Karen Glass is one of my favorite Charlotte Mason people of all time because she is one of the first Charlotte Mason people I ever encountered. (Well, that isn’t the only reason.) A big thanks to her for taking the time to write this for the 31 Days of Charlotte Mason Series!
Karen Glass serves on the Advisory Board for AmblesideOnline, and is a homeschooling mother of four. Two children have graduated and gone on to college, and two more remain at home following Charlotte Mason’s methods. Karen has lived in Krakow, Poland since 1997, and blog ecclectically and sporadically at U Krakovianki. She will also be contributing to Archipelago, the official blog of the AO Advisory. She reads, she thinks, and, sometimes, she writes.
When Charlotte Mason’s name comes up during a discussion about education, it’s almost certain that “narration” will be mentioned as well. It really isn’t possible to implement her methods without including narration. We describe narration — correctly — as having a child tell back what he has heard or read. It sounds so simple, it seems as if it might be “not enough” work to do after a reading, or even something that could be dispensed with altogether. Do not be misled.
Throughout the CM Series, narration is usually presented as an alternative to asking questions about a lesson just read. Because of that, it might be easy to imagine that narration, because it takes the place of questioning, also serves the same purpose, but this is not so. What is the purpose of asking questions? In Charlotte Mason’s time, the idea was that by careful questioning, teachers were teaching children how to think. By the time I was in school, it was a common “study hint” to suggest that one read the questions at the end of the chapter before reading the chapter, so one knew in advance what to look for. If you were clever, you could just skim the text, and pick out the pre-digested answers to the ready-made questions, and no thinking needed to occur at all.
But even that questioning with the higher ideal of “teaching children to think” is deceptive, because it presupposes that children cannot or do not think. Charlotte Mason believed otherwise, and narration has another purpose altogether. Rather than teaching a child to think, it requires him to do so.
A child who has heard a historical lesson, or a fairy tale, or a description of a far-away place is asked to narrate — to tell back what he has heard. Knowing that he would be asked for that narration secures attention, and now what must he do? He must cast his mind back over what he has heard, and choose a starting place. He cannot repeat everything, perhaps, so he must use his judgment and choose those things that are the most important, and tell those. He must recall the order of events, and order his thoughts so that his retelling is understandable. All these mental processes must take place, and the parent who doubts should follow Charlotte’s suggestion to read and narrate a chapter for himself. It is a mental labor, and a child is able to do it.
So a homeschooling parent, convinced that narration is important, and determined to implement it, asks “Please tell me back what you have heard.” And so often it seems the theory falls down before the reality of a six-year-old child. Of course there are those natural, very verbal children who narrate at length so that their narration is longer than the original text, and no detail is too minor to be included. But there are children who repeat back verbatim the last sentence you read, still fresh in their minds. There are children who describe quite accurately what occurred, but refer to “he” and “they” and “somewhere,” instead of Paul Revere and the British soldiers and Lexington. There are children who summarize tersely, “It was about Columbus.”
Does it mean the narration method that does not work? No. But it takes time to build those mental muscles, and we should take care not to be visibly disappointed or impatient with those early efforts. If there are no older children, we can model narration a few times as parents, to help a child understand what might be done. If the passage was genuinely too long, we might read shorter passages for a time. We might ask a child to act or draw something, or use dolls or legos or other props as a bridge to explaining with words alone what was learned. Whatever early crutches are used, the most important thing is perseverance. A child who must narrate day after day after day is a child who is thinking, using his mind, and by using it, strengthening it, just as those physical muscles of arms and legs are strengthened only by use.
Narration might be called “oral composition,” and a child who narrates frequently, first orally, and later also in writing needs no writing or composition curriculum. Something happened early in my homeschooling journey that convinced me narration was a better path to writing than other methods. My son was six years old and in first grade. A friend’s son was a year older and using the second grade curriculum from a popular textbook company. My friend spoke to me on the phone, and voiced her frustration over her son’s writing. His schoolbook assigned him to write “two sentences about the Pilgrims and the Indians.” He produced, “The Pilgrims are nice. The Indians are nice.” His mother/teacher was disappointed in the performance, and did not see that the real short-coming lay with the textbook, and with the assignment that asked him to put pencil to paper and remember how to write letters, spell words, and punctuate and capitalize correctly, while also producing written content. As it happened, I had just that week finished reading an age-appropriate book on the same topic to my first grader — The Thanksgiving Story, by Alice Dalgliesh — and after finishing, had simply asked, “Tell me what you know about the first Thanksgiving.” I reckoned that his narration would have filled a couple of pages, if it had been a written composition, and not an oral one. But, on the other hand, if I had asked him to write, I doubt he could have produced even two sentences as correct as his friend’s.
I realized then how powerful narration could be — how it could allow a child to express himself and tell what he knew far beyond his ability to write answers to questions, and that incident alone gave me the determination to believe what Charlotte said about narration, and follow through with it to the end. And so we did. I listened to oral narrations for years and years before I asked for written narrations, and I allowed time for my children to grow fluent in their written narrations (because writing is not exactly the same thing as talking), and finally I taught them to shape their written narrations into traditional forms, such as essays, comparison papers, and precis.
Charlotte Mason did not invent the concept of narration. It has a place in the rhetorical training of ancient Greece and Rome, and Erasmus prescribed it in On the Right Method of Instruction:
The master must not omit to set as an exercise the reproduction of what he has given to the class. It involves time and trouble to the teacher, I know well, but it is essential. A literal reproduction of the matter taught is, of course, not required — but the substance of it presented in the pupil’s own way.
However, she did recognize the power of it, as well as its special ability to secure attention, and made it central to her method of education in a way that had not been widely practiced before. She developed the practice for both classrooms and homeschools, and it works in both venues. If we remember that we are not called upon to teach our children to think, but rather to give them something to think about, and in fact require them to think by asking them to narrate, we have the very central piece of the whole Charlotte-Mason-puzzle which will link every lesson to every other lesson, the past to the present, and the minds of our children to the minds of every thinker they are privileged to read.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.