Mastering the Words

 In Prayer and Scripture, Resources

We’ve all heard them—the bloopers or malaprops young children come up with as they articulate memorized prayer. The child who prays, “May the souls of the faithful departed rest in pieces” or the one who fervently asks that we “be delivered from email” can provide some fun moments during prayer, and more enjoyment later as we share these misunderstandings with others. 

But these funny moments also can serve as an important reminder that children who are praying from a memorized text may not actually have mastered the words of the prayer. And, while older children who can read are not as likely to make the same types of word substitutions, they are also unlikely to completely understand the words they are praying from memory. 

Memorizing prayers is an important part of the faith development of young people and can provide a foundation that will last a lifetime. As teachers and catechists, we not only have the task of helping children memorize prayers that are central to our faith, but we also have the opportunity to help them find meaning in the words of these prayers.  

As we introduce and lead prayers that are central to the practice of our faith, it can be helpful to both the children and ourselves to step back and look at the words of each prayer closely. 

Make It Your Focus 

Pick a prayer for your group to focus on during your time together, and make that prayer central every time you meet with the children. Begin your gathering with it. Have the words visible around the room, or provide prayer cards for the children to use. Reference the words of the prayer periodically in your sessions. If your group gathers for a lengthier period of time over a calendar year, two or three prayers might work, but focus on one prayer at a time. 

Look at the Words 

Spend time looking at the words and working through the text of the prayer, especially with early and pre-readers. For younger children, focus on literal meaning and word recognition. For older children, focus on word familiarity and emphasize meaning in a way that connects to their lived experience. Older children may be familiar with a phrase found within a prayer, and have a general sense of meaning, but may not be sure how it might apply to their life.  

Work with the Words 

For younger children, emphasizing tactile activities around the words themselves can be a powerful tool to learn and contextualize memorized prayers. Introduce activities that have the words of the prayer readily available to them, such as coloring activities, or activities that invite the children to unscramble or rearrange the words of the prayer. Even a simple art activity that asks the children to copy the prayer to their own paper and decorate the paper provides active engagement with the text and solidifies their familiarity with the text. 

Rewrite the Words 

For older children, working with the words of a prayer can be a powerful learning activity. Invite older children to identify words in the prayer that are outdated or unfamiliar, and invite them to substitute modern words, or rewrite the prayer entirely. Encourage children to begin with the words of a prayer and expand upon it. “Our Father,” for example, could become “Our Father who loves and cares for us.” Intermingling traditional words with their own words can reinforce not only the words of the prayer, but the meaning as well. 

Translate the Words 

Children of any age can also engage the original text by learning how to say the prayer in another language. By learning pronunciation line by line, familiarity with the words in both the original language and the new language is integrated. Teaching children to visually engage the words of the prayer by learning American Sign Language for the prayer can be one of those lessons that children carry well into their adult years. A quick online search will yield prayers in different languages and a number of sign language demonstration videos. 

For the practice of faith, memorized prayers are foundational. Learning and understanding the words are essential to truly bringing integration into a life of prayer. But before we think about what the prayer means, we must first master the words.  

Find resources and free prayer activities from the Saint Mary’s Press library:

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