Narration + Discussion

“Children Narrate by Nature.––Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. ‘Let him narrate’; and the child narrates, fluently, copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity or tautology, so soon as he can speak with ease. This amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, 231)

Narration is simply telling back what you know. In Charlotte Mason’s education method narration was the replacement for multiple-choice tests and worksheets. The act of simply telling back what you know may seem ineffective, but science is proving that this small and simple act is more effective than traditional methods of testing.

In a recent experiment (2018), people learned about sound waves and the Doppler effect. At the end of studying, the participants were told they would teach a lesson on what they learned, and they were  randomly assigned to two groups: deliver the lesson with notes, the other without. A week later, they came back and had to take a surprise test on their recall. The ones who had taught the lesson without notes did better.

Having to describe the Doppler effect in their own words–i.e. to narrate– made a longer-lasting impression on their minds than taking notes. The best way to learn something is to  narrate it to someone else.

Long before this study, Charlotte Mason summed up this truth by stating:

 “As we have already urged, there is but one right way, that is, children must do the work for themselves. They must read the given pages and tell what they have read, they must perform, that is, what we may call the act of knowing. We are all aware, alas, what a monstrous quantity of printed matter has gone into the dustbin of our memories, because we have failed to perform that quite natural and spontaneous ‘act of knowing,’ as easy to a child as breathing and, if we would believe it, comparatively easy to ourselves. The reward is two-fold: no intellectual habit is so valuable as that of attention; it is a mere habit but it is also the hall-mark of an educated person. Use is second nature…” (A Philosophy of Education, pg 99)

I first experienced the power of narration while at Brigham Young University. I was exposed to many styles of teaching, but only one style was effective in retaining the knowledge I learned in that class. In my final, higher-level class the professor employed a unique teaching strategy: looking back I recognize this technique as narration. 

These were the requirements for the class: read 2-3 research studies per week, come to class to discuss your thoughts, write one research paper, and take a midterm and final. There was no study guide for the exams because they were essays. They consisted of questions like “How does forgiveness benefit family life?” and “How does sacrifice affect relationships?” The exams were difficult, but not in the same way that multiple choice tests were difficult. It required me to synthesize all the information I learned and convey it in a meaningful way. I was forced to think for myself instead of trying to guess which minute details the professor had handpicked from the text. To this day I still retain the knowledge I learned in that class–not because I memorized it, but because I made it mine.

“Our business is to provide children with material in their lessons, and leave the handling of such material to themselves.” (1/247)

Eleanor Roosevelt is known for her intellect, speaking skills, and ability to think critically. Before she was the wife of a president and beloved public figure, she was sent to a private finishing school near London, England. The history teacher at the school would not accept essays full of dull facts and parroted information; she expected her students to synthesize information, to write down their thoughts on the topic and support them with sources.  Eleanor attributed her abilities to think original thoughts and speak eloquently to the methods of this teacher.  In her autobiography , Eleanor said that that teacher did more for her education than any other teacher in her life. She taught Eleanor how to make knowledge her own. She taught her how to think for herself.

During the 1960’s, life was difficult for Black Americans; and Sonya Carson was no exception. As a single mom with a third grade education she fought hard to stay afloat. She worked two to three jobs while parenting her two boys, Ben and Curtis. After Ben brought home an unsatisfactory report card, she decided to make a change. She saw their potential, and knew they were capable of much more than what they were accomplishing. So she instituted a simple rule: the boys were limited to two TV shows per week, and they were required to read two books and write a report about each one. After only a few months, Ben’s grades improved and  his life ambitions changed. After graduating high school at the top of his class,  he attended Yale and became a world-renowned brain surgeon and is now serving as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Narration is simply telling what you know, but the act of narration is difficult and produces powerful results. After Eleanor and Ben read books, they were required to tell what they learned from the book, or were asked open-ended questions that required them to think original thoughts. This is narration. There was no multiple choice test or fill-in-the-blank worksheet, and they were not required to write about any certain theme from the book. They simply wrote about what they learned or found interesting.

“Psychologically, narration crystallises a number of impressions. It also tends to complete a chain of experiences.” (Wix, PR 28, p. 697-693)

“The value of narration does not lie wholly in the swift acquisition of knowledge and its sure retention. Properly dealt with, it produces a mental transfiguration. It provides much more exercise for the mind than is possible under other circumstances and there is a corresponding degree of alertness and acquisitiveness. As a Yorkshireman would put it, the children become very “quick in t’ up-tak” (quick in the up-take).”

