Headmaster Calls for More Rhymes in School

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October 6, 2015

History instruction needs more rhymes, a former school headmaster says.

Tony Little, headmaster at Eton College for 13 years, made the case at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, saying that modern school study programs, particularly history, focused too much on modern and global history and not enough on the early years.

One example of a mnemonic, or rhyming phrase, that Little remembered from his own school days was this one for remembering the names of early English monarchs: “Willy, Willy, Harry, Stee, Harry, Dick, John, Harry three.” That phrase would help students remember that, after the Norman Conquest, the first eight Kings of England were William I, William II, Henry I, Stephen, Henry II, Richard, John, Henry III.

Another rhyme familiar to schoolchildren in the United Kingdom might be this one: “1760 yards in a mile, declared George III with a smile.” That one gives not only the number of yards in a mile but also the year in which George III ascended the throne.

A mnemonic more familiar to American schoolchildren might be this one: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Many studies have shown that people remember isolated facts and figures more easily if they are presented in rhymes or in devices incorporating the first letter of a series of words.

Also in the American history vein is “Washington’s Army Jogged Many Miles,” to help students remember the names of the first five Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe. (That one can be extended to include “And Jogged Very Hard To Philadelphia,” for John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and James K. Polk. Further still would be “To Find Pretty British Ladies,” for Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln.)

Geography students in the United States might well be familiar with HOMES, which gives the names of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. Of course, that’s not in order from west to east. That mnemonic would be “She Makes Him Eat Oreas,” for Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.

Of course, mnemonics are not restricted to history. Many science students will be able to translate “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nuts” into the order of the planets from the Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

Sometimes, mnemonics cross traditional subject boundaries. The mnemonic used by American students to remember the order and names of the colors in the rainbow is ROYGBIV. Schoolchildren in the United Kingdom learn the identifier for Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet as this: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. (That would be Richard III, who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field, in 1485, ending England’s Wars of the Roses.)

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