Thursday, 15 November 2012

Rote learning

My name is Steve and I am a barbershop singer...

I mention this because when we barbershoppers learn songs we generally do so by ear. We are provided with learning tracks on CD or MP3, play them on our iPod or in the car and set our parts to memory. For me it would take, say, 100 listens of a short song to memorise my baritone part (often the hardest).

This is a good case of learning by rote. You do repeated practice to set something to memory. My earliest memory of rote learning, forced on me by teachers, would be learning times tables. This was useful and has served me ever since. Another memory I have of rote learning is learning the Greek alphabet from one of those yellow and black "Teach Yourself" books. This has served me little, though oddly I still remember chunks of it showing how effective it can be long term. For O-level Latin we learned by heart enormous sections of Verres in Sicily for the translation paper so that you did not even have to think of the translation in the exam. My friends and I would recite sections to each other at break. Good old days? Sad old days.

Michael Gove reckons that rote learning should play a role in schools. In a recent address he said:

"...memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding.... Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory, so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we really have a secure hold on knowledge.
Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity." (The Guardian)

Most language teachers make use to some extent of rote learning. We may get pupils to chant or sing verb paradigms, memorise possessive adjectives (mon, ma, mes, ton, ta, tes...) and we may get pupils to set to memory answers for the speaking test or even whole essays for a written controlled assessment. When you think about how languages are really acquired, however, rote learning plays almost no role whatsoever.

It could be argued that knowing a verb paradigm by rote may transfer across to real speaking situations where you have a choice of endings to recall, but I much prefer the argument of the so-called natural acquisition supporters who claim that second language learning is much like child language acquisition and that internalisation of syntactic rules and vocabulary occurs in a more osmotic way, at an unconscious level.

In Stephen Krashen's comprehension hypothesis it is argued that learning rules and focus on form may act as an aid to accuracy, a monitor, as he calls it, but that it does not lead to comprehension and fluency. We get better at languages by hearing them, reading them and using them, not by learning rules and memorising things. For long term success pupils need to be exposed to large amounts of target language, presented in a meaningful way.

If this is true, why do language teachers persist with some forms of rote learning? Well, setting to memory can be useful for passing exams, especially where mark schemes reward accuracy. It is also the case that youngsters seem to enjoy, as Gove claims, learning certain things by heart. It can provide a sense of achievement, a sense that you have mastered something. In a subject where success takes a long time to achieve, we need to provide children with short term goals.

Most of our young language learners will not continue with languages and do not get enough time and regular contact to achieve any degree of fluency, so we have to use methods which provide success, maybe even an illusion of success. There is value in mastering tasks.

But let's not delude ourselves. It is not memorisation which leads to fluency. Memorising my barbershop song may fulfill a short term goal, but it won't turn me into a musician. We should be aware of the very limited use of rote learning in language teaching.

The song is called Songbird.


  1. Nonsensical man. I experienced rote-based learning as a child, including the focus on times-tables. I became convinced that I was incapable of mathematics because I always calculated the tables in my head! I used to have to pretend I was remembering them.

    Later on, once a maths teacher who focused on understanding got hold of me at secondary, I would go on to do A level Maths and Further Maths. People with interest in maths or even talent are held back by an emphasis on memorisation rather than understanding, and I expect that probably applies to most subjects to some extent.

    And I say this as someone who did extremely in exams by simply visually memorising materials. Including an entire teaching specification once! Memorising chunks of text and regurgitating them wasn't evidence of true learning and understanding.

  2. Nonsensical man refers to Gove, by the way!