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Do you have any tips to help a child with memorization?
December 2, 2013 6:29 PM   Subscribe

I would love any tips or tricks with memorization that you could share. My son, who is nine years old, is a sweet, smart little kid who just can't seem to memorize. He does, indeed, seem to have a poor memory, and often appears to forget trips we go on, or movies we have seen, etcetera. I always attributed this to the dreaminess of a gifted child. But now that he is in fourth grade, he is struggling to learn. Multiplication facts, State Capitals, you name it -- he just can't seem to get the hang of it. We have tried flash cards, songs, writing things down repeatedly, simple mnemonics. I'm out of ideas, especially since memorization was always super simple for me, and the key to whatever academic success I had as a kid. His standardized test scores are super high, and I do think he is trying. I'm not a tiger mom by any means, I just hate to see him so frustrated. What memorization tools am I overlooking?
posted by Malla to Education (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Make up dippy, catchy songs. Accompany them with hand gestures if necessary. Corny, but it works.
posted by dr. boludo at 6:39 PM on December 2, 2013

Oh yeah songs work. Bonus if they are melodies he already knows. I still know the quadratic formula because it is set to Pop Goes the Weasel. Also when I was in middle school I couldn't remember the adjectives in French that go before the verb, even with a poem. My mom put on a hip-hop radio station and we rapped it, and it was easy to remember.
posted by radioamy at 6:43 PM on December 2, 2013

Is he a kinesthetic learner? One technique that people who do things like memorize the entire Odyssey in Greek is, they key each section to a piece of furniture in their house, and they can recite it as they walk from thing to thing, touching each one. This is part of how actors memorize lines, too -- the physical placement of the actor on the stage, the physical actions he performs, that all helps with memory. So one basic technique would be to learn the two times table to, I don't know, kitchen appliances. Put the flash cards up on the oven, fridge, microwave, etc., and then have him recite them out loud as he goes to and touches each object. Eventually remove the flash cards.

Actually the next step from this is one of the oldest and most powerful forms of memory aid, a Memory Palace (or the method of loci). In this version, you imagine a physical space in your head -- a real place or an imaginary one -- and you key the things you want to remember to the objects and places in the space, and mentally "walk through" the memory palace to find the facts you put there. (And in fact, that will help him remember the kitchen-two-times-tables when he's at school, imagining himself in the kitchen looking for the 2x4 on the microwave.)

Two other tips:

Starting to memorize things at the END and working back towards the BEGINNING is useful for longer lists. What tends to happen is people practice the beginning of the list a lot and then trail off towards the end. If you start at the end and work forwards, you practice the ending more, and as you get further into your recitation you gain confidence as you get to the parts you know really well. This is more applicable to memorizing long poems and things, but also things like state capitals if he's learning them in alphabetical order or something. Start with the last five and work backwards.

You can write on mirrors and bathroom tile/surrounds with whiteboard markers. When I study foreign languages (which is a thing I am not great at), I write up my vocabulary words in the shower on the surround. When I'm standing there staring blankly trying to wake up, I'm staring at things I need to memorize. One of my college roommates used to put a chemistry equation a week on our mirror to look at while she brushed her teeth.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:44 PM on December 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

He can also try Memrise (multiplication tables!), which uses spaced repetition and gamification to make memorizing things easier. I've found it very helpful because it adds facts in very small doses and drills you on them until they're pretty stuck in your mind, and then mixes old stuff in with new stuff in the proper proportions and with the proper spacing.

There are lots of flashcard apps out there now that do spaced repetition, which is supposed to help with long-term memory and learning. I don't know which ones are good but that's something you could look for.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:51 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Has he been evaluated for learning disabilities? I had a friend in college who was whip-smart, but managed to get all the way through to her junior year before discovering she had a particular learning disability that really interfered with one particular area of coursework.
posted by rtha at 6:58 PM on December 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

If he's forgetting stuff he experienced like trips and movies, maybe a good place to start would be learning how to do that first, then working his way up to seemingly more random stuff like states.
posted by bleep at 6:58 PM on December 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's good to figure out how he prefers to memorize things. It took me a couple of decades to realize that the reason I can't remember names is because people usually just say them. I need to read them.

