Why is memorization important?

Why is memorization denigrated? And why it is important?

Why is memorization is denigrated?

Why is memorization important in language learning? In modern education, memorization is seen with a critical eye. Some of the reasons advanced to denigrate memorization include the following points:

  • Why memorize? You need information, search the web, or look it up.
  • Memorization is a painful difficult activity.
  • Being able to memorize doesn’t mean being smart!
  • What is important is how we get to content not content itself.

This common view is sadly found less. Memorization is not without merits! Kids need memorization because it delivers unique cognitive benefits.

Advantages of Memorization

Memorizing is important for many reasons:

  • A good memory is an excellent tool for recalling essential facts and figures.
  • Memorizing information is essential for later recall and use in problem-solving tasks.
  • Memorization is important to learn vocabulary items, grammar rules, dates for a history class, mathematical or scientific formula
  • Recalled information serves as a basis for later acquisition of new information.
  • Memorizing poetry or any other literary passages provides children with a wealth of words.
  • Memorized literary passages serve as models of sentence structure, word choice, and imagery, which provides a basis for students’ own proper use of the language.
  • Memorized passages serve as valuable resources for students to draw upon when they want to understand pieces of literature or write about them.
  • Memorization must be part of the learning process. Every step we make to learn anything will inevitably be accompanied and assisted by something we should recall.

Recent calls for more emphasis on active learning, critical thinking, and communication shouldn’t be at the expense of traditional ways of learning such as the ability to recall information. New standards can as well be met by making use of all the potential of the brain including the power of memorization alongside new approaches of learning.


Scott Thornbury wrote a post about memorization entitled M for Memorization in his excellent blog A-Z of ELT:

…I have to declare an interest here: my conviction that the role of memory – including memorization – in language learning has been sorely neglected led me to commission a title for the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers (of which I’m the series editor), and I’m pleased to say that the book has just been published. It’s by Nick Bilbrough, and called Memory Activities for Language Learning. In the introduction, Nick makes the point that “there is no learning without remembering” and that “memory underpins every aspect of successful language learning”. The book includes not only activities that promote memorization (or ‘learning by heart’) but techniques for remembering language items using mnemonics, memory games, and activities designed to ‘make language memorable’.

I’m hoping that Nick’s book will (re-)awaken interest in the crucial role that memory plays in second language learning.

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2 Responses

  1. Nick Jaworski says:

    I don’t think that memorization is underrated, I think the way it is taught is. Students often go home and cram for loads of random facts, regurgitate them, then forget em. That’s the problem. Since students forget it anyway, learning skills is better.

    I would add that students should learn skills to memorize well, i.e. chunking information and connecting it to previously known info. If memorization is taught as a skill, I’d say yes. If students are just asked to memorize things, I’d say it has incredibly low educational value.

    I work in countries where memorization is highly valued and students tend to remember nothing and lack even basic critical thinking skills. Information becomes seen as absolute and right if it comes from an authority like a parent, teacher, or book. It’s a huge problem.

  2. As you rightly say, when memorization is taught as a skill, it becomes a tool to be used to reach an end (actively learning new facts, solving problems…) But consider the difficulty which math students find to do simple calculation because they haven’t learned the multiplication table or the language students who don’t have enough internalized resources to draw upon when they want to use language.
    It is also true that memorization should meet the criterion of the relatability to previous knowledge. If this condition is not met memorization doesn’t add any value to learning. And it is precisely this which distinguishes long term memory from short term one. We forget easily things that are not associated with or related to prior knowledge.
    So, yes I agree memorization will be useless if it isn’t taught appropriately.

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