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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Narration and the Single Reading

    February 27, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    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?

    Narration and the Single Reading

    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.

    Why Narration?

    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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  • Reply Rachel August 26, 2022 at 8:44 pm

    ” [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.”

    Can you imagine our taking this approach to Scripture? “You get to read it once, and only once, because I don’t believe you can be attentive if you know you’ll ever hear it again.”

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 27, 2022 at 11:47 am

      Yes, this is a common misunderstanding. Charlotte Mason was an avid re-reader of many books (including her Bible, of course). She is simply training the attention by requiring a narration subsequent to the first reading.

  • Reply Sharon July 18, 2020 at 7:50 pm

    Not sure if you will see this post…but I have a question regarding a voracious reader. We are just beginning to look at CM as a choice of curriculum and she consumes books like candy. At three she read Trumpeter of the Swan, Charlotte’s Web at four she read My Side of the Mountain and Around the World in Eighty Days. How am I going to find books for her to read/narrate that she has not already read. And she rereads them constantly.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 20, 2020 at 10:53 am

      Voracious readers are definitely challenging! What I did with mine (I had one that read at 3 and another at 4) was to put aside the books I wanted to save for school lessons. I definitely don’t interrupt the relationships with books they already have by turning them into school lessons. A good example is The Hobbit. It was assigned for sixth grade of AmblesideOnline, if I remember correctly, but my oldest had already read it five times. I just pulled a different book from the free reading list for seventh grade (The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) and used that instead.

      Sometimes, when a child is particularly engaged (obsessed?) in a certain subject, I don’t assign it. This is controversial in CM circles, but I find that those who object tend to have little to no experience with gifted, high-IQ, or 2e students. So if your child was mine, I don’t know that I’d assign literature in the younger years, other than Aesop for narration training (if she hasn’t read that, too!). I’d just make it available but spend my time on other things for formal study (history, science, etc.). I wrote about this in my post: Narrow-Mindedness, That Demon of the Intellect if you want to read it.

      The bottom line with gifted students is that the *principles* of a Charlotte Mason education still very much apply, but the higher the giftedness, the more individualized the applications of those principles are going to have to be.

  • Reply Moving Toward Independent Reading | Afterthoughts October 17, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    […] reminds us, when children are beginning to read for themselves, we have to guard the concept of a single reading followed by narration. This habit — of reading only once — is how they are trained to read carefully the first time. […]

  • Reply Bethany August 1, 2016 at 9:08 am

    Hello, Brandy! You may have addressed this elsewhere, but I have two boys, aged 6 and 7 (13 mo. apart) and will be using the year 1 Ambleside curriculum for both of them (I also have two younger than they.) We have dabbled in narration in the past, but I realize from your post that I need to be consistent with narration after a single reading. My question is this: how would you suggest I go about conducting narration for two children. Would they just take turns going first? (Should I send one to another room?) Would it be counterproductive for one of them to hear the other narrating (almost as if there were more than a single reading)? Warm regards,

  • Reply Narration is the Key~ - A Beautiful Symphony February 10, 2016 at 3:49 am

    […] it is really a magical creative processby means of which the narrator sees what he has conceived,so definite and so impressive is the act of narratingthat which has been read only once.I dwell on […]

  • Reply walking March 16, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Brandy, yesterday, I witnessed a wonderful illustration of this in our homeschooling enrichment gathering. I have two students reading the Weston version of Plutarch’s Julius Caesar with me. We read a few paragraphs a week. Single reading. After a paragraph, they narrate and we have a conversation. And so on. Sometimes, I give them some background information: we study maps, look at sculptures, figure out how much a talent is worth today, etc.

    Since the younger students are missing out, we decided to share what they had learned to kick off our Ides of March party. One student represented the side of Mark Antony (for Caesar) and the other, the side of Brutus (against Caesar). On Tuesday, I suggested the idea to their parents and both students were game. They showed up to citizenship without any preparation and we discussed how it might flow. “Mark Antony tell me some thing you like about Caesar. Okay, Brutus, what would you say to that?” Without any notes, scripts, or help from me, the two of them stood in front of the children and went several rounds on the pros and cons of Caesar. They are in fifth grade!

    You are spot on in encouraging us all to stick to a single reading. It is worth the effort!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 19, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      Sorry it took me so long to reply to this comment, Tammy, but WOW. That is a great Plutarch story! I really think Plutarch is one of my favorite things…

  • Reply Nadene March 6, 2013 at 7:38 am

    What a great post! Just the other day my child was day-dreaming and couldn’t do her narration. Our mutual disappointment was a great motivator to pay attention at the next reading.
    I really appreciated your house rules! We have some similar agreements, and it really does make all the difference to postpone books for the actual year. My youngest has heard about some older sibling’s books when she was much younger, and she is so excited to gain access to those books when she is old enough.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 6, 2013 at 5:20 pm

      Thanks, Nadene!