Maybe he'd enjoy taking photos himself and writing notes on them/tagging them.

However, if he's forgetting things like trips he was on -- have you seen a doctor? There could be something like sleep apnea going on. I hope this isn't a derail, sorry.
posted by wintersweet at 7:06 PM on December 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

For me (with similar issues as a kid) interesting stories about things helps me remember them. So for state capitals, finds out some interesting facts or stories about them and get him daydreaming about the city. Read up on the huge Mexican free tail bat colony living under the bridge in Austin the capital of Texas. Get him thinking about what it would be like to be a bat living in that colony and what exciting places in/around Austin he might see in the dark.

Also consider testing for ADHD.
posted by HMSSM at 7:21 PM on December 2, 2013

Like you, I find it pretty easy to memorize.

I agree with the several comments that have mentioned that if he can't remember things like trips he has been on and movies he has seen, there may be a larger issue with his working memory. That's pretty telling, to me. While most people have to try to learn state capitals, most people don't have to study to remember that they saw a movie last week or took a trip last summer. If he is struggling to learn, as you say, that indicates to me that a learning disability is at least a possibility and should be investigated with an appropriate, licensed professional. You seem to understand that memorization is absolutely critical to academic success, and frankly, creativity of any sort. (The reason MacGyver and Michael Weston could creatively improve whatever devices they needed to get out of a jam was because they both memorized an incredible amount of information and could recall it on demand.) You should also be open to the fact that not everyone has the same capacity to memorize and learn.

To answer your question regarding advice on techniques, to the extent my hobby is language learning, my hobby is memorization. I join in the advice about spaced repetition, which should have an advantage over the flash cards you have tried. Something like Memrise is probably best because its plant-watering system can feel like a game to a young child and might have a better chance of keeping him engaged. I also swear by Anki, but it may be a bit dry for him. A memory palace is a great technique but given your situation, I think that is trying to fly before learning how to stand and walk.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:26 PM on December 2, 2013

It might also be interesting to look at what kinds of things he doesn't have trouble memorizing - rules of certain games (board, video, card), or lines from a favorite story, how to get from your house to a nearby familiar place he's been before (playground, friend's house, library), and see what they have in common.
posted by rtha at 7:39 PM on December 2, 2013

Has he been evaluated for learning disabilities? I had a friend in college who was whip-smart, but managed to get all the way through to her junior year before discovering she had a particular learning disability that really interfered with one particular area of coursework.

This. I was a gifted child who failed horribly and painfully in math, and then later in foreign languages, mostly due to memorization issues. (I am 41 and I do not know and have never known my multiplication tables. But if I need to know what 8x7 is, I can just add eight 7s, so it's fine.) I was diagnosed with dyscalculia in highschool; an earlier diagnosis would have been helpful. It's worth having your son assessed if only to rule out a learning disability - and of course, if one is ruled in, to get him the additional tools he'll find useful.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:49 PM on December 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Incidentally, you might enjoy this compelling NYT article from a few years back, by a journalist who trained himself to become a national memory champion:

He particularly expands on the "memory palace" idea mentioned by Eyebrows McGee--an ancient concept which is still one of our best tools. You can make it a game: bring in references to his friends, his toys, pets, mom and dad. If he has a favorite story or video game--or anything else he *does* know forwards and backwards, or would enjoy visualizing--take it and see if he can mentally tag ideas into the story and recall them later.

Take him for a walk with the flash cards and point out trees, houses, rocks, whatever while you talk about the items; then, when you go over the flash cards at home, you can say "What's the capital of Nebraska? Remember that house with the snowman on the corner of our street?" Or cook dinner and have him help. While you have him pass you the oregano or help stir the sauce, talk about multiplication, and then when you sit down and he's biting into a meatball, ask him about the problems he solved when he was helping you roll them.

