A note on unraveling literature texts from memory

Following my blog around distilling and refining what we do in English classrooms, this blog outlines how I teach exactly what to retrieve and how to ensure students focus their energy not in how much they can recall of a text, but how to use it in a useful and methodical way, without veering towards the formulaic. This blog uses the example of how I approach teaching poetry primarily, but I feel that the methodology is transferable to literature texts too. It’s pretty simplistic! The best things are. I find is an easy way in for students to gain confidence in a pretty short space of time, and get to grips with overcoming the terror associated with remembering an entire anthology.

Magic three as a foundation for retrieval

I wrote this a little while ago to explain the power of remembering three pieces of information, and it is this, alongside the ability to make connections with what we know and what we are trying to remember that will put us in good stead. We can only truly remember information if we can connect it with what we already know, put it into a context that we understand, and if we use the knowledge frequently. I encourage students to focus on a magic three for their retrieval; not because this is all I want them to remember, but once they remember three aspects, it tends to encourage the memory to reach for surrounding aspects of the text as a result.


The context of the poem is remembered through when the poem was written (either time, or in relation to the events of the poem), what it depicts, but why it might have been written. And so for example, Sheers wrote Mametz Wood, a poem looking back on the historical event of the Battle of the Somme, in which the 38th Division of the British Army lost their lives in what was to be one of the bloodiest battle sites in World War 1. Sheer wrote the poem because it touched him personally to speak and think of the Welsh soldiers sacrificing their lives for their country.


We retrieve the structure through repeated exercises of title, shift, and form. What two interpretations can we take from the title, where is the volta- and how or why is this sometimes less obvious- and how does the structure reflect the topics explored in the poem. To draw upon examples, the title of Valentine implies romance and intimacy, but reveals in fact the opposite. The shift is easily identifiable through the alliterated standalone stanza, and this stanza acts as a turning point between the open, earnest tone in the first half, and the more persistent, aggressive tone of the second half. Once students can identify the change in the poem and where it occurs, it makes it more straightforward to think of the poem as components; it also makes it far more manageable to consider tone through this change, as tone is a feature that can feel rather alien to students and requires some unpacking. We explore the shape of the poems, considering them as building blocks on the page. Students began to be able to ‘picture’ the poem through shape- the broken lines of Mametz Wood; the rhythmic constraint of London; The conversational narrative within the Prelude. We would discuss the impact of the structure upon how it helped or hindered us with recall: if the structure of the poem meant that we could remember the poem, or it challenged us to do so.I find instead of acting as a limitation, again, using these starting points helps demystify an aspect of poetry that most students tend to struggle with.

Beginnings, Middle, Ends

Through regular retrieval practice, students familiarise themselves with quotations from the beginning , middle and end of the poetry from the anthology. I quiz on the beginning, middle and end to emphasise how much easier it is to recall in this way from more structured poetry; where there is a clear ‘middle’ in poems such as Dulce et Decorum est, Valentine or London, students find this task far more manageable. With poems where they are less confident in recall, or where they have struggled around the structure of the poem itself, the language is more challenging to recall- Cozy Apologia, Sonnet 43 are both poems where this has been a consistent pattern. We then start to use the low-stakes testing to refine our recall of just those more challenging poems, retrieving the beginning, middle and end of some poems every week, then every fortnight over the course of the year.

The most interesting outcome of using this methodology over the last four years has been the depth of retained knowledge as a result. You would expect students to recall the same quotations, test in, test out, but as a consequence of carrying out recall, then discuss, recall, then discuss, over time, students would recall different sections of the poem for each quiz, I would suggest through the contextualisation of the class discussion afterwards.  It would become a process almost forensic in nature, where we were dissecting the poems as tools for remembering poems themselves, as if the poems could be critiqued for being effective poems in their design.

Poetry is something that because of the ambiguity, needs the accompaniment of formula and dissection in order to make sense of it; indeed, it is only through a solid grounding of knowledge that students can find the confidence to explore their own interpretations, by having such a rich point of clarity to begin.

These strategies are handy for understanding characters, through the revision of beginning, middle and end to drive sophistication of vocabulary with students (‘Sheila was insecure, intuitive, assertive’ or ‘Scrooge is isolated, curious, remorseful’) and students can then use this as a road map to explore characters or themes throughout literature texts. I wrote a blog here around academic writing and this  acts as a follow on from the retrieval of three key aspects as the starting block for great writing.

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