Another strategy important in memorization is finding patterns, or categorizing. Again, a typical math book will introduce multiplication facts in an orderly sequence — 1’s and 2’s first and then on from there. This helps the child find order in the material, which cuts down on the effort in acquiring the knowledge.
Once the child understands what he is doing and has some strategies for helping himself remember, it is important to practice in order to gain fluency. However, our minds get accustomed to sameness and that does not reinforce learning. So it’s a good plan to approach the repetition with some variety. With the multiplication facts, we have used computer drills, flashcard matching games, math “bees” where kids call out the answers as fast as they can, and “moving math” where the kids jump on the trampoline or take steps while answering the questions. Another strategy is to build a “mental map” of the facts to be memorized. Some kids find charts and manipulatives helpful to reinforce what they are learning.
Finally, there is the jump to real fluency. I’ve noticed that sometimes a child will transition into fluency automatically. My 7th grader never really had to drill his multiplication facts very much when he was younger; he seemed to already have a mental framework for them in his mind. My present 4th grader knew the multiplication tables well, but he was not yet fluent. He took a few seconds to solve each one, which slowed him down as we started on more complicated math operations. So we spent a couple of days focusing on speed and automatic answers, and it paid off well. Learners always do slightly worse in applying skills or information to new tasks — it’s harder to remember multiplication facts when you are trying to learn long division — so it is important to “overlearn” the basic skills so they are second nature and can be counted on even in challenging new tasks.
Memory projects approached this way take some time and energy. So I set aside a bit of time daily for memory work, and once in a while, I cut back on everything else to really work at progressing in one area. The kids find it motivating to be “done” with a project like mastering a speed drill or memorizing a poem. A younger child enjoys seeing his progress, sometimes with charts or pages on display, and older children often enjoy some element of emulation or competition, like taking part in a contest or being part of a group effort.
All children are naturally good at memorization. Think of what they learn effortlessly simply by living in your family. In some ways, memorizing in academic subjects is simply a more artificial way to do what we all do effectively in everyday life. The trick is to use and build on these natural abilities.