Is memorizing a good thing?

Hello colleagues, Did you ever have to memorize a poem in school? Do you still remember it? Do you think there is anything valuable in memorizing? Reading this New York Times piece by Molly Worthen got me thinking about the potential value of memorization.

When teaching advanced English learners, I have asked them to choose a short poem to memorize and then create an audio presentation of themselves reciting the poem. Students can also create a video of their recitation. This lesson was inspired by the Poetry Out Loud project, which is a national competition for high school students. There are tons of inspiring videos and instructional resources on this website for supporting students to work with poetry.

My lesson was valuable to English learners because they were able to audio (or video) record themselves as many times as they wanted until they were happy with the result. I was able to provide feedback to them on their phrasing and pronunciation, as well as their non verbals on videos. Learners were then able to share their work with a wide audience. Beyond the value of practicing English in a meaningful way, as noted on the website,  "Memorizing poetry ... will bring you closer to the poem, and foster a lifelong bond with literature that simply reading ... poems doesn't offer." features many short poems students could choose to work with.

Thanks for adding your input on the potential value of memorization.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition



I believe the value of memorization changes depending on its purpose. All of my early schooling relied immensely on memorization: history dates, geographical locations, features,  and world capitals, biology terms, yes, poetry, and, of course, math formulas and tables. I hated all of it and , for the most part, forgotten all that I memorized except for those math tables and some poetry, which still comes forth when I least expect it. 

I love your examples of using memorization, Susan. As an ESL instructor, my students benefited immensely from memorization! I would regularly assign them dialogues at different levels, model the exchange, and have them initiate and reverse dialogue roles as a class. Finally, I gave them 10 minutes max to memorize the lines in pairs and then perform the dialogue by heart. (Interesting expression, that one.) Students always groaned when I announced how much time they had, but they learned to get right to it when time was announced. With very few exceptions, they were able to perform in the time given. When not, others would prod them in a real learning experience for all. 

And speaking of poetry, we just don't deal with poetry enough in ESL, ABE, or HSE. We get so oriented to tests and workplace orientation that we forget the value of emotion and drama in our communication. Glad you brought it up and I hope others jump in with similar ideas! Leecy

Hi there,

While I don't want to go back to ALM ("Is this a teacher? Yes, it is.  No, it isn't." = pretty useless), I think there is definite merit in having students memorize short passages.  I often use poetry or music to support this.

I think one of the poems my students most responded to has been "Magic Carpet" by Shel Silverstein.  It was a great introduction to remembering how to dream, which a lot of our students have to shelve while dealing with day-to-day survival. 

Some of these items are also cultural references our international students may not know: green eggs and ham, Casey at the bat (take me out to the ballpark), "a man ain't nothing but a man," parts of the Declaration of Independence and Preamble, the "I have a dream speech" (which my online students are reading this week in CommonLit).

Thanks for the reminder, Susan!


Thank you for reminding me about "Magic Carpet" by Shel Silverstein, Glenda. I read and reread the poems in Silverstein's A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends many times when my children were little. We memorized quite a few of them, too. Now I have a granddaughter, and I am reading to her. These poems are so wonderfully fanciful and full of joy and humor. Silverstein's work is appreciated by all ages!

And, of course, it's great to use songs in class for memorization.  Excerpts from historical documents and great speeches or plays are also excellent sources.

Glenda, we are keeping all Texans, who are currently in harms way, in our thoughts during this difficult time.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP