“I think we’ve got past rote learning,” said a colleague, during a departmental meeting. He was answering a younger teacher’s objection, that the Cambridge Latin Course did not involve learning vocabulary.
The fidgeting of others who were present suggested semantic discomfort. But it was 1979, so I could not use my phone to consult the OED:
‘rote learning n. learning by memorization without proper understanding or reflection; mechanical learning; (Psychol.) a technique in the study of learning in which meaningless material is memorized.’
In those days it was dogma with the CLC fundamentalists, as it was with the Progressives, that to give children the task of learning lists—of anything at all—was old-fashioned (a pejorative), unenlightened, and an infringement of their rights. This included the learning of arithmetical tables in the early years of primary school.
These people got the upper hand; and generations of schoolchildren, here and in other English-speaking countries, have reaped the malefit.
Meanwhile most other countries carried on with their unenlightened procedures. They assumed, along with their forebears (and ours), that learning things by heart is necessary, even with some actual rote learning in early years—and that it can be made acceptable and even enjoyable for children.
When children are learning a language, they have to learn the words: they do not just pick them up in the course of two or three lessons a week. Memorising vocabularies is necessary. It is not of course rote learning—indeed understanding and reflection are the main part of it, and so too is the act of connecting each new word with something learnt or known before.
There can be visible relief and enthusiasm when the younger children find that they are being set a learning task: it seems the teacher is in business and wants them to have knowledge, not just vaguely to notice things in passing and then forget them.
Our task is to make the learning of vocabulary convenient, pleasant and interesting. Writing down the words with their details in a special vocabulary book, and being encouraged to do it neatly and lovingly, can be an incentive when it comes to a prep that involves learning those words.
If we print lists of words, they can be set out in a font that says read me and in a format that says memorise me.
Next post: more on memorising.