Each person is unique and what they gain from a book depends on their experience, maturity, and past knowledge. What your child gained from a book may be much more personalized, and therefore influential, for them than what you gained from the book. The process of summarizing and synthesizing information is difficult because it requires the brain to transfer information from one side to the other. It is a whole brain activity. In his article, “The Method of Narration” Mr. Boardman beautifully and concisely describes the purpose of narration:

“This, then, is the purpose of narration—a purpose which we would do well to keep constantly before us. There should be no misconception. It is not a teacher’s device designed to find out if the child has completed a given task. It is not an act of verbal memory. It is a process which makes all the difference between a child knowing a thing and not knowing it. Narration is, indeed, like faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. It is the method whereby the child assimilates what he reads.”

How to Use Oral Narration

Starting at age six children should start oral narration. DO NOT require narration before this age. Instead, prepare your children by being an example of proper narration; after reading scriptures briefly narrate the story you read, or tell about your nature walk. If your child has older siblings they will already be well acquainted with narration and will most probably join in uninvited.

Although you may not realize it, your child already knows how to narrate; they may tell you (in detail) about a funny incident with a friend or a story they read with a grandparent. As explained in the “Parental Talk” section, it is imperative that you listen when they speak. This can be difficult as it seems they may never stop, but they will learn how to prune and edit their ideas as they get older. This is all a part of the process, have faith in it!

Begin formal narration by reading something simple, but not too short. Fairy tales, Aesop’s Fables, or scripture stories provide good material for children to narrate. Before you begin reading, ask the child(ren) to recount what happened in the last reading. Next, write on the blackboard and pronounce names or words that may be difficult to pronounce during the reading. This is also a good time to give a sneak-peak of what you will be reading next to awaken your child’s enthusiasm if needed.

“Narration lessons need very thorough preparation so that she does not notice till too late that there are names and unfamiliar long words which will bother the class. Such interruptions do no less than ruin the very best lesson, the thread of interest and intense concentration has been broken and the class will have great difficulty in picking it up again…So, all names should be on the board directly the introductory question on the previous lesson has been dealt with, and the children should say them over until their tongues find them easy and familiar.” (Wix, PR 68)

When you are finished with the reading (usually a chapter or 2-3 pages) ask your child to tell you what they remember from the story or what they learned. Their first narrations may be short, incoherent, and/or incorrect at first. But don’t worry! Just like the body’s muscles, the mind will get stronger with practice. Resist the urge to correct and criticize their narration. If there are older siblings that listened as well, ask them what they remember from the reading; many times the correction will be addressed naturally and the child’s dignity will remain intact. If you are reading with multiple children there are some fun ways to narrate as a group: see “Notes on Narration” in the resources section below. These suggestions work well for book clubs, family scripture study, and when children are combined for form lessons (like history).

“So, probably young children should be allowed to narrate paragraph by paragraph, while children of 7 or 8 will ‘tell’ chapter by chapter. Corrections must not be made during the act of narration, nor must any interruption be allowed.” (6/191)

“If the lesson has been misunderstood, narration will show where, and when that is finished it is the teacher’s part to start a discussion in order to clear up misconceptions, etc.” (PR 36, pp. 780-782)

It is important to read the passage or chapter only once–do not read it a second or third time because your child was inattentive. Charlotte Mason is clear on this issue: the bad habit of inattentiveness should not be cultivated. If your child has not listened closely enough, close the book and tell them that you are sorry they missed the story and  hope they will listen more closely to the next chapter. This has happened to me and it is hard not to give in to their pleas to re-read it. But be firm and loving. I promise after only one or two of these incidents your child will learn to listen. 

“By the way, it is very important that children should be allowed to narrate in their own way, and should not be pulled up or helped with words and expressions from the text.” (1/289)

Children should narrate orally all throughout school years, although in year 4-5 they will start writing some of their narrations down on paper. Eventually written narration will take precedence, but do not give up oral narration! It is still the foundation of excellent language skills.

Open-Ended Questions

When teachers do ask questions, the quality and quantity matter. Closed questions require only one answer, and this immediately puts pressure on the student to remember the right one, or attempt to read the teacher’s mind to figure out what he or she wants from the student. In a Harvard Business Review article called “The Surprising Power of Questions,” we learn of a better way to ask questions:

“No one likes to feel interrogated—and some types of questions can force answerers into a yes-or-no corner. Open-ended questions can counteract that effect and thus can be particularly useful in uncovering information or learning something new. Indeed, they are wellsprings of innovation—which is often the result of finding the hidden, unexpected answer that no one has thought of before.” 

Here is the advice Mason gives in regards to instruction and questions:

“They [children] weary of talk, and questions bore them, so that they should be allowed to use their books for themselves; they will ask for such help as they wish for. (Toward a Philosophy of Education, p. 19)

“… given the right book, it must not be diluted with talk or broken up with questions, but given to the boy in fit portions as wholesome meat for his mind, in the full trust that a child’s mind is able to deal with its proper food.” (Home Education, p. 232)

In general, children should be asking most of the questions and teachers should ask questions in moderation. We do not need to interrupt the reading to ask if the child knows what a word means; we trust that they will ask if they want to know. 

