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Narration

The Basics

NARRATION

“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.” (1/231)

What is Narration and Why is it Important?

The next stage of language acquisition is expressing ideas, feelings, and thoughts through speaking. This is where narration comes in. 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)

A Timeless Method

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 “Describe how forgiveness benefits family life” and “What did you learn about sacrifice and how it affects 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 guessing which minute details the professor had handpicked from the textbook. 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.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pg 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 educated at 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 this history 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 (narrate) 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.

“We Tell and Then We Know”

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-blanks, 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).”

Personalized Education

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. As I explained in “The Teacher’s Role,” narration allows the child to grapple with knowledge directly and to be taught by the Holy Ghost. 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!

Start with Stories

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 waken your child’s enthusiasm, if needed.

“…all [unfamiliar] 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, Parent Review, pg. 68)

“Tell Me What You Learned”

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.

What if Your Child Won’t Narrate?

After reading a chapter from the 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 make 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,  but if it is a regular occurrence consider looking for a different book on the same subject. 

ADDITIONAL READING

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LANGUAGE | THE EARLY YEARS

Language Arts

THE EARLY YEARS

Charlotte Mason believed that learning is hierarchical, especially in skill-based subjects like language. When one stage is skipped or not mastered completely, the other stages will be difficult to master. The foundation for language starts long before school, even before birth. Our brain is literally built on language, and the more diverse language you hear as an infant and child, the easier it will be to learn in all areas. Parental talk should come in a variety of forms: singing, poems, reading, and everyday talk. Singing and poems are especially good for  language acquisition; the rhythm, rhyme, and way they draw out syllables and phonemes are especially helpful for language acquisition. 

Parental Talk

In her book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, Dana Suskind delves into the findings of a groundbreaking study on language and brain development in preschool age children. What they found was surprising, even for the researchers.

Although academic achievement and intelligence was more prevalent in higher socioeconomic families, it was not the income that made the difference; it was the amount of words children heard per day. “In one hour, the highest socioeconomic status (SES) children heard an average of two thousand words, while children of welfare families heard about six hundred.Differences in parental responses to children were also striking. Highest SES parents responded to their children about 250 times per hour; lowest SES parents responded to their children fewer than 50 times in the same period. But the most significant and most concerning difference? Verbal approval. 

Children in the highest SES heard about forty expressions of verbal approval per hour. Children in welfare homes, about four.” Instead of saying “no,” “stop,” or “don’t do that,” redirect your child and tell them what they can do. Look for the good and verbally recognize it. If a child is consistently told they can’t do things their brain will be shaped to believe it. 

Suskind concludes that “Parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in our world. No matter the language, the culture, the nuances of vocabulary, or the socioeconomic status, language is the element that helps develop the brain to its optimum potential. In the same way, the lack of language is the enemy of brain development.” 

Exposure is Key

The more words children are familiar with, the better they will understand the complex ideas found in the written and spoken word. Think about trying to understand a lecture in a second language. You may understand the words, but the comprehension takes much longer than in your primary language and by the time you understand the sentence, you are two sentences behind the lecturer. Children who do not grow up in a language-rich environment struggle in school because they cannot keep up with lectures and books full of words they are only slightly familiar with. 

Too often adults speak down to children and choose books that have all the rich and interesting vocabulary diluted down to almost nothing. When it comes to early exposure, a word will never be too complex for children. The reason many children do not understand complex words is because they have not been exposed to them. Many adults do not recognize or understand complex words because of the simple fact that they were not exposed to them enough times to become familiar with them.

The Three T’s

How can you improve your own parental talk? Suskind has narrowed it down to these three steps: tune-in, talk more, and take turns. Tune-in to what your child is interested in; you should be spending the majority of your interactions focusing on and talking about what they are interested in rather than what you deem more important. Once you have tuned in to what your child is interested in, talk about it. Describe what it is, how to use it, or point out things they may have overlooked. 

Take turns asking questions and responding; it is important for children to have lots of opportunities to speak and not just be spoken at. This give-and-take is personalized to the child and develops speech in ways that screens never will. Charlotte Mason gave a wonderful example of tuning-in and talking more in her volume,  Home Education:

“Is little Margaret fixing round eyes on a daisy she has plucked? In a second, the daisy will be thrown away, and a pebble or buttercup will charm the little maid. But the mother seizes the happy moment. She makes Margaret see that the daisy is a bright yellow eye with white eyelashes round it; that all the day long it lies there in the grass and looks up at the great sun, never blinking as Margaret would do, but keeping its eyes wide open. And that is why it is called daisy, ‘day’s eye,’ because its eye is always looking at the sun which makes the day. And what does Margaret think it does at night, when there is no sun? It does what little boys and girls do; it just shuts up its eye with its white lashes tipped with pink, and goes to sleep till the sun comes again in the morning. By this time the daisy has become interesting to Margaret; she looks at it with big eyes after her mother has finished speaking, and then, very likely, cuddles it up to her breast or gives it a soft little kiss. Thus the mother will contrive ways to invest every object in the child’s world with interest and delight.” (Vol 1, pg. 141)

Limit Screens

According to the Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, children under the age of two should not be watching screens at all. In a perfect world children would never be exposed to screens, but this is real life and  children will watch a show occasionally or perhaps play on a device. But these should be the occasional treat, not a substitute for responsive caregiving or an antidote to boredom.

