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Making Scripture Stick

Sue Geiman

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters..." Psalm 23:1-2.

She was 6. Her short, sun-lightened hair curled softly around her face as she stood beside the gray metal kitchen table with the wings folded down, reciting the 23rd Psalm to her parents. They smiled and nodded. "You're so quick," her dad said as she crawled up on his lap. This was fun, she thought and started in again repeating those long sentences filled with awkward words.

That memory is faint; there's no beginning and the end fades into the years. That little girl, you see, was me. I was one of the lucky ones -- memorizing things was never very hard for me -- in school, at church -- anywhere.

But for many of us, memorizing facts and information is a difficult task, which often leads to failure. Even things we know today seem to leak out of our memory banks as we sleep, because we certainly don't remember them tomorrow, let alone next week -- or when we really need them. And these are memories that usually don't matter much.

There is something that matters, though. We need to remember what God tells us in his Word. When we're tempted to lie. When everything goes wrong. When we have a fight with our best friend. When we fail a test. When someone says something untrue about us. When we need to make a big decision. In almost every situation of life we need to have God's Word "hidden in our hearts" so we can respond the way God would want us to.

I'm sure I don't have to convince you. As someone involved in children's ministry, you already believe it's important for children to fill their memory banks with verses that jump quickly to the front of their minds or slip easily off their tongues when needed. They need words that make sense and shape the way they think and react to the events of their everyday lives. Are you sure, though, that you're using the most effective methods to ensure that Scripture sticks?

How Memory Works

Close your eyes for a minute and think back to your childhood. What memory comes to mind? How old are you? What are you doing? How are you dressed? Who's with you? Where are you? How do you feel about what's happening? Why did you remember that memory so quickly? What triggered it? Did you hear something or smell something around you right now that brought that certain memory to mind? Are you eating something or in a place that seems to have triggered your memory? Was it connected to my story of learning Psalm 23? Did it happen with your family or in a kitchen? Could you smell dinner on the table? Are you curled up safely on someone's lap?

Recent advances in research technologies such as PET scans (Positive Emission Tomography) and fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) help us better understand how and where memories are stored in the brain. Scientists can actually see information being stored and retrieved. What these studies teach us is that short-term memories must move to different storage areas of our brain to make them permanent. So let's take a quick look at the five main memory paths and discover how we can create learning activities that'll make it easier for children to store -- and later retrieve -- God's Word.

Semantic Memory

There's a good chance most of the methods you already use to help kids memorize Scripture are semantic memory activities. Semantic memory is formed through visual or verbal processing of words.

School classrooms and most Christian education ministries rely heavily on activities intended to help children learn important factual information. Now research is showing us that two things are critical if we want to help move factual information learned through verbal and visual word-based methods down the pathway to the permanent storage area for semantic memory in the brain. First, the new information must be connected in some way to existing knowledge, and second, it takes repeated processing of new information to make those connections strong enough to deposit the information into long-term memory.

The brain is constantly trying to make sense of information. If that information isn't meaningful to us, we can repeat it over and over, and our brain won't send the information into permanent storage. So, while repetition is one useful tool, meaning is far more influential. When you help children make associations, consider comparisons, and see similarities between the new information and matching information already in their long-term memory banks, you're creating meaningful connections that move semantic information into long-term storage.

Amazingly, even though we tend to rely heavily on semantic memory methods in schools and our children's ministry programs, this path actually takes more effort to establish permanent memory and to access it when we need it.

Semantic Memory-Makers

• Repeat the verse many times throughout the lesson to explain its meaning.
• Have children say the verse every time the leader says its meaning.
• Play word games that help children understand the meaning of the words in the Bible verse.
• Ask children to explain the verse in their words to be sure they understand what it means.
• Have children write or draw a picture of how they'll do what the memory verse tells them to do in the next week.

