Why learn poetry by heart?

[This is a guest post by Yulia Shpilman.  It is not about math, and therefore a bit unusual for this blog.  However, I feel that many of the reasons and advice that she gives for learning poetry apply to learning math as well.]

We are often asked the question of why we at the Golden Key Russian School ask our students to memorize Russian poetry by heart. Whether you’re a poetry lover or not, the consensus is that it’s something that’s “good for you,” like eating spinach or practicing your multiplication tables. At the same time, it’s challenging and sometimes downright painful for the kids, so is it really worth it?

I believe the answer is a resounding yes, for many reasons (which I believe apply to poetry in English just as well):

Huge sense of pride at accomplishing something difficult 

You may be surprised to learn that, with few exceptions, our students are excited to go in front of the classroom and recite their poems. It actually makes perfect sense – they have worked very hard on something and now have a chance to show it off.

Exposure to vocabulary that they wouldn’t otherwise see or ever say out loud

Chances are, you aren’t using words like чахлая (feeble), лазурный (azure) or праздный (indolent) in everyday conversations with your elementary school age children because you assume they don’t know what it means. That is probably true, but when that word appears in a poem that your child is learning by heart, you suddenly have a reason to explain its meaning. Moreover, after repeating that word fifteen times, your child just might have a better chance of remembering and using it as part of his active vocabulary.

Deeper understanding than you get from just cursory reading of a poem once

The first time a child read a difficult poem with many unfamiliar words, its meaning is likely to go her head. As she begins reading (or hearing) it over and over again to commit it to memory, she starts internalizing it, making connections and coming up with interpretations that would not be possible if she had read the poem once and moved on.

Development of good taste and appreciation for beauty and cleverness of the written word

This isn’t something a child born with – good taste in literature, in music, in art needs to be cultivated and developed through gradual, age-appropriate exposure. Learning poetry by heart helps children better understand and appreciate its beauty, the nuances of the poet’s word choices and its overall meaning, helping them become better and stronger readers and “consumers of literature.”

I don’t subscribe to the argument that one needs to memorize poetry to train her memory. If that was the only objective, there are many other ways to accomplish it and all kinds of things to be memorized, from the multiplication table to historical dates, and I am not sure that poetry is superior to them with regard to memory training.

As for making the experience as enjoyable as possible, here are some suggestions.

  • Allow the child to choose the poem that she’d like to learn – give her several options and let her pick what speaks the most to her (and reject those that aren’t appealing).
  • Work on short bits at a time, so both you and your child can feel like you’re making progress
  • Don’t leave the task to the last minute – memorizing a poem is much harder under the pressure of a time constraint. Instead, make it a part of your daily routine – your drive to and from school or activities is a great time to work on memorizing a poem.
  • Give them background and context on the poem, but let them offer their own interpretation, which may change and evolve over time.

When a child learns a poem by heart, it becomes a part of her treasure, her arsenal against ignorance, her answer to a difficult challenge. We at GKRS are grateful for the opportunity to give this gift to our students.

About aofradkin

I enjoy thinking about presenting mathematical concepts to young children in exciting and engaging ways.
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3 Responses to Why learn poetry by heart?

  1. Joshua says:

    Also, little kids earnestly reciting poetry are super cute. Because of my language biases, I bet it is even more so in Russian.

    Fortunately, there’s not much праздность around our house (assuming that’s the right noun form).


  2. I give my full endorsement — and not only to learning by heart Russian poetry in Russian. Any language. I can add more: a basic skill to memorise poetry by heart acts as a powerful test of seriously good poetry: you get a chance to enconter poems that you memorise from the first reading, spontaneously. I had this experience not only with “Пора, мой друг, пора…”, but also with much longer “Зима. Что делать нам в деревне?” Look at this literary joke:

    Ночь. Улица. Фонарь. Аптека.
    Шумит “Арагви” предо мною.
    Живи еще хоть четверть века –
    Печаль моя полнa тобою.

    This funny little trinket is glued from lines from two of some of the greatest and most memorable poems in Russian poetry, and these lines are for some reasong rememberd by every (educated) Russian person of my generatin, even if they never tried to memorise these particular lines by heart — but learning poetry by heart was part of standard school education.

    The great Tvardovsky, the editor of the famous Russian magasine “Новый Мир”, kicked out of his office poets who brought to him their poems, but were unable to recite them by heart. Deeply at cognitive level, poetry is made not for printing, but for reciting, listening, and memorising. Nabokov famously translated “Eugene Onegin” in prose, expalining that, as a Russian poet, he would never dare to imitate Onegin’s stanza. I read his translation, it is fantastic — you *read* English text and immediately *hear* the great rythm and sound of the Russian original.

    In short, for full appreciation of poetry, you have to memorise some of the poetry,


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