Recently, my fourth grader succeeded in cutting in half the time he takes to complete a multiplication speed drill, while my seventh grader managed to come close to beating his father’s time in the same drill. Both were justly happy about their accomplishment. By being able to compute multiplication facts quickly and easily, both will find it easier to move further in math without getting bogged down in basic computations.

This kind of fluency is an important building block in mastery. Imaging studies have shown what common sense tells us — that when information or procedures are automatic, they take less work in the brain. This means that a person who can instantly decode written words, knows his math facts well or can drive easily will be able to devote more mental energy to more advanced skills like reading for meaning, solving complex math problems or maneuvering a vehicle on a busy city street.

So it is well worth spending some time on memorizing in the homeschool. Memorization does not replace reasoning and imagination, but it does provide a solid base for these things. In addition, studies have shown that using memory actually builds its strength. So a child who has made the effort to memorize one time will be able to memorize more easily next time. He builds memory strategies that aid further learning, and also gains confidence in his ability to learn.

Memorizing does take effort. The first effort is attention — the power of focusing on a learning task. I notice that my younger children have some difficulty applying their minds to something, particularly if it is not something of immediate interest to them. Good food, sufficient sleep, and some kind of routine lay a good groundwork for children. If your kids get discouraged easily, it’s helpful to start off slowly and try to build a pleasant emotional environment; I’ve found that out the hard way.

I’ve also found it helpful to do some sort of introduction or overview of the material to be memorized, and to help the children figure out strategies for memorization. Setting concrete goals and making time for a celebratory break after the goal is mastered can also work well.

Take the multiplication facts as an example. Most math books carefully transition from addition to multiplication, demonstrating that multiplying is simply repeated addition. This helps the students understand the process, and it is very helpful in placing the new material in the framework that already exists in the child’s mind. The child can double-check the multiplication facts against what he already knows — the “repeated addition” — which is a barrier against wild guesswork. One very important component of successful memorization, then, is building upon existing knowledge and teaching for “meaning” not just for rote learning.