The ancient Greeks thought it would improve the mind and if we talk to our older relatives they would probably all tell you that they had to learn poetry off by heart when they were at school. My own mother recited ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ by William Wordsworth every year when the first of those bright yellow daffodils burst open in the Spring sunshine because she had learnt that poem as a schoolgirl.
So is there a benefit for school children to still learn poetry off by heart today?
There are significant cognitive benefits to be gained by learning by rote. It can help improve our information retention at any age. It helps to expand the neuroplasticity in the elderly and can help to stave off the cognitive decline of primary age children. Learning by heart helps the hippocampal foundation which is the memory area of the brain. It exercises the neural pathways, growing and strengthening our brains.
It doesn’t just increase your brain power but can also help your understanding of a piece. You notice rhyming words, or perhaps a particular phrase starts to resonate with you. The words start to paint a picture in your mind’s eye, which you then want to share with the people around you.
There are several different methods that can be employed to help us learn something off by heart and we need to experiment to find the method that works best for us.
Many stage actors simply learn by rote. They learn a couple of lines at a time, linked to cues and repeat them over and over until they are lodged in their brains. TV actors tend to have excellent short term memories; they learn the lines they need for that day but then cast them aside and forget them as they are no longer needed and they make room for another set of lines for the next day’s shoot.
Some people use the method favoured by the ancient Romans. They used the ‘journey’ method. They create a journey through their poem, putting emphasis on key words or powerful images. These became ‘way markers’ and they then take a ‘walk’ through the poem from way marker to way marker.
There are also those who have visual memories and they find that by actually taking a walk or going for a run or cycle helps them remember as they recall where they were as they learned the lines.
We can practice the lines wherever we are. Walking the dog, driving the car, taking a shower and saying the words aloud helps them to stick in our minds and become a part of us. Thus we are saying them not only by heart but with our hearts.
Here at Windlesham we invite children from Reception to the Twos to take part in an annual poetry competition. They choose a poem to learn and present it within their classes or English sets. From this several children are chosen to go through to the finals which are often judged by an invited guest. This year the junior competition was watched and judged by Bobbie Brown, a retired actor. She was amazed and delighted by the range of poems that were recited by the children and had a difficult job choosing the winners. We value the experience this brings to the children of confidence building as well as expanding their minds.