IS THERE A PLACE FOR ROTE MEMORIZATION, WITHIN STRUCTURED LITERACY INSTRUCTION?
Rote memorization was once seen as the most important pedagogical tool for student instruction; however, over the last several decades, the concept has not only fallen out of favor but been largely demonized. Modern education scholars have looked at rote memorization as an authoritarian relic of a bygone age, as it has been largely rejected within the post-modern age for being too oppressive. Part of this rejection stemmed from the introduction of a host of new child friendlier pedagogies that were aimed to replace it and part of this rejection likely stemmed from modern scholars personally having unpleasant memories of rote learning from their own childhood. Undoubtedly, rote memorization can be one of the most boring ways to teach a child. However, I would argue that it does not have to be. Rote memorization can be easily integrated with game-based learning. Moreover, I find students sometimes enjoy short bursts of rote memorization, when it is used to help them to learn challenging concepts.
Within the realm of literacy instruction, rote memorization has been especially demonized, as both of the two largest opposing literacy camps have largely rejected the concept. Many Structured Literacy advocates claim students do not need to memorize words if they possess the phonetic ability to decode. Whereas, Balanced Literacy scholars are a part of a post-modern education movement, which seeks to minimize direct instruction methods and replace them with inquiry-based learning and implicit instruction methods. This all being said, I would ask what does the research say?
John Hattie did a secondary meta-analysis of Rote Memorization in 2020. His analysis looked at 132 studies of the topic and 3 meta-analyses. His research found an effect size of .73. However, this effect size was for rote-memorization in general and not specifically for reading instruction. I attempted to find a meta-analysis specifically looking at rote memorization in language instruction. Despite looking through multiple academic databases, I was unable to find a meta-analysis of the topic. However, I was able to find several meta-analyses of individual rote memorization strategies, as they pertain to reading.
Realistically, the most commonly used form of rote learning in reading instruction is Repeated Reading. Repeated Reading has students read the same text over and over again, with the goal of increasing their reading accuracy and reducing their time to read the text. This intervention is one of the most studied fluency interventions. A meta-analysis of the topic by Therrion et al, in 2004 found that Repeated Reading was a high yield strategy for students with Reading Difficulties. Their study found that students reading the same text just three times, had an effect size of .95 using a Cohen’s d effect size calculation. Comparatively, phonics only has an effect size of .70, according to Dr. John Hattie’s 2018 meta-analysis and .86 if we look at the 2006 NRP meta-analysis led by Dr. Timothy Shanahan. Moreover, The NRP 2006 study finds an effect size of .86 for Repeated Reading as well. Whereas Hattie’s 2018 Meta-analysis found Repeated Reading to have an effect size of .75. Ultimately though we do not need to compare Repeated Reading to phonics, though as they are complementary ideas, not competing ideas.
To get a real understanding of the value of rote learning and repetition within fluency interventions, we need to compare Repeated Reading to non-repetitive fluency interventions. Fortunately, there have been several meta-analyses of this topic and they consistently find the same general result. Repeated Reading is more effective than non-repetitive fluency interventions. Zimmermann et al, did a meta-analysis of non-repetitive reading fluency interventions in 2019, for students with reading difficulties, and their study found a cohen’s d effect size of .105. The Repeated Reading effect size in the 2004 Therrion et al, meta-analysis is more than 9 times higher.