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Rote Learning: Its Purpose Is To Create Automaticity

The 1850 edition of Noah Webster's Dictionary defines "rote" as: "To fix in memory by means of frequent repetition." That certainly is the essence of what we mean by rote memorization.1

A search at Merriam Webster Online, however, defines "rote" as:
1: the use of memory usually with little intelligence.
2: routine or repetition carried out mechanically or unthinkingly.

This definition misses the mark of what memorization is all about.

Many of today's educators look down on rote learning and consider it akin to a form of child abuse. Today this form of learning is considered to be "out of style,"2 "ghastly boring"3 and even "mindless."4 "Having to spend long periods of time on repetitive tasks is a sign that learning is not taking place that this is not a productive learning situation," says Bartoli.5

What these educators totally ignore is the fact that rote memorization is not only the easiest way to learn something; it often is the only way to learn something.6 Its purpose is to create automaticity, so that the child will know something without having to think about it. Below are just a few examples of skills where automaticity plays such an important role that a child will suffer from a learning disability unless they have been automatized:

  • A child whose ability to discriminate between left and right has not been automatized will confuse letters like b and d, either when reading or when writing, or he may write e instead of 3, or confuse 17 and 71.

  • There is no substitute for rote memorization in learning the arithmetic facts. That knowledge is essential in order to perform in one's head or on paper the four functions of arithmetic: adding, subtracting, multiplying and division. Being given a calculator to perform these functions without having this basic knowledge in one's head gives the child no clue as to whether the answer on the calculator is right or wrong.

  • The child's lifelong access to the intellectual treasures of centuries depends on his mastery of twenty-six abstract symbols in an arbitrarily fixed order, i.e. the alphabet. His ability to organize and retrieve innumerable kinds of information from sources ranging from encyclopedias to computers depends on his having memorized that purely arbitrary order.7

There are many other examples, but this should be enough to illustrate the importance of rote learning.

Research has shown that when properly applied, rote learning is a consistently effective teaching method. For example, a recent meta-analysis of 85 academic intervention studies with students with learning disabilities found that regardless of the practical or theoretical orientation of the study, the largest effect sizes were obtained by interventions that included systematic drill, repetition, practice, and review.8

References:
1.) Blumenfeld, S., "The importance of rote learning: Behind the scenes" Practical Homeschooling, March-April 2000.
2.) Bremmer, J., "What business needs from the nation's schools," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 19 April 1993.
3.) Bassnett, S., "Comment," Independent, 14 October 1999.
4.) Dixon, R-C. D., "Ideologies, practices, and their implications for special education," Journal of Special Education, 1994, vol. 28, 356.
5.) Bartoli, J. S., "An ecological response to Coles's interactivity alternative," Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1989, vol. 22(5), 292-297.
6.) Blumenfeld, S., "The importance of rote learning."
7.) Sowell, T., Inside American Education (Englewood Cliffs: Julian Messner, 1993).
8.) Heward, W. L., "Ten faulty notions about teaching and learning that hinder the effectiveness of special education," Journal of Special Education, January 2003.

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