Both children and adults learn better when new information can be related to information that is already known. New information that is completely unfamiliar is unlikely to be remembered or understood well. But if something in the new information is recognizable in some way, the brain will have a reference point and that new information can be organized easily in the mind.
What are Memory Pegs?
Memory pegs are what I call those pieces of information that a child already knows—whether it's a simple term, a picture, a concept—that allows new information to be recognized not as something brand new and strange, but rather as another page in a book she's already started reading. Memory pegs prevent the 'disconnectedness' that I think is a main reason many people are unable to remember information.
For example, several years ago, Joely and I played several different types of Go Fish games that created dozens of memory pegs in her mind. Each set of Go Fish cards included 13 famous people (scientists, explorers, inventors, etc.) As we played the game, Joely became familiar with the names and faces of each famous person. She didn’t know much about them, but she knew their names and faces very well.
Later on, when we read about any of those people, she recognized them and was able to organize the new information about each one in her mind. Her ability to retain the new information was dramatically increased because it was connected with something she already knew.
We help our children create memory pegs when we teach the same information at multiple levels of complexity. At first, we present the most basic concepts, generalizations, and terms. Then later, when we delve back into that topic, we go a little deeper, covering more complex concepts; but our child can take that information and organize it with the information he already knows because of the memory pegs that already exist.
In my opinion, rote memorization of information like a list of the elements, the names of states or countries, or a timeline of the kings and queens of England isn’t really helpful in and of itself. But when rote memorization is intentionally focused on information that can be used as memory pegs for later learning, it becomes extremely useful. Instead of information memorized in isolation, these memorized lists of names and terms—these memory pegs—become hooks on which later information can be hung.
For example, if I try to teach my daughter about some of the most common elements on earth and their uses, she might be overwhelmed with all the new information if she’s never heard before heard of iron, oxygen, silicon, magnesium, sulfur, or nickel.
But if previously she had learned the names on the periodic table of elements—just the names, not necessarily anything beyond that—she would have had memory pegs on which this new, more in-depth information could be hung. Because of the memory pegs, this "new" information wouldn't seem unfamiliar to her which would help tremendously with her ability to understand, organize, and retain the information.
How do you help your child create memory pegs?
A child's journey to learn is a process of connecting and organizing new information; it's not a process of accumulating a sequence of isolated fact. For maximum understanding, every piece of information (ideally) should be connected in some way to something else the child knows. When you look at it this way, it's easy to see why you should actively create opportunities to help your children develop memory pegs.
1. Read lots and lots (and lots) of non-fiction books on a variety of topics.
It’s perfectly fine if the information doesn’t delve very deep. The terms and names are what you want your child to become familiar with—George Washington, Rome, atomic elements, parts of speech, levers, etc.
Later on, when your child learns about valence electrons and chemical bonds, the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, or correlative conjunctions and subordinate clauses, she will have a memory peg on which to hang that new information. And since the new information will already have meaning to her because it's connected with something she already knows, it will be understood and retained much better.
2. Become familiar with (or even memorize) the jargon of various subjects.
Have your child learn the names on the periodic table of elements. Memorize the list of presidents. Learn the names of the parts of the body. Make a game out of learning terms, don't just hand your child a list and have him memorize it.
There is an endless supply of lists that can be helpful in creating memory pegs for your children. The book The Homeschoolers Book of Lists is a great resource for some of those lists.
3. Consider focusing more on breadth than depth in the early years.
The more pegs you help your child create in the early years, the better she will be able to organize—and consequently remember—new information later. So when you are reading books together, encourage rabbit trails that might take you into a subject your normally wouldn’t have studied.