Perhaps one of the most well known—yet most misunderstood—concepts of a Charlotte Mason education is that of narration. It’s what some refer to as “retelling,” or simply “telling again.” In narration, the child retells what they have just heard or read from a text, whether it be historical fiction, nature stories, or history. Narration is a deceptively simple concept, but with a little know-how and practice, it can yield great rewards.
The homeschool educator, Charlotte Mason, said this of narration: “This, of telling again, sounds very simple but it is really a magical creative process by means of which the narrator sees what he has conceived, so definite and so impressive is the act of narrating that which has been read only once.”
Ms. Mason herself recognized the seemingly simple nature of narration, but also recognized its ability to form a magical process, whereby a child communicates what they envision in their mind.
In essence, narration is a process of comprehension. Where traditional homeschool curriculum and classrooms would ask a child comprehension questions after reading a passage (i.e. How many apples were on the tree? Which color door did the prince choose?), the art of narration asks the child to assimilate what was read through their own mental process and, in doing so, allows the child to communicate what is most important to them—the ideas that will last and make a lasting impression on them. This is an important distinction because often comprehension questions ask for an immediate response that is more easily forgotten because it is rooted in mere facts. Narration assists each child in synthesizing the information, thus helping them hold onto ideas as well broad concepts about a particular reading.
In short, narration helps the child remember what matters.
So how does a child narrate—and how should a parent help facilitate narration? Ms. Mason gave practical and helpful instructions on the art of narration throughout her six volumes on education.
1. As a parent reading aloud to your child, you should read a portion of the text before pausing to ask for a narration.
“The teacher reads and the children ‘tell’ paragraph by paragraph, passage by passage” (Vol. 6, p. 172). This is especially helpful with younger children who are still building their attention span. As children become older, you may read longer passages before pausing to ask for a narration.
2. The parent is encouraged to read the passage only once to help build the habit of attention.
This can be tricky, especially when just beginning narration, but one way to build this habit is to remind your child before you begin reading that you will only be reading once, encouraging them to listen closely and give their full attention. Ms. Mason also suggested short, varied lessons so a child is never taxed beyond their age-appropriate attention span. Once you’ve established the practice of reading short passages and gaining your child’s attention, you can begin to encourage your child to not interrupt readings with questions.
3. The child will also begin to learn that narrations are not meant to be a pure repeating of what was read.
“Narrations which are mere feats of memory are quite valueless.” (Vol. 1, p. 289). This practice takes time and learning, but the reward is immense. Over time, a child will learn that they don’t need to simply repeat what was read but rather share what they have learned and understood through the reading. For example, my three children have often noticed a nuanced detail or idea that has totally escaped me in the reading. Their minds were able to perceive something different and illuminate the text in a new way.
When we ask our children to avoid repeating what was read, what we are really doing is asking them to retell the story in their own words and with their own unique perspective. “A narration should be original as it comes from the child — that is, his own mind should have acted upon the matter it has received” (Vol. 1, p. 289).
Overcoming narration roadblocks
This all may sound simple and easy enough, but there can tend to be a few hiccups along the way. For example, some children, especially those who are new to narration, may feel that they don’t have much to share or retell. Sometimes they hit a mental roadblock of sorts. While Ms. Mason discouraged the parent from asking prompting questions, many mothers have found that a few gently nudging questions, particularly in the beginning of learning narration, can be helpful and needed. I’ve been known to ask my young students questions such as, “What was your favorite part and why?” or “Does this story remind you of another story? And if so, which one and why?” Sometimes, just asking these questions can help get the narration wheels turning and, very quickly, the child will be off and running on their own.
Another roadblock that parents might encounter in narration is that of the under-narrator versus the over-narrator. Some children have very little to say (refer again to the prompting questions above), while other children may have too much to say. The verbose narrator is very real. (I have one myself!) There’s something beautiful to be said for teaching a child how to be succinct and to the point. While it’s tempting to interrupt them if the narration runs too long, one better way is to also prep them before the reading. Asking them to pull out two or three ideas in their narration can be a simple way of reigning in a narration run long.
Lastly, narration can certainly move beyond the verbal retelling and be a bit more creative. In our home, we’ve been known to narrate more complicated texts such as Shakepeare, myths, or heavier history topics through artwork, acting out a scene, building a Lego model, or even drawing comic book strips, complete with dialogue bubbles. Nothing says narration needs only be verbal.