectively memorize poetry, plays and Bible verses. Now that we’ve identified the success of this method, why would we subject children to old habits of “verse by verse repetitions” that potentially zap the joy of learning? Why not take advantage of this “secret” and encourage our children to memorize “without labour?”


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