I'm exposing my guilty secret love of Antique Literature for Young Children, but I'm reminded of a passage in Annie Fellows Johnston's "The Little Colonel's Holidays" in which Lloyd is failing to memorize the spelling of a Mexican volcano for her geography lesson, and the pumpkins arrive for Halloween preparations:
"See, mothah, isn't it a whoppah?" cried Lloyd, trying to put her arms around the mammoth pumpkin on the bench. " It is a beauty," answered Mrs. Sherman, as she began deftly outlining a face on one side of it, with the sharp carving-knife. First she drew two large circles in the yellow skin where the eyes were to be cut, a triangle for the nose, and a grinning crescent just below for the mouth.

"Now," she said, passing the knife to Lloyd, "carve the letters P-O in each circle. It does not matter if they are crooked. They are to be cut out with the circle afterwhile. Now in the triangle put the word CAT and the letter E after it, and in the crescent the word PET and the letter L. Now what does the face say to you?"

The eyes say popo, the nose cat- e and the mouth pet-1," answered Lloyd, laughing at the comical face outlined on the pumpkin.

Shut your eyes and spell Popocatepetl," said Mrs. Sherman.

"Why, it is just as easy," cried Lloyd, as she rattled it off. "I can see each syllable grinning at me, one aftah the othah. I am suah I'll nevah fo'get it now. I like your way of teaching, bettah than anybody's."
Remember that memories are strengthened by cognitive connections. The more pathways we can form to connect one idea to others, the stronger that idea will be imprinted on our consciousness, and what's more, the more readily we will be able to access and recall that idea. Maybe he has trouble with the increasing abstractness of the material they're covering in school--not how difficult the concepts are, but maybe how to relate to it and make it his own in such a way as to make it stick in his brain. I was always frustrated by things in school that felt like pure memorization; concepts that teachers couldn't explain any further than "that's just the way it works" were always hard to recall. (Sorry, early biology, I'm looking at you.) Things where one idea built on another and you could derive the rest from first principles worked much better. But that's hard to do at that stage. I think either can be aided by the sort of attention-grabbing silliness of the memory palace, and maybe he'll take well to being encouraged to poke fun at some of the concepts that have been a source of frustration so far. Or, at the very least, you'll have some fun quality time together.
posted by spelunkingplato at 7:53 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could be describing me as a kid, and indeed as an adult. There are certain types of classwork I tried and tried and tried to do better (spelling tests, poetry recitation, state capitals, times tables (despite loving math), vocabulary) and my parents tried and tried and tried to help me with, but nothing really worked. I read and enjoy books of all types, but don't ask me to tell you the plot of one I read last month.

Although I failed almost every spelling test my entire childhood, I can now read and write and communicate just fine, am successful at my job (academic scientist) and in general enjoy many creative enterprises. I'm still not the best speller.

I really distinctly remember a teacher at a summer camp for gifted kids telling my parents (for the first time) that some kids brains just aren't wired to memorize like everyone else. This was an absolute huge relief. Instead of pushing me to memorize, my mom started trying to do other things to help me learn the material. Remember the goal of classroom memorization is that it's trying to be a shortcut to some knowledge, and for the most part getting that knowledge is what really matters in the end.

The things that have worked well for me:
Instead of focusing on spelling tests/lists, my mom would go through every writing assignment and underline all the misspelled words and I would have to correct them (modern spell check makes this trivial, as long as I fix them myself rather than using autocorrect). Same for vocabulary - my job was to ask or look up any words I didn't understand when I was reading - and she tried to make it as easy as possible to do so (with no pressure if I asked about the same word many times). I never learned the times tables, but like DarlingBri just figure them out when I need them.

I'm in biophysics now (from pure physics), and there is tons of new vocabulary. I sometimes wish that I could just memorize the words, but know that if I just read them over and over and look them up when I am confused, that eventually I'll know them.

Maybe I've always had some undiagnosed learning disability, and maybe such a diagnosis would help your son. I certainly benefited from some sympathetic teachers. But I just wanted to chime in that there are many ways to learn without rote memorization, and while lacking such skills certainly makes school harder, it doesn't make it impossible.

