Learning by Heart

Learning by heart is also known as “recitation” in Charlotte Mason’s method. Recitation is more than memorizing: memorizing is committing information to memory, but not necessarily comprehending it. The difference between memorizing a poem and reciting a poem lies in the technique and emotion used to portray the meaning behind the words. To portray an author’s thoughts you must comprehend the meaning behind the words, not just memorize them.

Literature is full of examples of recitation: in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne could not stand listening to someone read unless they read it with emotion. Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables brought her audience to tears when she recited poetry. Recitation is an important step towards eloquently reading-aloud, public speaking, acting, and even singing.

The Greeks used the term “furnishing the mind” to describe committing something to memory. I love the imagery of our mind being “furnished” with beautiful words: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden” and “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow.” Our minds–and our children’s minds–will be furnished with words, and we are the interior designers.

Why is Recitation Important?

When you recite phrases over and over again they become a part of your vocabulary. Your vocabulary is the material that you use to build your thoughts and ideas, and your thoughts are what influence who you will become. Reciting, and eventually memorizing, scriptures and poetry is a small and simple thing that brings about powerful results. 

While we were reading the New Testament I took note of each time the Savior quoted scripture. It was fascinating to see how often he quoted past prophets, and I visualized Mary reading the scriptures and helping her son learn by heart the passages that she felt he would need someday. 

“Great power can come from memorizing scriptures. To memorize a scripture is to forge a new friendship. It is like discovering a new individual who can help in time of need, give inspiration and comfort, and be a source of motivation for needed change”

Richard G. Scott, “The Power of Scripture,” Ensign, Nov. 2011, 6

When we recite something, we must repeat it over and over in our minds before it is committed to memory. We ponder the words and their meaning, and as we grow older and gain experience we learn even more from it. When scriptures are committed to heart they grow with us, continually supplying us with nourishment at each stage of development.

I truly believe that for us to gain the full power of the scriptures, we need to ponder the author’s purpose, read them aloud over and over, and eventually commit them to memory. We cannot survive on just skimming the scriptures; we need to learn them by heart.

“For our lives to become the music of hope for the world, our learning must be heart deep; it must reach our very core. We must be able not only to access information but to understand; we must acquire not only knowledge but wisdom.”

Susan W. Tanner, Learning by Heart, BYU Speech, August 2004

How to Begin

“The child should speak beautiful thoughts so beautifully, with such delicate rendering of each nuance of meaning, that he becomes to the listener the interpreter of the author’s thought.”

Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, p. 223

Poetry is meant to be read aloud. Before I read poetry to my boys during our family gather time, I quickly read it to myself and think about what the author’s purpose was, the overall mood, where to pause, where to slow down/speed up. I’ve noticed a huge difference in my sons’ interest in poetry since I started reciting it and not simply reading it.

“The teacher reads with the intention that the children shall know, and therefore, with distinctness, force, and careful enunciation; it is a mere matter of sympathy, though of course it is the author and not himself, whom the teacher is careful to produce.”

Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6, p. 244

Aside from our Gather time, a portion of my son’s reading lesson is dedicated to reciting a short poem. He can choose the poem and he can choose how to recite it. He does not have to memorize (although he usually does in the process). He usually chooses short, silly poems, but I have faith that as I read beautiful poetry aloud everyday he will be exposed to poems that speak to his soul, and as he matures he will eventually choose more meaningful poems to learn by heart.

If you’re like me and did not grow up listening or reading poetry, the following resources can help you get started. In the beginning, I found it helpful to listen/watch YouTube videos of professionals reciting famous poems. I experienced some resistance from my young boys when we started reciting, but I had an idea that has made all the difference: recite with an accent! Some of our favorites are: robot, baby, cowboy, and British. I don’t always pull out the accent, but on those days when no one wants to recite scriptures it never fails to bring joy and excitement to young children.

I discovered an effective method of memorizing and reviewing scriptures from I have included written instructions on how to use it, and you can also see an example in my Instagram Highlights. Another option a reader brought to my attention is Scripture Box, an online scripture and poetry rotation system.

Click on the link to download a list of poetry to get you started reciting during your family gather time.

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