“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.
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.
“Our business is to provide children with material in their lessons, and leave the handling of such material to themselves.” (Home Education, pg 247)
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.
“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. 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.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 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.” (Home Education, p. 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.