Keep It in Mind

Scripture Memory

A four-year-old came out of Sunday school saying his memory verse, “Children obey your carrots.”










What’s a Memory?

In one of my favorite picture books, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox, Wilfrid Gordon’s best friend at the old people’s home has lost her memory. Being quite young, Wilfrid doesn’t understand. So he asks all his friends at the old people’s home, “What’s a memory?” Each person he asks tells him something different.1

What is a memory?

Scientists tell us memory involves chemical and physical changes in nerve cells in the brain. Memory is centered in the cerebral cortex, which controls functions like problem-solving and language. By the time a child is three years old, his brain is 75-80% of its adult size. But he’s growing quickly. By the time he’s four, his brain is 90% of its adult size. This means there are more connections between parts of the brain. More connections mean increased alertness, attention and memory.

From a psychologist’s perspective, there are basically three kinds of memory. First, there’s sensory memory. This comes to you through one or more of your senses. But sensory memory is held in your mind for only an instant after you experience it. Then it’s gone.

The second kind of memory is short-term memory. This is the kind of memory you hold in your mind as long as you are actively thinking about it. For example, you look up a phone number and repeat it to yourself as you dial the number. By the time you’ve finished your conversation and hung up, you’ve forgotten the number. It lasts in your mind only about 20 seconds.

The third kind of memory is long-term memory. This kind of memory can last the rest of your life. One way something enters long-term memory is by intense emotion. I don’t remember much about my life before I turned five. But I do remember vividly two events. I remember dropping a milk bottle on my toe. (This was in the “olden” days of glass milk bottles.) And I remember sitting on my porch with my grandmother when yellow jackets were buzzing around. The first event was planted in my long-term memory because of pain. The second entered because of fear.

Another way something can get into long-term memory is by repetition. Did you ever move to a new town? When you drove to church or the ball park or the mall for the first time, you may have had to follow a map. You had to read street signs and look for landmarks. But you drove that route over and over again. Then one day, you left your house, and the next thing you knew you were at your destination. You had no memory of having driven the correct streets to get there. The repetition of driving that route had stored it in your long-term memory.

Much of our learning from birth throughout our lives comes from repetition. We do something so often that it becomes automatic to us. But there is another kind of repetition: rote memory. Rote memory is defined as mindless repetition done mechanically or without understanding. This is the kind of repetition students often do in school. They memorize information to make a good grade on the test but forget it as soon as the test is over. We might even call this mid-term memory, because it’s longer than short-term memory, but shorter than long-term memory. We hold onto the information as long as it serves a purpose. When it ceases to serve the purpose, we drop it.

Did you memorize the states of the U.S. and their capitals when you were in school? Did you memorize the Presidents of the United States? Did you memorize the Gettysburg address or the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution? Do you remember all of them? Or did you forget? Why?

Try another experiment. How many scriptures did you memorize as you grew up? How many can you say now? Why do you remember the ones you remember?


Why Teach Memory Verses?

When we see how many Bible verses we memorized and how few we remember, we might ask why we should memorize scriptures at all. We might especially ask that question if we had difficulty memorizing, or if we never got the prize, or if the teacher or class put us down when we failed to learn the scripture for the day. But there are some important reasons to memorize scripture.

  1. Meditation

David was called “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). How was he able to come so close to God? I think we find one of the reasons in Psalm 145:5. David said, “I will meditate on your wonderful works.” In Psalm 143:5, David said, “I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.” David was serious about seeking God.

Meditating on scripture means deliberately and consciously considering it. It’s turning the words over and over in your thoughts, pouring through it, “bathing” in it. It’s much easier to do when the words are already in your heart, or you are in the process of putting them into your heart. Psalm 119 is full of verses about meditating on God’s precepts, decrees and promises.

  1. Fighting Temptation

Psalm 119 gives us another reason to memorize scripture: to fight temptation. Verse 11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Ephesians 6:17 tells us that God’s word is the sword of the Spirit. Luke 4 shows how Jesus used this sword to fight temptation. When the devil tempted Jesus, He fought back by quoting scripture. If Jesus did it, maybe we should too. Children can be equipped to fight temptation the way Jesus did. (2)

  1. Prayer

A third reason to memorize scripture is to use it in prayer. 1 John 5:14,15 says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.” How do we know we are asking according to His will? One of the surest ways is to pray scripture. “Lord, you are my shepherd. I shall lack nothing. Make me lie down in green pastures. Lead me beside quiet waters. Restore my soul” (Psalm 23).

  1. Guidance

Another reason to memorize scripture is so we can rely on it during life’s experiences. There was a quiet, shy boy in one of my four-year-old classes. We had been memorizing the verse, “I know that God can do all things” (Job 42:2). One evening his mother peeked into the classroom before class started. She said, “Today Timothy came up to me, pointed to the sky and said, ‘Mommy, I know that God up there can do all things.'” The verse had jumped out of the classroom and had found its way into his everyday life.

Another little girl in my class was playing at home with her two year old sister. They were in the yard, and a bee flew near. Her little sister ran into the house crying, afraid of the bee. The big sister ran in after her, calling, “Remember: In God I trust, I will not be afraid” (Psalm 56:11). She was applying her memory verse to a life experience.

One pastor tells the story of his grown daughter who had run away from home and gotten into drugs and worse. At the lowest point in her life, she found herself in a run-down trailer, hungry and friendless. She lay in bed all day. But a memory verse she had learned in Sunday school when she was four years old kept running through her mind. God used that verse to take her back home where she started a new life in the Lord.

So the question is not, “Should we memorize scripture?” The question is, “How should we memorize scripture so that we can really remember it?”


Keys to Memorization

As teachers, we usually expect children to memorize without teaching them how. We just say, “Here’s your memory verse for next week. Be sure to learn it.” We may even add, “so you get your prize.” But if we really think memorizing scripture is important, we will help children learn how to do it.

  1. Focus.

The first thing anyone must do to memorize something is to focus on it, to think about it. It’s important to spend some of your class time focusing on the verse.

  1. Link it to something children already know.

Ask yourself how this verse relates to the children. What do they know that you can link it to? For example, “I know that God can do all things.” How does that relate to a four-year-old? The key is in the word “do.” What is a four-year-old able to do? What is he not able to do? A four year old’s world consists of what he can do and can’t do. God is able to do anything.

  1. Help children understand what they are memorizing.

Frank Smith, in his book Insult to Intelligence says, “Rote memorization is the worst strategy for trying to learn anything we do not understand. . . . Learning by rote is the hardest and most pointless way to learn. Students who use memorized formulas without understanding commit monumental mistakes without suspecting their errors.”3 If children are going to memorize, they must understand what they’re memorizing.

I once taught the verse, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19) to a group of five-year-olds. I thought it was a simple verse. But while I was listening to the children repeat the verse, it occurred to me that they didn’t understand it. So I asked them what the verse meant. They said it meant, “T-a-l-k r-e-a-l s-l-o-w.” Needless to say, I had some explaining to do.

Remember that children who are under six or seven years old do not understand symbolism. Before presenting a memory verse to children, ask yourself if you think they will understand it. Many Bible verses contain symbolic language. Children will find it easier to memorize these verses if you discuss them first and clear up any misunderstandings.

  1. Make it relevant to the child.

We remember concepts and facts that we use often. They are relevant to us. I remember lots of grammar rules, because I use them every day when I write and speak. But I don’t remember theories about geometry. I never need them, so I never use them. Make sure the verses you teach relate to your students’ lives.

For the young child, my philosophy is “remember a few rather than forget many.” I choose only four to six verses for young children to learn for the entire year. I’d rather they leave my class knowing four verses well than learn a verse each week, none of which they remember after they move on.

In first through third grade, children should still have more oral memory work than written memory work, because many of them are still struggling with reading and writing. As they grow older, they can be expected to learn more verses.

What are some practical ways we can help children learn memory verses? Remember the three sensory areas in which people learn: auditory, visual, and tactile/kinesthetic. Try teaching the verse in an auditory way to help the auditory learner memorize it. Teach it in a visual way to help the visual learner. And teach it in a tactile/kinesthetic way to help the T-K learner.


Ideas for the Ears

Children who learn best by listening will be able to memorize by repeating the verse over and over again. They can learn from hearing themselves or someone else say it. It will help if each time you say the verse you use the same inflection and rhythm. For example, “I know . . . that God . . . can do ALL things.” Say it the same way every time.

