Pros and Cons of Recitation as a Teaching Method

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Friday, September 15, 1911: Had visitors at school today, but fortunately they didn’t stay very long. I’m so nervous on such occasions for fear I’ll make a break in reciting at class. More so if the visitor is an important one.

Textbooks published in 1910 and 1911.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since the high school had had a substitute teacher since the beginning of the school year, I’m guessing that school board members or the county superintendent of schools visited the school to see how things were going.

When I read this entry I wasn’t quite sure what reciting meant in this context—though it had a negative connotation and made me think about students’ memorizing poems.

I was surprised to discover that recitation referred not only to orally presenting memorized text, but also to orally responding to questions by the teacher. And that it was commonly used with small groups of students in multi-grade classes. Some students would be working with the teacher while others were working independently.

 The one-teacher country school regularly faces the challenge of a wide range of grade levels and academic growth. One response to the multi-age conditions of this naturally small institution is a teacher’s regular use of “recitation” lessons with individual and small groups of students. This pedagogical device is a common legacy of the one-teacher country school.  . .

. . . This instruction involved little more than the teacher lecturing and students reciting memorized passages or orally answering a series of questions as directed by the teacher’s textbook guide. Student learning was determined through the accuracy of the recitation and appropriateness of responses to teacher questions. Students were then introduced to the next topic and their assignment in the textbook. They were expected to work quietly and individually on their preparations for recitations.

It requires a good deal of self-discipline on the part of the student. “Doing school” for the students means continually keeping up with one’s work, knowing that you will face the teacher regularly, and understanding that neither is a choice. It is traditional in the sense that is presents itself as common sense, or just the way things are done.

While very few would advocate this as an acceptable model of instruction in public schools today, the form of the country school recitation, with its predictable student-teacher interaction and emphasis on independent work, nonetheless appears today as a sensible practice for curriculum and student management.

“Notes on a Country School Tradition; Recitation as an Individual Strategy,” by Stephen Swidler (Journal of Research in Rural Education, Spring 2000)

This description brings back memories of my mother. She taught in a one-room school-house for a year or two when she was in her early twenties. She used to say that she thought that multi-grade classrooms were the best place  for learning.  Students who excelled could listen to the lessons directed at an upper grade class and accelerate their learning.–and the student who was behind could discretely listen to the material being taught to a lower grade. It gave the child the opportunity to relearn the material that he or she hadn’t grasped the previous year without embarrassment.

7 Responses

  1. Excellent post. Thank you for including the description of ‘recitation!’

    I went to one-room country school (K-8) through 7th grade. It seemed to work very well, for me. ;-)

  2. Also, some of the new brain research that is coming out indicates that memorization that used to be required in school was a very important tool in developing certain areas of the brain.

    • That’s fascinating. I’d never heard that before. I’m really interested in how students learn, and one of the things on my “to do” list is to try to find out more about instructional methods and school organization in the old days.

  3. [...] previously written about the role of recitations in schools (see Pros and Cons of Recitation as a Teaching Method). But, this entry provided another bit of information. Apparently all students were required to [...]

    • Glad you re-directed to this former Post Sheryl. Here in South Australia, In the 1980′s & 1990′s before retiring, I chose to teach in what we called “vertically grouped” classes. Absolute best for children was to have them for the first 3 years of school and as the older ones moved out & on you’d bring in a new group of beginners. Not only the best way of managing “continuous intake” every term but better for the students for reasons you’ve mentioned. “Individualised learning” at its best but a huge challenge for the teacher and quite exhausting… but I loved it :-)

  4. My dad went to a one room school until the eighth grade. The process of reciting and then orally responding to questions from the teacher sounds similar to what PhD candidates have to do when defending their dissertations.

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