Episodic Memory

Episodic memory paths are much more easily accessed. These memories are associated with locations -- that's why walking back into the family room helps you remember what it was you went out to get in the kitchen! Every time you create the context for new information, you speed it on its way down the episodic memory path into long-term storage. Who could forget crawling into a big black plastic "fish" at VBS and learning, like Jonah, the meaning of obedience. Imagine how much easier it would be to remember John 14:15, "If you love me, obey my commandments" connected with that lesson!

Episodic Memory-Makers

• Create an environment that's slightly different for each week's Bible lesson. Connect the environment to the Bible story and verse as much as possible.
• Hold up a picture or an object every time you say the verse. Better yet, give children something or have them make a craft connected to the verse. Have them say the verse during and after making their craft or when using their object.
• Wear a hat, shirt, or certain colors that connect to the verse as you explain the meaning of it. For example, wear red for the verse "though your sins are like scarlet."

Automatic Memory

Have you ever wondered why you find yourself singing some crazy song you heard in a commercial days ago? I'm still breaking out into "We are going to play Blue's Clues" weeks after my grandsons are back home!

We all know the power of music in making and retrieving memories. Music is one way we develop conditioned responses that access our automatic memory pathway. Much of what you learned in school that you use without even thinking about was moved permanently into storage down the automatic memory path, such as the alphabet, multiplication tables, sight words, and lots of songs. Any time you make use of rhythm, rhyming, and melody, you help information fly into long-term storage.

Automatic Memory-Makers

• Sing the verse.
• Have children say the verse to a rhythm or beat. Have children play instruments or clap their hands to a beat as they say the verse.
• Create rhymes that help explain what the verse means.

Procedural Memory

Muscle power! Movement is the primary key to the procedural memory path. What your body does over and over again becomes routine, such as tying your shoe, riding a bike, or driving a car. Connecting movement and routines to information accesses the procedural memory lane. That's why finger plays and actions help young children remember Bible stories -- and memory verses.

Procedural Memory-Makers

• Add motions to the verse -- or better yet -- to the memory verse song.
• Create an action kids do every time they catch you saying the verse during the lesson.
• Have children march around the room while saying or singing the verse.
• Have children pantomime what they'll do in certain situations related to the verse.
• Play games that creatively illustrate the truth of the Scripture.

Emotional Memory

Emotional memory RULES! More powerful than a speeding bullet, or at least than every other memory path, the brain begins working with emotional information much more quickly than any other pathway. That can be good or bad. For example, if the emotion stimulates a strong sense of fear, our automatic stress-responses may take over. If you've ever watched a child struggle trying to repeat a verse she "knew" before Sunday school, you may've seen the effect of stress stemming from the fear of making a mistake in front of everyone. That's bad emotion.

If, on the other hand, children experience the fear Jonah felt in the belly of that big fish, they're more likely to remember how Jonah responded and obeyed God's directions. That's good emotion.

The more memory paths we weave into our learning activities, the easier it'll be for children to hide God's Word in their long-term memory banks and retrieve easily when they need it.

Think about my experience learning Psalm 23. I was 6. Multiple memory pathways tucked away Psalm 23 in my memory banks. And 50 years later it's still there. It stuck!

The support and encouragement of my parents and the pride and approval of my dad at how well I did each time I repeated the verses were powerful emotional connections that quickly established long-term memories. Though bits and pieces of the context have faded, the episodic memories created standing in the kitchen still trigger connections. Even the meter and rhythm of the words stimulates an automatic response -- I actually feel my body moving to the beat of the words as I say them. The association between phrases helps my semantic memory link them together. And over the years I've come to experience more deeply what it means to know the Lord as my shepherd. And, after all, meaning is what we really want kids to tuck away for life.

Emotional Memory-Makers

• Tell children how a verse makes you feel -- use body language and facial expressions to show your emotions as you repeat the verse.
• Ask children to show you how the verse makes them feel as they say it aloud.
• Use dramatic storytelling techniques as you explain what the verse means.
• Use R.E.A.L. Learning to evoke emotion that cements learning.


Sue Geiman is vice-president of products at Group Publishing, Inc. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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