Sometimes it’s fun to repeat the verse in different voices. Say it in a low voice. Say it in a high voice. Say it softly. Shout it. Say it in different foreign accents. Say it like you think a cat would talk. Or try getting faster and faster each time you repeat the verse, until you can’t say it intelligibly anymore. Singing the memory verse may also help auditory learners. Perhaps you can make up a tune or put the words to a tune you already know. Or let the children put the verse to music.

If any of the students have watches that can be set to beep every hour on the hour, you might suggest that they set their watches for that function on a Saturday. Then every time their watch beeps, they say the verse.


Ideas for the Eyes

Visual learners memorize more easily if they can see something that will help them learn. Ask them to mentally visualize the words in the written verse. Or they might organize a verse that contains a list by putting the first letter of each word together to see what it spells. I learned Philippians 4:8 this way. I learned the words TNR PLA EP (tenor play E.P.) “Finally brothers, whatever is True, whatever is Noble, whatever is Right, whatever is Pure, whatever is Lovely, whatever is Admirable, if anything is Excellent or worthy of Praise, think on these things.”

Or try a simple game. Get some index cards and write one word of the verse on each card. Then lay out the cards in order. Read the verse aloud together. Then ask one child to pick any card and turn it face down. Read it together again, supplying the missing word when you come to it. Ask another child to turn over any card. Read it again, this time saying both missing words. Keep going this way until all the cards are turned over and they are still “reading” the verse.

This same game can be done with sticky postable notes. Or use a chalk board or dry erase board, erasing one word at a time. Or instead of writing the words on cards, write them with a permanent marker on inflated balloons. To “erase” a word, the child must pop the balloon. You can furnish a pin for this, or you can tell the children to sit on the balloons to pop them.


Ideas for the Hands

Sometimes you can put hand motions to the verse. Our class did this with Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord with all your heart and soul and strength.” When we said “love,” we put our hands on our hearts. When we said, “Lord,” we pointed up. When we said, “heart,” hands went back over our hearts again. When we said, “strength,” we made muscles with our upper arms like strong men.

Another fun way to be tactile/kinesthetic with memory work is to toss a beach ball. Whoever the ball is thrown to says the first word of the verse. He then throws the ball to another person who says the next word and so on until the entire verse has been quoted. A variation of this is for the child who catches the ball to say the whole verse, then throw it to another child who says the whole verse and so on.

You could write each word of the verse on an index card, then mix up the cards and ask the children to arrange them in order. A more active, fun way is to pin the cards on the backs of children and then ask one or two other children to arrange the “pinned” children in order. Or hang the scrambled cards on a clothesline that’s been strung across the room. Or write the words on paper cups and form teams, seeing which team can arrange their cups in the proper verse order first.

There are also traditional games you can play using words of the verse. Make a hopscotch path with one word written in each square. Then play hopscotch, saying each word as the student hops on it. Or play London Bridge. The person who gets “caught” must say the verse. Or play Duck, Duck, Goose, but with each tap of the head, a word of the verse is said. On the last word of the verse, the one tapped chases the tapper to see who can get back to the empty spot first.


God’s Reminders

As you can see, many of these ideas combine factors that appeal to auditory, visual, and T/K learners. The variations of what you can do are endless.

God uses all of these ways to help his people remember. He uses auditory methods. Exodus 17 tells about the time Joshua led God’s people out to fight. Moses was watching from a mountain. When Moses held up his hands, God’s people would win. Aaron and Hur ended up supporting Moses’ hands when Moses got tired. Joshua and his army won. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it'” (Exodus 17:14). At one time, God told Moses to write down a song so the events would not be forgotten (Deuteronomy 31:19-22)

God also uses visual methods. He set the rainbow in the sky to remind Him never again to destroy the earth with water (Genesis 9:12-17). When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River, God told the people to take stones from the river bed and put them at their camp. God said, “These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” When children asked about the stones, the people were to tell them about crossing the Jordan.

God uses tactile/kinesthetic methods. During the Feast of Booths the people were to make and live in booths for seven days to help them remember how they had wandered in the wilderness for forty years. For us, the wine and flat bread of the communion or Lord’s supper, as well as the water of baptism, are tactile reminders of what Jesus did for us.

–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 15
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.

illustration courtesy

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