Feel free to memail me if you want to discuss more.
posted by lab.beetle at 7:54 PM on December 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Memorization is something that doesn't come easily for me... it will always be something that I need to use "brute force." It will never be something that I can do particularly quickly, so I have learned that I can't leave memorization until the last minute. That spelling quiz on Friday you say? If there were 10 words, I'd need to learn 4 words Monday night, 3 words, Tuesday night, 3 words, Wednesday night and review the whole list Thursday night. In other words, spaced repetition.

I learn best through context and patterns as well as the occasional rhyme/song. These books are great. Even years later, I remember that Tallahassee is the capital of Florida, since the mnemonic was A Tall Lassie Standing on a Floor of Dots. It blew my mind to discover that a friend in college (who, incidentally, is phenomenal at memorizing) memorized the locations of countries in a particular order. For instance, for Africa she memorized the countries from the outside (of the continent) in, west to east. So instead of remembering the shape of the country, she remembered the countries' neighbors.

Re: multiplication facts. It will be much easier to learn multiplication facts if the student is 100% solid on the addition facts, and is comfortable with skip counting (youtube link). Then study the multiplication facts in a order such as the one suggested here.

Make studying fun and silly! To remember 8x8=64 say, "8 times 8 is 64... shut yo mouth and say no more." (There are other, more polite versions of that rhyme out there, but I think the less polite version is more memorable). While the idea of learning styles has been largely debunked, some students like to move around while studying. I learned my math facts as my parents quizzed me while I bounced on a big exercise ball.

You might also find it interesting how multiplication is taught differently. The Montessori Method. Here is another method for students with learning disabilities. Also MEP math. I call looking for alternative methods of understanding the "throw everything at Oceano and see what sticks" method.

When writing out things over and over again, consider alternative implements besides pencil and paper. Whiteboards & dry erase markers are fun. One can also "write" on a shaving cream coated cookie sheet or write in a tray of sand.

Feel free to memail me if you have further questions/ want to discuss this more.
posted by oceano at 10:04 PM on December 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thirding @Eyebrows McGee's and @spelunkingplato's suggestions to look into the age-old Memory Palace idea (aka The Method of Loci). The most succinct how-to can be found in the NYT journalist's own book about it:

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
posted by hush at 4:51 AM on December 3, 2013

Memorizing and remembering are two very different things. I'm concerned that your son's memory is impaired. Please have him tested.

I have a cousin with significant long-term memory impairment. She was able to go to college, but needed to record EVERYTHING in her classes because she could not process the information like the rest of us.

Just because he's gifted, it doesn't mean that he doesn't have a learning disability. Both my dad and my sister are gifted, but severely dyslexic.

I'd recommend the Schoolhouse Rock videos as a starting place. There are images AND music, which is double the exposure of just a song or just a flashcard.

I would not know my multiplication tables without Schoolhouse Rock, or the Preamble to the constitution.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:21 AM on December 3, 2013

For straight memorization, writing things out works really well for me. I seem to be able to then picture the list in my mind's eye most effectively that way. Obviously this works better for some things than others.

Rote memorization is almost useless for me; I'm almost 50 and still don't know my 8s.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:02 AM on December 3, 2013

Teaching someone else what you are learning, or trying to learn, has proven to be a powerful way to at least remember, if not memorize. Have him teach you or someone else what he is supposed to memorize or learn or remember.
I also recommend writing things out long-hand. This forces the concepts or facts into a different part of the brain.
posted by luvmywife at 11:10 AM on December 3, 2013

Only personal experience, but I remember really struggling with this skill (and my parents really worrying about it) until about fifth grade. Until then anything - multiplication tables, the noble gases, the preamble of the constitution - that involved memorization was an exercise in frustration and occasional tears. My parents tried it all and were very supportive but something

And then one time in fifth grade I had to memorize the Greek alphabet (why?!?!) and I just sat down by myself and decided that I was going to say it out loud over and over to myself until either I a) memorized it and thus saved myself from front-of-the-class humiliation or b) died. And by about round ten I was starting to get familiar with it. And by round twenty I was singing it to the tune of different songs.

It was a real coup for me, and I remember it vividly. I felt powerful for the first time in my life. It set me off in the direction of lots of other skills that are now part of my life, particularly public speaking. But what could my parents have done for me that they hadn't already tried? Shucks if I know.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 11:25 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

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