Memory vs. Memorization

A post at Scientific Learning’s New Science of Learning blog highlights the importance of memorization in early schooling: math facts, counting to 100, reciting a poem, or recalling sight words are all examples of memorization tasks that are prevalent in the early grades.

Memorization, it turns out, is not a particularly advanced skill, centered as it is in the hippocampus of the brain, which is, evolutionarily, one of the oldest parts of the brain:

A great deal of learning in the elementary grades involves the hippocampus. Memorization of spelling rules likes “i before e except after c,” math facts, reading of “sight” words that cannot be sounded out, and geographical facts, just to name a few, demand good memorization skills (hippocampus function.). Reading curriculum used before 1970, like those used when the goal was memorization of the “Dolch” sight words, also stressed memorization skills.

Different from memorization is working memory. Working memory is the cognitive function responsible for retaining, manipulating and using information. We use working memory to delegate the things we encounter to the parts of our brain that can take action. Because of this, working memory is critical for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions, and keeping us updated and aware about what’s going on around us. And, unlike sight word memorization, working memory is critical for grasping a phonics-based approach to reading, which is prevalent in most American curricula.

As young readers develop, working memory takes on more importance. For example, to gain meaning from text, a student’s working memory must be sufficiently developed to remember the beginning of a sentence when she get to the end. Or the first sentence of a paragraph when she gets to the last.

We have previously highlighted a recent study, published in May 2010 in the Journal Reading and Writing (link is to abstract only), which examined the relationship between working memory and reading achievement, hypothesizing that working memory problems can be a root cause of poor reading comprehension. The researchers found working memory measures were “related with children’s word reading and reading comprehension.”

Even if working memory is more important than memorization for developing reading and other learning skills, we can’t completely abandon memorization (as evolutionarily primitive as it may be). For example, in its report “Foundations for Success” (2008), the National Math Panel emphasized the importance of developing automatic recall of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts in order to adequately prepare for algebra and beyond.

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