May 9, 2005
When children learn the multiplication table, memorize their phone numbers or write down words on spelling tests, they’ve used rote learning.
Yet in many education circles, rote learning is seen as something of a pariah — an outdated learning tool that leaves students parroting back meaningless words and facts.
Not so, say some East Valley educators, who believe there is a time and a place for rote learning.
"There are certainly times when memorization is beneficial to a child," said Debby Zambo, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who said she believes rote learning has finally found its "proper place" in schools.
Zambo, who teaches educational psychology, points to multiplication tables and equations as examples of appropriate things to learn "by heart."
Rules for phonics are another, said Scottsdale Christian Academy principal Sheri Moy.
Her students also memorize Bible passages every week, and she hopes automatic recall of those Scriptures will help her students in their lives.
"We believe with all of our hearts that if we have God’s word in your heart it keeps you from doing wrong because those things do come back to your mind automatically," Moy said.
Learning by rote is beneficial, Zambo explained, when a child can recall a fact without effort and use that fact to process more information. For example, a child might automatically recall the sound of one letter and then go on to read a new word.
Chris Loots, principal at Scottsdale’s Aztec Elementary, pointed to spelling as another subject that requires memorization.
"It’s due to how convoluted English spelling is," she said. "We really emphasize (memorizing) those spelling words."
Students learning foreign languages also learn vocabulary words by rote, although Scottsdale Spanish teacher Mary Walther explained, "We don’t simply give lists of words to kids and send them home."
Walther, chairwoman of the foreign language department at Desert Mountain High School, said she often acts out a Spanish word or gives a visual presentation so students use the word while they memorize it — instead of just recognizing it on paper.
Still, though, educators can point to plenty of times when just rote learning won’t make the grade.
"Standing alone, it’s not good or very effective," Moy said at Scottsdale Academy. "It’s just one small piece of the puzzle."
Aztec Elementary teachers agree.
"We have too much information now to just rote memorize it. Dates, locations, times, they won’t have nearly as much value unless you understand the causes behind it, and the impact," Loots said.
For example, students can memorize the dates and names of people involved in forming the U.S. Constitution, but they will not really understand U.S. government and democracy until they have seen it in action or simulated it in a classroom, Loots said.
And while much of spelling is memorization, Cathy Easterling, a basic skills specialist at Mesa’s Redbird Elementary School, said children also can learn to spell words they’ve never seen before by understanding how prefixes, suffixes and root words work.
A LIFELONG SKILL
Aside from helping students perform certain tasks, learning to memorize effectively is an important skill by itself, educators say.
The hundreds of DVDs, pills and computer software peddled to improve memory back that idea up.
"Kids can learn to be good memorizers," Zambo said.
One strategy to memorizing is "chunking" information.
Zambo said most people learn phone numbers in this manner by chunking the information into a threethree-four digit pattern.
"If they have a lot of information to memorize, it’s easier to chunk it rather than learning each individual bit," she said.
She said mnemonic devices work too, such as the time-honored "HOMES" acronym to remember the names of the five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.
Yet she cautioned against placing too much emphasis on memorization.
"You can’t just test kids on that rote memorization," she said. "That’s one level of learning, but if you truly want the child to understand, they have to place it in context."