      I love the excitement that having the wait produces. 🙂

  • Reply Silvia March 2, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    I agree with you. However, comma! LOL

    Once I read that a reading not narrated is a wasted reading, and I felt very small, wishing I could brand that quote myself, but instead, cornered in a much more humble place in life.

    I had to stop asking for ALL the AO suggested books to narrate, it was becoming oppressive for my oldest daughter if I always wanted her to narrate orally, well, with my expectations in mind and rolling of the eyes if the narration was weak. I had to start smiling much more, and reinvented gratitude, (no sarcasm here), after just two or three words of narration offered to some of the readings.

    I read ONCE and once only, she narrates, and when it started to be too much for this girl of mine, I either slow down the reading amount, or give her the grace of not having to narrate that day from one or two of the four books… My goal in a week is for her to narrate daily, YES. And to have narrated at least once from every of the different books (I mean, from her history, her geography, her literature…)

    And I have never had the problem of her wanting to sneak ahead, but she has loved listening to audios of past year books.

    And funny… at times, after a break, if I started reading a bit before we left, they both promptly told me, “mom, we read that before”.

    One thing I don’t do and I may be wrong but I find it beneficial, it is to read our Bible verses for each week sometimes more than once. I read from the Bible, then from the Vos Bible, sometimes not, and yes, we often go twice or more over the same passages, not always, but the narration comes only after the first Bible reading. I do it as my guts tell me.

    • Reply Brandy@Afterthoughts March 4, 2013 at 12:39 am

      I agree that it takes time to learn to narrate, and that when a child is learning to narrate, they may not necessarily be asked to narrate everything they read. I think the habit of narration is the *goal* but not the starting point. Habits have to be built.

      What year is your daughter in? Four books per day sounds like a lot to me, but I can’t remember which year it is. My Y5 students does 4-5 narrations per day, but my Y2 does 2 most days. Well, maybe that isn’t quite true. I forgot about Circle Time…hmmm…

    • Reply Mystie March 4, 2013 at 9:04 pm

      Knowing the difference between your goal and where you are now is a key distinction, I think. It can be disheartening if there’s a big gap between the two, and it can feel impossible. Or, if you’re taking baby steps toward the goal (which is good), it is still easy to start feeling (wrongly) that since it’s not “right,” it’s wrong or a failure.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 6, 2013 at 5:19 pm

      Mystie, I think you should write a post on that. Those are truly words of wisdom!

  • Reply Hayley March 1, 2013 at 6:23 am

    Two things I loved about your post:

    (1) The reply “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”

    (2) 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.

    And I like the rules at your house. I plan to adopt said rules at mine. 🙂

  • Reply Mystie February 28, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Sigh. Truth be told, the reason I don’t do this is because of my own laziness and lack of discipline that I am certainly passing on.

    • Reply Brandy@Afterthoughts March 4, 2013 at 12:36 am

      I have to say, Mystie, that my oldest’s habit of narration really keeps me going. There are times that I would have been too lazy to do it, or that I would have *forgotten* to ask for one, but I don’t have to worry because he comes to me. I am thankful for him and his OCD. 🙂 Sometimes I think that HE gives ME good habits, at least in some areas!

  • Reply sara February 28, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Brandy, “For starters, narration after a single reading is not developing the aforementioned habits of attention and immediate assimilation.” I hope you don’t mind me pointing this out – I had to read this sentence multiple times to get your meaning because it sounds like you are saying the opposite of what you are saying. 🙂 Perhaps, “narration after MORE than a single reading” would be a little clearer?

    I love this article. I sent it to a friend who found it very helpful too. Thanks for taking it on.

    • Reply Brandy@Afterthoughts February 28, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      Sara, thank you for catching that! I changed it to “narration after multiple readings”–and by the way please don’t ever hesitate to edit me. 🙂 Years ago, my husband spent a lot of time emailing me all of my mistakes during his breaks at work. 🙂 He hasn’t had time for that lately, and I think it shows…

  • Reply Celeste February 28, 2013 at 12:15 am

    Such a helpful post! I love the point about the mind-work that narration after a single reading requires–they may do just as well (or better) on an exam after multiple readings, but that all-important habit of attention has been diminished. So true. Thanks for the thorough explanation.

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