During my internship at United Way I worked with the Help Me Grow program aimed at helping parents nurture their child’s development and provide early detection for developmental disorders. I frequently spoke with mothers who were concerned with their child’s delayed speech. The first question we were trained to ask was “How much screen time does your child  get each day?” The vast majority of parents admitted that their young child spent hours each day watching television or playing games on their iPad. “But they are educational apps!” they would insist.

I then explained that young children cannot learn language from a device. Unfortunately, an “educational app” for young children is an oxymoron. It is a marketing buzzword that companies use on well-meaning parents who desperately want to give their children the best start in life. Why are screens detrimental to language acquisition? Because language involves more than just hearing words spoken. 

Language is Multifaceted

Language is a multisensory skill; you need to hear the words spoken, see the mouth and tongue forming words, and physically practice speaking words in a conversation. You may have noticed your child try to touch your mouth or tongue as you speak. Surprisingly, there is a purpose to this strange and maybe annoying action. In her autobiography, Helen Keller describes her experience of learning how to speak by touching her teacher’s mouth and tongue as she spoke. Although she never mastered speech, she was able to closely mimic those movements and gain a rudimentary ability to speak. 

After tuning-in and talking, you should encourage your child to practice speech by conversing with you. Take turns asking questions and speaking. Even when your baby is young and all they can do is babble, listen and respond. Look them in the eyes and show them that what they have to say is important and valued. You may not know what they are saying,  but the desire to communicate is there. 

Now that you understand how to converse with your child, it is time to delve into reading aloud. 

Reading Aloud

“Guard the nursery; let nothing in that has not the true literary flavour; let the children grow up on a few books read over and over, and let them have none, the reading of which does not cost an appreciable mental effort.” (Vol. 5, p. 215)

Reading aloud high-quality literature should start at birth and continue throughout a child’s  life. The question then is not when you should start, but what should be read. Infants and young children love listening to nursery rhymes, poetry and Dr. Seuss books because of the rhythm and rhyme of the words. Give up books that are “twaddle” as Charlotte Mason would say. Unfortunately, many books being made for children today are, in varying degrees, twaddle.  To gauge whether the book is twaddle I ask myself: do I enjoy reading the book? Does it have intelligent ideas or an interesting plot? Does it have rich language or beautiful illustrations? Is the language dumbed down or targeted for children? (E.g. Captain Underpants)

If your child wants to read the same book over, and over, and over again, read it! If the language is rich they will benefit from the constant exposure to rich vocabulary. Children get more from reading a few good books over and over again, than reading many “twaddly” books only once.

Essential Books for the Early Years:

  • Nursery Rhymes (Tomie de Paolo’s Mother Goose)
  • Read Aloud Rhymes 
  • Fairy Tales illustrated by 
  • Aesop’s Fable (Illustrated by Milo Winter or Jerry Pinkney)
  • Beatrix Potter Books:
    The Tale of Peter Rabbit
    The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies
    The Tale of Tom Kitten
    The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle
    The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher
    Two Bad Mice
    The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
    The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse 
    The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin
  • Winnie the Pooh Series by A.A. Milne (we  LOVE the audiobook version)
  • Robert McCloskey Books
  • Fairy Tales by Scott Gustafson
  • James Herriot’s Treasury for Children
  • The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virgina Lee Burton
  • The Children’s Book of Virtues by William J. Bennett
  • The Children’s Book of Heroes by William J. Bennett
  • Frances books by Russell Hoban
  • George and Martha James Marshall
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LEARNING BY HEART

Language Arts

RECITATION

Recitation is more than memorizing: memorizing is committing information to memory, but not necessarily comprehending it. The difference between memorizing a poem and reciting a poem lies in the technique and emotion used to portray the meaning behind the words. And to be able to portray the author’s thoughts you must comprehend the meaning, not just memorize words.

Literature is full of examples of recitation: in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne could not stand listening to someone read unless they read it with emotion. Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables brought her audience to tears when she recited poetry. Recitation is an important step towards eloquently reading-aloud, public speaking, acting, and even singing.

Furnish the Mind

The Greeks used the term “furnishing the mind” to describe committing something to memory. I love the imagery of our mind being “furnished” with beautiful and useful words: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden” and “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow.” Our children’s minds will be furnished with words–desirable or not– and we are the interior designers. When you recite phrases over and over again they become a part of your vocabulary. Your vocabulary is the material that you use to build your thoughts and ideas, and your thoughts influence who you will become. 

