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How to Help Long-Winded Narrators Be Concise

February 17, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

Raise your hand if you have a child (or two or five) who is verbose? Whose narrations seem to take longer than the initial reading? This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we’re so relieved after working with the child whose narrations consist of “that king didn’t like that other king and so they went to war and the king won the end.” The long-winded narrator is noticing all the details and recalling them. It’s rather amazing!

Alas, it’s also often too much. The other children are beginning to line up and still the child is droning on and on about every little detail, no matter how small.

Surely something can be done?

An exercise for verbose students that helps them learn to distinguish between an important and incidental detail.

I want to manage your expectations. In the younger years, I don’t think much can or even should be done. He has just learned to narrate, after all. We can get creative with narrations. And, occasionally, I will give a time limit. (“This reading took 15 minutes, so let’s see if you can tell me the important parts in 7 minutes.”) But that is the extent of it.

But later on, when the long-winded child has begun to do written narrations, we encounter a problem. You see, this child is verbose on paper, too, and now she’s writing a five-page essay for her daily narration.

This is not okay.

It was in my use of Classical Composition (back when I was CM-ing the progym) — in Narrative Stage — and there was this simple little exercise that was life changing for my first long-winded narrator. I anticipate doing this with my other long-winded narrator in a couple years.

The exercise is so simple — it’s called a reduction — and yet so effective because it helps the child sort out which details are and are not important.

Start with a short story. Let’s use part of a chapter from Our Island Story called How King Alfred Learned to Read:

One day when Alfred, the youngest son of King Ethelwulf, was quite a tiny boy, he was playing with his big brothers, while Osburga, his mother, sat watching them, and reading.

The book she read was one of old English songs. Osburga was very fond of these songs, and used to say them to her little boys when they were tired of play. It was a pretty book, full of pictured and bright letters in gold, and blue, and red.

As Osburga turned the pages Alfred saw the pretty pictures, so he left his play, and came to lean against his mother’s knee, to look at them.

“What a pretty book it is, mother!” he said.

“Do you like it, little one?” said Osburga.

“Yes, mother, I do,” replied Alfred.

Then all the other boys came crowding round their mother to see the pretty book too. They pressed against her, and leaned over her shoulder till nothing was to be seen but five curly heads close together.

“Oh, isn’t it lovely!” they said, as Osburga slowly turned the pages, explaining the pictures, and letting them look at the beautiful colored letters at the beginnings of the songs.

When Osburga saw how they all liked the book, she was very much pleased. She pushed them all away from her a little, and looked round their happy eager faces. You see in those days even kings’ sons had no picture-books, such as every child has now, and it was quite a treat for these princes to be allowed to look at this beautiful one.

“Do you truly like this book?” asked Osburga.

“Oh yes, mother, we do,” they all answered at once.

“Then, boys,” she said, “I will give it to the one who first learns to read it.”

“O mother, do you mean it? May I try too?” asked Alfred.

“Yes, I do mean it, and, of course, you may try,” answered Osburga, smiling at him. And perhaps she hoped that he would win the prize, for both his father and his mother loved Alfred best of all their children.

And Alfred did win the prize. He was so eager to have the book that he worked hard all day long. And one morning, while his big brothers were still trying to read the book, he came to his mother and read it without making any mistakes.

Then Osburga kissed him and gave him the prize, as she had promised.

Print it out on a sheet of paper and hand the child a pencil. The child’s job is to go through and cross out any detail that is not important. The finished product might look something like this:

One day when Alfred, the youngest son of King Ethelwulf, was quite a tiny boy, he was playing with his big brothers, while Osburga, his mother, sat watching them, and reading.
The book she read was one of old English songs. Osburga was very fond of these songs, and used to say them to her little boys when they were tired of play. It was a pretty book, full of pictured and bright letters in gold, and blue, and red.

As Osburga turned the pages Alfred saw the pretty pictures, so he left his play, and came to lean against his mother’s knee, to look at them.

“What a pretty book it is, mother!” he said.

“Do you like it, little one?” said Osburga.

“Yes, mother, I do,” replied Alfred.

Then all the other boys came crowding round their mother to see the pretty book too. They pressed against her, and leaned over her shoulder till nothing was to be seen but five curly heads close together.

“Oh, isn’t it lovely!” they said, as Osburga slowly turned the pages, explaining the pictures, and letting them look at the beautiful colored letters at the beginnings of the songs.

When Osburga saw how they all liked the book, she was very much pleased. She pushed them all away from her a little, and looked round their happy eager faces. You see in those days even kings’ sons had no picture-books, such as every child has now, and it was quite a treat for these princes to be allowed to look at this beautiful one.