Socratic Discussion

A good discussion often begins with a good question—one that invites people to think deeply about the subject. When we ask open-ended questions and start discussions, we are nurturing an important type of learning called  “convergent thinking.” It requires the mind to take seemingly unrelated ideas and synthesize them, discover patterns, or converge ideas together to make new ones.

The type of questions you ask depends on your purpose. These are three types of questions I have found extremely useful in my own home. 

Synthetic

Synthetic questions do not probe for specific details; they invite the child to relate the current material to other knowledge. To synthesize, or synthesis, means to combine into a coherent whole. Synthetic questions do not require a child to “break apart” her knowledge to find one random piece. Rather, they encourage her to “draw together” what she knows, looking for connections. Examples of synthetic questions include:

How is X like/different from Y?
What does this remind you of?

Introspective

Ask children questions that encourage them to evaluate their behavior and commitment to their beliefs. These questions naturally encourage “metacognition” which simply means to think about one’s thought processes. 

“If there must be riddles, let it be his to ask and the teachers to direct him to the answer. Questions that lead to a side issue or to a personal view are allowable because these interest children – ‘what would you have done in his place?’” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pg 228)

Should he/she have done that?
What would you have done in his/her place?

Narrative

This is the most open-ended of all the categories. It is literally asking the child to summarize what they have learned from a reading. The difficult process of convergent thinking is the important part of asking these types of questions; much more important than the actual answer you receive. 

“To determine whether class members understand a principle, try asking a question like “What have you learned about the Atonement of Jesus Christ?” A question that invites learners to state a gospel principle in their own words—especially if asked at the beginning of class—can help you assess how much time you need to spend studying that principle in class.” (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)

What have you learned about _______?
Who was __________ in this story?
(character traits such as compassion, brave, greedy, persistent, etc) 
What is something you want to remember?

 I reserve these questions for Family Gather subjects like scripture study and read-alouds, as they are best suited for discussion. I created a bookmark with these questions so they are available to me as we read. 

Don’t Be Afraid of Silence 

“Good questions take time to answer. They require pondering, searching, and inspiration. The time you spend waiting for answers to a question can be a sacred time of pondering. Avoid the temptation to end this time too soon by answering your own question or moving on to something else. Tell learners that you will give them time to ponder before they answer.” (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)

The same goes for the question formulation technique I will summarize below. It takes time to develop a habit of creative inquiry. Do not ask questions just to break the silence, do not answer your own questions, and do not give your child examples of questions to ask.

What if Your Child Won’t Narrate?

After reading a lesson book  you ask your child, “Please tell me what you learned from that story.”  Silence. Your child shifts in their seat and looks around for an escape. They shrug and say “I don’t know” or the popular “I don’t remember anything.”

We’ve all been there, either as the narrator or the listener. There are a lot of reasons why narration may be difficult for your child. The important thing is to try not to get angry (or at least try not to show it) and don’t repeat the reading or tell them what happened. Before giving up on narration, identify the issue that is making it difficult to narrate. Here are some common issues with narration along with some suggested solutions:

  1. Your child may need more time to develop.
    If your child is just barely six years old and is having a hard time narrating it may be they are not developmentally ready for formal narration. Go back to the basics of reading aloud and letting them narrate when they choose. Listen intently when they narrate everyday experiences; you’ll be surprised at how well they can narrate when they are talking about something they truly know.
  2. Summarizing a whole story may be overwhelming.
    For some children trying to tell back the whole story or chapter may be overwhelming. In this case, they may need a little more structure. Try asking them an open-ended question instead. E.g. “tell me about a time when a character was honest (or kind, courageous, etc).” Another good one is “What would have happened if (character) hadn’t made the choice they did?” Read Aloud Revival has a whole podcast episode and workbook on how to ask open-ended questions with your kids. I’m also working on my own post about asking questions. 
  3. Your child needs time to comprehend the story.
    Some children need more time to digest the material. The next time you read from the book, ask your child to recount the chapter you last read. You can say “Can you remind me what happened the last time we read?” This is called delayed narration.
  4. Your child has difficulty expressing their ideas verbally.
    Charlotte Mason has made clear the importance that children learn how to express their ideas through oral narration. However, in addition to oral narration (which may be difficult for your child) ask them to narrate by drawing their narration or acting it out. 
  5. The book may not be interesting to your child.
    If the book is not considered “living” or the author’s style is just not interesting enough to keep your child’s attention it is ok to switch to a different book. Some days children are just having an off-day, and may not pay attention (remember not to reread the chapter),  but if it is a regular occurrence consider looking for a different book on the same subject. about what happened.

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