Learn by Heart

While we were reading the New Testament this past year, I took note of each time the Savior quoted scripture. It was fascinating to see how often he quoted past prophets, and I visualized Mary reading the scriptures and helping her son learn by heart the passages that she felt he would need someday. 

“Great power can come from memorizing scriptures. To memorize a scripture is to forge a new friendship. It is like discovering a new individual who can help in time of need, give inspiration and comfort, and be a source of motivation for needed change” (Richard G. Scott,“The Power of Scripture,” Ensign, Nov. 2011, 6).

When we recite something, we must repeat it over and over in our minds before it is committed to memory. We ponder the words and their meaning, and as we grow older and gain experience we learn even more from it. When scriptures are committed to heart they grow with us, continually supplying us with nourishment at each stage of development. Elder Gene R. Cook of the Seventy said,

“I have discovered that many times you don’t fully understand a scripture until you memorize it. And sometimes I have memorized a passage because it seemed important and valuable to me—then afterwards I discovered deeper meanings that I hadn’t even known were there” (Searching the Scriptures: Bringing Power to Your Personal and Family Study [1997], 114).

I truly believe that for us to gain the full power of the scriptures, we need to ponder the author’s purpose, read them aloud over and over, and eventually commit them to memory. We cannot survive on just skimming the scriptures; we need to learn them by heart.

“For our lives to become the music of hope for the world, our learning must be heart deep; it must reach our very core. We must be able not only to access information but to understand; we must acquire not only knowledge but wisdom.” (Susan W. Tanner, Learning by Heart, BYU Speech, August 2004)  

What Should You Recite?

  • Scriptures
  • Poetry–just a favorite line or two is perfectly acceptable
  • The Family: A Proclamation to the World
  • The Living Christ
  • The Restoration Proclamation
  • Famous Speeches
  • Inspirational Quotes from Prophets and Great Leaders
 

How Should Recitation Be Taught?

The child should speak beautiful thoughts so beautifully, with such delicate rendering of each nuance of meaning, that he becomes to the listener the interpreter of the author’s thought.” (Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, p. 223)

Be an Example

Pick favorite poems, passages or speeches you want to recite and learn them yourself, or as a family. Read poems and passages in Family Gather time to expose your children to beautiful language. By doing this your children will have a good selection to choose from when they start formal recitation lessons.

 Before you read poetry aloud, quickly read it to yourself and think about what the author’s purpose was, the overall mood, where to pause, and where to slow down/speed up.  I’ve noticed a huge difference in my sons’ enjoyment of poetry when I recite it and not read it.

“The teacher reads with the intention that the children shall know, and therefore, with distinctness, force, and careful enunciation; it is a mere matter of sympathy, though of course it is the author and not himself, whom the teacher is careful to produce.” (Vol. 6, p. 244)

The Child’s Choice

Aside from your Family Gather time, your school-age children should be spending a few minutes each reciting a short poem of their choice. They should also choose how to recite it. They do not have to memorize (although memorization is usually the result). Do not to correct or tell your child how you think he should do it.

When your child has learned it to their satisfaction, have them recite it to the audience of their choice. You can also record it so they can listen to it later.

Your child may choose short, silly poems, but have faith that as you read beautiful poetry aloud everyday they will be exposed to poems that speak to the soul, and as they mature they will gradually choose more meaningful poems to learn by heart. 

If you did not grow up reading or reciting poetry,, do not fear. It is very simple and much more enjoyable than you think. There are many helpful resources (see end of post)

In the beginning, I found it helpful to listen/watch YouTube videos of professionals reciting famous poems. We still listen to them occasionally because professionals do such a better job.

When Children Don’t Want to Recite

I did experienced some resistance from my young boys when we started reciting scriptures, but I had an idea that has made all the difference: recite with an accent! Some of our favorites are: robot, baby, cowboy, and British. I don’t always pull out the accent, but on those days when no one wants to recite it never fails to bring joy and excitement to young children.

One effective way to recite and review scriptures is from simplycharlottemason.com. I have included written instructions on how to use it, and you can also see an example in my Instagram Highlights. Another option a reader brought to my attention is Scripture Box, an online scripture and poetry rotation system.

Remember, the purpose of recitation is not to memorize. The purpose is to read a phrase over and over again, while pondering the meaning as you imprint it on your heart and mind.  

You can download scripture cards available in the “Downloads” section of this site.

ADDITIONAL READING

Your Morning Basket episode 2
with Andrew Pudewa

Learning by Heart
BYU Speech given by Susan W. Tanner

My Heart Pondereth Them Continually
Devin G. Durrant

Recitation: The Children’s Art
Arthur Burrell

Poetry
The Well-Educated Heart