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.
I dwell on the single reading because, let me repeat,
it is impossible to fix attention
on that which we have heard before
and know we shall hear again.
–Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education
Some questions recently came up on the AmblesideOnline forum — and honestly I’ve seen this exact topic come up time and time again — concerning narration. Why do we narrate after every reading? Can’t we just narrate some of our books, some of the time? Why is narration so important? And why does it matter that we utilize only one single reading? Can’t my child read the assignment three times and then narrate, if that is what he wishes to do, and wouldn’t that be equal to the practice of the single reading? If a child falls in love with a book, why wouldn’t I let him read it over and over?
I have often publicly referenced this quote from Charlotte Mason’s sixth volume:
[A] second reading would be fatal because no one can give full attention to that which he has heard before and expects to hear again. Attention will go halt all its days if we accustom it to the crutch.
Every. single. time. I’ve quoted this I have received one or two responses that are something along the lines of, “See? This is where I simply must disagree with Miss Mason because I love reading my favorite books over and over, and why wouldn’t my children want to do the same?”
Well, our children can do the same. But they can also be restricted during lessons to single readings and reap great benefits from this discipline.
There is a lot wrapped up in all of this, so sit back, grab a cup of coffee (or tea, if that’s your poison) and let’s sort this out once and for all.
I haven’t decided if I’m ready to call narration the cornerstone of our education, but it is a primary tool. Knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced. If we cannot reproduce it, then we do not yet know it. At least, we do not know it intimately.
A lot of coming to know actually depends upon attention and interest — though not only that, of course. Developing narration as a skill is actually giving our children the most direct route to assimilation of knowledge. After a while, they have the habit of narrating — the embodiment of both the habit of paying attention and the habit of working instantly to assimilate the knowledge gained, and all of this translates into becoming the type of person who perceives quickly and easily.
We think of that type of person as being a genius. And some of us are. But genius alone isn’t very helpful. That is why Miss Mason said:
Not a doubt of it; and you may rely on it that what is called ability — a different thing from genius, mind you, or even talent — ability is simply the power of fixing the attention steadily on the matter in hand, and success in life turns upon this cultivated power far more than on any natural faculty. Lay a case before a successful barrister, an able man of business, notice how he absorbs all you say; tell your tale as ill as you like, he keeps the thread, straightens the tangle, and by the time you have finished, has the whole matter spread out in order under his mind’s eye. Now comes in talent, or genius, or what you will, to deal with the facts he has taken in. But attention is the attribute of the trained intellect, without which genius makes shots in the dark.
Most philosophies of education require some sort of feedback. You have the boring route, like the comprehension questions. You have the truncated test, which is multiple choice. You have the creativity test, which is the illustration — but if this isn’t accompanied by the child’s explanation (i.e., some sort of narration), we are hard pressed to know if the child completely understood.
Narration, on the other hand is simple, efficient, and thorough. The child takes in the reading — either by being read to, or by reading on his own — and then he tells back. He re-presents the material.
Why a Single Reading?
A child can narrate after one reading. Or he can narrate after three readings. Or five. Why not ten? I say: Why not one? This is the way it was done in Miss Mason’s own classrooms. The question, though, is why one?
For starters, narration after multiple readings is not developing the aforementioned habits of attention and immediate assimilation. Attention is so integral to a child’s learning. We cannot learn that to which we do not attend. Period. There are no exceptions. No one has ever learned anything to which he did not first pay attention. If we know we have a second, third, or tenth chance at a subject, we are apt to become lazy.
Miss Mason wrote:
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.
When it comes to the habit of attention and the habit of immediate assimilation, allowing a little child to reread an assignment is completely ineffective. We may get the same external result in terms of a decent narration, but the internal habits we hope to see accompanying this have been weakened. However, comma, I have seen great results in telling a small child, “So you don’t remember? Oh, that is so sad. Now you may never know. Oh well. I hope you pay attention next time. I for one thought it was very interesting.”
This is probably much more difficult to pull off with older children who have bad habits, and a whole host of other problems besides, I admit. But with a seven-year-old who was daydreaming, it has felt almost like a magic bullet to me at times.
Now, to be fair, Miss Mason required a single reading for the purpose of lessons. This does not mean that she was against reading your favorite books over and over again; she herself was known to have read the Waverley novels throughout her life. Her assertions concerning the single reading are applicable only to the classroom, to the home schoolroom, to the period of time devoted to lessons.
You see, Miss Mason’s secondary reason for the single reading is efficiency. Of her students she wrote:
In this way children cover an incredible amount of ground in the time at their disposal.
She also said:
The quantity set for each lesson allows of only a single reading…
Her students were able to cover a great deal of ground because they never went back over anything. Oh, sure, the teachers would sometimes remind students of what they had last read in a book, in order to connect one reading with another, but it was nothing like what we think of in terms of studying and review, and the purpose was to aid the connections of the readings — to foster fluidity — not to jar the memory.
Just think of how much more can be studied in a year — in terms of both breadth as well as depth–if you only go over each reading once.
The great homeschooling goal of being “done by lunch,” that children may have time to pursue their own interests at their leisure, is also enabled by this sort of efficiency.
Who can doubt the efficiency in creating an educational approach that requires no review and no studying. No homework. Nothing. The mind is trained to do all of this work, the very first time. What a blessing to help our children develop these habits — habits many of us wish we had — when they are young and it comes more naturally.
The Rules at Our House
I have put boundaries in place in order to protect these habits, and yet still allow re-reading of books that my children have come to love. In no particular order, they are:
- No re-reading is allowed until after the end of the year, when the final exam has been taken. When I give exams, I am testing, among other things, the effectiveness of my practice of this philosophy. I am testing to see whether one narration following a single reading is really working. How can I know if, following his narration, my student then proceeds to read the assignment five more times?
- No reading ahead. Students must begin and end their readings in accordance with the day’s assignments. This prevents future readings from actually being second readings.
- A child may read down-years but never up-years. This means a child may read the books of any child younger than himself, but not “up years” — books belonging to any child older than himself — because those are his future books. I find this makes them anticipate future years, because the books are so appealing.
That last one has been a source of joy for my oldest. I own so many books now, that I cannot keep all of the years out on shelves the way I did when he was younger. These days, I only have out the books for the particular years we are doing at the time. During the summer when I am switching years, when old books are packed away and “new” ones are brought out, my oldest isn’t just excited about his new books, but about the old books that are new to his younger siblings.
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