“Do you truly like this book?” asked Osburga.

“Oh yes, mother, we do,” they all answered at once.

Then, boys,” she said, “I will give it to the one who first learns to read it.”

O mother, do you mean it? May I try too?” asked Alfred.

Yes, I do mean it, and, of course, you may try,” answered Osburga, smiling at him. And perhaps she hoped that he would win the prize, for both his father and his mother loved Alfred best of all their children.

And Alfred did win the prize. He was so eager to have the book that he worked hard all day long. And one morning, while his big brothers were still trying to read the book, he came to his mother and read it without making any mistakes.

Then Osburga kissed him and gave him the prize, as she had promised.

You might go over this together, discussing and cutting even more if possible.

After this, the child copies the new version over by hand.

And then you can talk together. One thing that might be discussed is why or why not to cross the word “big” in “big brothers.” I would argue it needs to appear at least once because it is significant that Alfred won the prize, even though he was the youngest of the brothers. Likewise, it is probably significant that the pictures were pretty — this is what made it desirable to the boys. But, again, I chose to cross out all of the instances of the word “pretty” save one.

The goal is to get to the essence of the story of how Alfred learned to read. If our goal were different — say, to explain how warm and caring of a mother Alfred had, we might cross out and keep different details. We can talk about that, too.

I had my verbose narrator do this once per week for at least a term, if not longer. It helped a whole big bunch, and he still references this exercise regularly to this day.

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11 Comments

  • Reply Betsy February 16, 2019 at 11:21 am

    Genius

  • Reply Stacy February 17, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    Brandy- This is a great exercise and definitely one I want to use! With five children- and FOUR of them just natural little chatterboxes- I thought I might die last year trying to listen to all.their.words. I kept telling my husband that my brain could only handle so much. 😉 I smartened up this year and now I come up with questions specific to their reading selections, which has helped considerably. I think this exercise would be really helpful for them to see the value in drawing out the most important parts. Thank you!
    ~Stacy

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 18, 2016 at 9:37 pm

      Wow, with FOUR chatterboxes you are unusually blessed! 😉 Yes, I bet your brain felt like it’d explode! 🙂

  • Reply Sara McD February 17, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    Yep, I have one of each. My eleven-year-old is only JUST beginning to remember proper names and give decent narrations. My six-year-old practically recites the story verbatim with a few ums and uhs thrown in to increase the torture. It’s only because he changes a word or two that I’m sure he comprehends. My middle kid is right in the middle with his narrations and I’m so grateful.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 18, 2016 at 9:38 pm

      I think it’s neat that you have the whole span. I have two on one extreme end of the spectrum, and two on the other. Something moderate would be nice. 😉

  • Reply Karen @ The Simply Blog February 17, 2016 at 8:58 am

    Thanks for sharing about this exercise. My youngest *can* be very detailed with narrations when she wants to. 🙂 Sometimes I write her oral narrations down on handwriting paper and she has been known to give me an oral narration 2-3 pages long. She is a very talkative. I’ll have to keep this exercise in mind for later on when she begins written narrations (which will be a little while yet).

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 17, 2016 at 9:06 am

      You’re welcome! It’s such a hard balance because we don’t want to squash their enthusiasm — but, in my case, I wanted to protect my child from growing up to become that guy that takes too long to tell the story…It was a real possibility!

  • Reply Kelly February 17, 2016 at 7:40 am

    I like this exercise and your explanation of it is great, but I wouldn’t have a child do this with a Bible passage — not without at least changing the wording from “cross out any detail that is not important,” to something like, “cross out any detail that is not the main point of the passage,” but even that makes me a bit nervous. I know you know that theologically speaking there aren’t any irrelevant details in the Scripture, but remember The Abolition of Man, how a well-meaning school lesson can have unintended consequences of a serious nature.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 17, 2016 at 7:53 am

      Kelly!!! Oh my goodness. I feel shocked that I didn’t see that potential problem in this. I don’t know that they used this exact passage in the curriculum, but they use lots of passages, and it never crossed my mind. I think I want to change my example…

      • Reply Kelly February 17, 2016 at 8:09 am

        I’m glad you found it helpful — I was afraid of just being a downer and I’m frequently accused of overthinking things. But really. Scripture!

        If it’s not a problem logistically, you might want to just make a new post — Feedly doesn’t update the feed when a post is updated, so people who just get you on feed readers like that won’t know if you’ve edited or added anything to the post, or know about these comments, for that matter.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel February 17, 2016 at 9:05 am

          I changed it — it was plaguing me! But I will include an explanation of the change in Friday’s Seven Quick Takes because I want to share your reasoning here — I think it’s so important!

          I am still kicking myself!

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