This is my daughter Andrea.
Andrea is, in a lot of ways, a very typical ten-year-old girl. She goes to school, plays with her friends, does her homework. She loves cartoons, sword fight, games, and babies. She does not love vegetables.
Ooo, it’s a double–sword fight with babies:
Andrea is not much of a verbal communicator. She does not usually speak in full sentences. When she does, chances are she’s quoting a line from one of her favorite movies. Her speech isn’t very clear, so to get the full gist of the quote it helps to be familiar with the movies.
Despite her communication difficulties, though, Andrea has a very special ability: she is well on her way to memorizing all of Psalm 119. She has the first half of the psalm (88 verses) nailed down, and there is nothing to suggest that the remaining verses will give her any trouble. We’re not in a hurry, though; every month, Andrea learns eight new verses while she reviews those she already knows. If all goes as planned, she’ll know the entire psalm by June, 2013. [Mar, 2, 2013 update: Andrea memorized 40 verses of the psalm over the last six weeks, and reaching verse 176 today. We went bowling to celebrate.]
This is all frankly a surprise to me. Andrea’s Down syndrome slows her down in many ways. When our family started memorizing Psalm 119, I thought Andrea might be able to learn four verses–in a simplified version–while we were learning eight. Then in coming years, we would work with her on the rest. Immediately, though, Andrea showed that with a little help, she could learn the verses as well as anyone.
Andrea is pretty good at memorizing, but she does not have an extraordinary aptitude for it. She’s not a genius or an autistic savant or something. She’s just worked very hard at this, and had fun with it, too.
Here’s how we do it.
At the beginning of the month, I write the new verses on the whiteboard for Andrea to read aloud. Then we erase a word or two, and she reads it again. We repeat the process until the board is blank. The next few days, we do it again. After four or five days, she knows the eight new verses pretty well.
I find an image online to represent each verses, and Andrea’s mom makes flashcards for her. We review the verses by going through the flashcards–in order, usually, but occasionally mixing them up.
We practice saying the verses on our five-minute walk to school. I say the first part of the verses, and she says the second. “Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes,” I say, and she replies, “And I shall keep it to the end.” Sometimes we sing the verses. It keeps us entertained, and doesn’t cost us a minute–we were going to walk to school anyway.
Sometimes at home we play simple board games using the pictures that go with the verses. The early versions of the games had only eight pictures on them; then there were sixteen, twenty-four, forty. . . The last version has eighty.
The rules have varied, but the basic idea is the same: roll the dice, move the token, say the verse. Some of the early games featured Andrea’s favorite cartoon and movie characters. I thought these would help keep her interest, but I quickly found that they were not necessary.
One thing that does help keep her interest is singing the verses. Andrea had a harder time than usual memorizing verse 48, because of its length. So I decided to write a simple melody to go with the verse. Once she learned the melody, she never had any trouble saying the verse.
So the next month I decided to write a simple melody for each of the new verses–and then it seemed like a good idea to string those simple melodies together into one long song. That ended up working a lot better than I had hoped. With the help of a song, Andrea learns the new verses in just two days instead of four. And with a song, it’s easy for her to run through the verses in order even without the pictures. I write songs for the new verses every month now. (They’re posted below if you’d like to give them a listen. If you’d like to make a better recording of one or two of them–which shouldn’t be hard–it would be greatly appreciated.)
Bacon cheesy fries–our favorite:
Andrea loves to go out to eat. When she’s learned the eight new verses for the month, she gets to take her family out to one of her favorite restaurants–KFC, or Foster’s Hollywood, or Turkish food. Since it takes her only a couple days to learn the verses, we have the rest of the month to review all the verses. We also have plenty of time to talk about the the verses mean, and how we might apply them to our own lives.
After Andrea has learned the verses, she can also earn a night out for reviewing them faithfully. She gets 100 points for each verse she recites. For each 100 points, we mark off a box on a chart. When she has marked off every box on the chart, we go out to eat. There are a lot of boxes on the chart. We started by putting X’s in the boxes; the second time through, we put plus marks through the X’s; the third time, a red dot in the middle, and the fourth, a green line along the left edge. We may need a new chart sometime soon.
Some days Andrea’s stutter is worse than usual. We have to go a little slower on those days. And any time that we’re reviewing–whether on the way from school, or with the flashcards or games–and Andrea is tired or not interested, she’ll simply say, “Done.” And then we’re done.
But much more often, she can’t get enough. “Verses?” I ask, and she says, “Yes please”–even if that means turning off the Nintendo. Or she’ll come to me and say, “Dad, verses?” “Sure,” I say, and she says “Yea!”
Here’s Andrea with a page showing images for the first sixty-four verses of the psalm. Today we’re dropping popcorn kernels onto the page. Wherever a kernel lands, Andrea has to say the verse.
Nearly every verses of Psalm 119 contains a term for the word of God–commandments, testimonies, word, precepts, law, ordinances. Most of us have a hard time remembering which verse uses which term. Andrea never confuses these, though. I have a feeling that that may be true of most small children as they memorize, but I don’t have enough experience yet to know for sure if that’s so.
Andrea seems to have gotten a lot better at memorizing since we started. I think perhaps she has learned little tricks along the way to make the job easier. It would be interesting to know how she’s doing that. . .In any case, if I say to her, “Look, this verse say ‘I will keep Your words’ and the next one says ‘according to Your word,’ without the s,” I know that she has some way to file that information away and probably get it right the next time. And once she gets it right, it stays right.
We have gotten just to the point in the psalm where I expected everyone to have difficulty retaining all the verses they had memorized while continuing to learn eight new ones every months. The opposite seems to be happening to Andrea, though–she knows the early verses better than she ever did. She’s got such a solid footing with those that she enjoys having new verses to learn every once in awhile.
It helped Andrea a lot at the beginning to do gestures with the verses; the verses that were accompanied by actions were those she remembered best and seemed to enjoy most. Actions don’t seem necessary anymore, but we’ll probably go back to using them sometime soon. Changing tactics occasionally shakes things up and makes the work more interesting.
We’ve stopped making flashcards for now, too. Andrea never needed to read the words anyway, and since she almost always reviews with her Dad–who knows the verses–the flashcards began to seem like wasted effort. For review work now, we just print off one page with images for each of the eight new verses.
Next on our to-do list: the second half of the game board, with squares for the rest of the psalm’s 176 verses. (And some actual, interesting rules.) After that, maybe I’ll go back and write melodies for the psalm’s first 47 verses.
And then sometime during the next year, we’ll decide on what passages we’ll be memorizing when we get to the end of this one.
Here’s Andrea with our new game:
How much of what she’s reciting does Andy actually understand? Every once in awhile I wonder that myself. And then I remind myself of what I know: that she understands a lot more today than she did six months ago, and that she will undoubtedly understand a lot more in six months than she does today. In this way, in fact, Andrea’s experience in memorization and understanding is not substantially different from my own childhood experience–nor, I hope, from my present one.
And here are the songs. Amazing what you can do with three chords. Or, well, not so amazing, I guess. But they work for us.
Aleph, vs. 1-8