If there is a quintessential practice in Charlotte Mason’s approach to education, it is the act of narration. You can pick and choose which living books you want to read, you can use watercolors or not in your nature journaling, and you can dictate your own routine in a way that best fits your family, but you simply cannot reap the full benefits of Charlotte Mason’s approach without narration.
What is narration?
Narration is the art of knowing. Simply stated, it’s the act of telling back what you have heard in a way that is authentic to you. This isn’t about parroting back the last sentence or idea of a paragraph; it’s about processing the information you’ve received and delivering it back in a meaningful way. Charlotte Mason said, “if you cannot tell, you do not know.”
Narration is a challenging demonstration of true knowing and makes multiple-choice, comprehension questions, and the like, unnecessary.
There are two types of narration: oral and written.
Oral narration can begin around age six or seven when the child begins formal studies but most children narrate as soon as they begin to speak. I’m sure you see this in your own home. Your child will see a lovely butterfly and come tell all about it. She’ll listen to a book you read aloud and later you’ll find her acting out the story with her dolls. Narration is a natural human form of expression; when we’ve enjoyed something, we’re compelled to share it.
In A Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason said, “it is true that we all read and that narration is as natural as breathing, its value depending solely upon what is narrated.”
With oral narration, the child tells back the story in his own words. Some early narrations are only a sentence or two long but they will grow over time with gentle encouragement. Your child could also draw a picture, act out a scene, build something, or do a number of other creative expressions.
Written narration begins when the child is able to write out his thoughts (around age ten or whenever developmentally appropriate). If you have a child who struggles with writing, he can dictate his narration to you or create an illustration. We’ve really enjoyed using StoryBoardThat, a digital storytelling tool, for some of our written narrations. With older children, you are working on composition skills as well as comprehension capabilities so as your child is able, encourage him to write what he can. In the beginning, written narrations are similar to early oral narrations – short and often not very detailed. Be patient. As your child grows in this practice, his narrations will grow and develop, too.
Narration is one of those things that’s easier said than done. Because of its simplicity, some people doubt its efficiency. If this is you, I challenge you to try narration yourself; it’s harder than you think. Narration requires a lot of work from our kids. They have to listen to what we’re reading, process it, and figure out how to put their thoughts into words in a productive way. It takes time for them to get good at this practice but as the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of hearing my kids go from one sentence narrations to vibrant discussions and short essays laced with personality and insights.
HOW TO INCLUDE NARRATION IN YOUR SCHOOL DAY
Narration is used for all of the reading that is done. That will cover most of your morning time and group subjects. If your child is independently reading for history or another subject, that would be included, too. Some curricula – like Apologia – actually include narrations in their lessons. I personally do not ask for narration with literature or poetry because I always want the kids to correlate that type of reading with pleasure and not productivity ;).
Here’s how it looks for oral narration
- A brief recap
I will ask the kids to tell what happened last time. If they need help, I’ll jar their memory with a leading question.
- I read a short passage from one of our books
In the beginning, “short” might mean a few sentences or a paragraph. As they grow in the habit of narrating, you can stretch them to a page, and finally a chapter. By exam week, your child should be able to tell back about a book or particular topic from a broader point of view.
I’ll also add here that it’s absolutely essential to pick a quality living book. If you are continually getting poor narrations, you may need to evaluate the book you’re using.
- I ask the kids to narrate.
I do this by prompting with phrases like…
“Who wants to tell back?”
“Tell something about ___ (Ancient China, Homer, David’s repentance, Mozart’s childhood, etc.)”
“Does that remind you of another story we’ve read?”
And so on.
It’s important to note that you should never interrupt a narration and you should teach siblings to respect each other by not interrupting either. Yes, hold your tongue even if they get a detail wrong. No one likes a nit-pick and you can mention it later if it’s something substantial, but when a child is narrating, it’s important to let him have the floor. As Charlotte Mason said in A Philosophy of Education, “corrections must not be made during the act of narration, nor must any interruption be allowed.”
- Capture or Expand upon the information
If it’s relevant, we will take time to put details into our timeline book or look at a map for deeper understanding. Many times little discussions will “break out” over the story or topic. If there is anything that needs to be further defined or explained, now is the time.
- A teaser for next time
I’ll ask, “ooh, what do you think is going to happen next time?” or at the very least tell the next chapter title/topic, for example: “…and next time we read ‘The Story of the Golden Apples’.”
Doesn’t this sound similar to the way an addicting miniseries works? We just can’t wait to see the next episode (dear reader, if you’re my age you will remember the torturous days before binge-watching when you had to wait a WHOLE WEEK to see what happened next!). We want to create the same appeal with our stories. By refreshing our children’s minds to what happened last time, reading the new section, connecting with it in a personalized way, and “wondering” ahead, we give them a full and layered experience with the story.
Remember, the goal with narration is not to quiz your child to see if he was paying attention; his response will prove whether or not he was, but our goal is more meaningful than that. The real goal is to see how your child is assimilating the information, or in other words, how he is making the knowledge his own.
Narrating has launched many vibrant discussions as a family and led to deeper questions and exploration. We continue oral narration when we read aloud as a group even after the children are doing written narrations.
Here’s how it looks for written narration
- The child reads an assigned section from a book he’s reading independently OR I request a written narration of material we’ve covered in group work.
Side note: If I know I’m going to ask them to write about it, I do not require oral narration after the reading.
- The child writes his narration in a spiral notebook
Begin with encouraging a few sentences and eventually a few short paragraphs.
- I read the narration later on though I don’t check it, per se
I will make a couple of positive comments or notes and sometimes mention one thing they could improve upon next time
Begin by requesting one written narration a week. As your child improves over time, add more. My son is in Year 8 and does two written narrations per week. We will eventually bump up to three or four per week. As your child gets older, the requirements can get more complex. Instead of just “telling back” you can ask him to compare this idea to another idea, explain a concept, research deeper, write a persuasive argument, or even present an idea in poetry form.
The connection between narration and attention
Charlotte Mason insisted on a single reading before narration not just as a time saver but for the sake of your child’s attention span. This was an intentional connection; narrating after a single reading is like a little workout to help strengthen your child’s attention span as well as other mental muscles. Miss Mason felt so strongly about this that she devoted two of her twenty principles to the topic of narration and one explicitly addressed the habit of attention:
“14. As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on somepart of what they have read.
15. A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarising. and the like.
Acting upon these and some other points in the behaviour of mind, we find that the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed, and is but little dependent on such circumstances as heredity and environment.
Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes: thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.”– Charlotte Mason
Note that re-reading a passage can actually hinder your child’s habit of attention. When you have a child who is already struggling in this area, the last thing we want to do is make it even more difficult for him. With this in mind, we’d be wise to do this little bit to help him.
Charlotte Mason also believed the habit of attention to be a distinguishing trait of an educated person, a trait that is available to every student who works at it:
“First, we put the habit of Attention, because the highest intellectual gifts depend for their value upon the measure in which their owner has cultivated the habit of attention.– from Home Education
Of course, we don’t want our children to know just for the sake of knowing; no one wants to raise a puffed-up showoff. All this knowledge gained must be to some end. In A Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason tells her purpose:
“The mind receives knowledge, not in order that it may know, but in order that it may grow, in breadth and depth, in sound judgement and magnanimity; but in order to grow, it must know.”
And the practice of narration is what helps us all to know:
“Oral teaching was to a great extent ruled out; a large number of books on many subjects were set for reading in morning school-hours; so much work was set that there was only time for a single reading; all reading was tested by a narration of the whole or a given passage, whether orally or in writing. Children working on these lines know months after that which they have read and are remarkable for their power of concentration (attention); they have little trouble with spelling or composition and become well-informed, intelligent persons.”– Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education
An Outside-the-Box Angle
I am fully aware that I’m speaking to moms of children who struggle greatly in this area (present company included). But don’t panic. Even the child with severe ADHD can grow in his habit of attention. However, to strengthen anything you’ve got to work at it. Just because something is difficult or we start in the deficit doesn’t mean we won’t or can’t grow in that area, however that may look for each person. Our children with challenges can grow in their attentiveness and it’s a gift for us to help them strengthen that area.