It’s interesting, this question. I’ve been asking it of myself for a long time now — a year or two, at least. It all started when I ran across someone — we’ll call her Mary — who told me that she didn’t require narration because her child liked to jump straight to discussion, and he discussed with such facility that it was obvious that he comprehended what he had read. I had mixed thoughts about this at the time. On the one hand, she made a lot of sense. On the other hand, something didn’t seem quite right.
It’s a tension I’ve carried with me ever since, and today I decided to try and sort it out. I don’t pretend that this is all that might be said on the subject, so I look forward to hearing what you all have to say in the comments.
I’m not going spend a lot of time on what narration is. For our purposes today, we’ll simply say that narration is when a person tells back what they have heard or read in their own words. This is done after a single reading — no review is involved.
I think that in order to tackle this question, we have to first address the question of what is the purpose of narration? You see, if narration is merely a test of reading comprehension, then Mary is right! A good discussion can make clear to us whether or not our child has comprehended what he has read.
But is this really the nature of narration?
Miss Mason gives us an interesting insight into her use of narration in A Philosophy of Education:
But, it will be said, reading or hearing various books read, chapter by chapter, and then narrating or writing what has been read or some part of it, — all this is mere memory work. The value of this criticism may be readily tested; will the critic read before turning off his light a leading article from a newspaper, say, or a chapter from Boswell or Jane Austen, or one of Lamb’s Essays; then, will he put himself to sleep by narrating silently what he has read. He will not be satisfied with the result but he will find that in the act of narrating every power of his mind comes into play, that points and bearings which he had not observed are brought out; that the whole is visualized and brought into relief in an extraordinary way; in fact, that scene or argument has become a part of his personal experience; he knows, he has assimilated what he has read. This is not memory work.
The assumption we’re talking about today is not that narration is memory work, but rather that it is a test of reading comprehension, and I think the logic here answers our question concerning the purpose of narration.
The act of narration is much, much more than comprehension. This is why it was once said that we narrate, and then we know. Narration, you see, is the act of coming to know.
Miss Mason says that in narration “every power” of the mind comes into play. This is more than reading! In fact, new things arise — “points and bearings which he had not observed” will be brought to light as he narrates. These are things he did not know until he was retelling. When “the whole is visualized,” she tells us, this becomes “part of his personal experience.”
Think about that for a moment — when we read, we are the outsider looking in. We get drawn into the story, it is true, but narration has a special power. As we retell, we embody the story — incarnate it, if you will. This act of incarnation takes the experience of an outsider and transforms it to that of an insider. As your students get older, they may be able to articulate this to you — this is why they remember many of their first grade readings in eighth grade: because they experienced them on a personal level.
In fact, this is why the objection was raised that narration was equal to memory work — because it was understood that passages narrated were remembered much better than those left un-narrated. This alone tells us that narration is more than a test of comprehension — that it is a memory tool.
I think the misunderstanding in regard to discussion comes from the fact that many of us who use narration will say — and rightly so — that we “do not use comprehension questions because we use narration.” This is true. Comprehension questions are completely unnecessary in a narration economy. But the the fact that narration produces evidence of comprehension does not mean that comprehension is the purpose of narration, and I think that is where the breakdown is occurring.
Narration is an act of the imagination that allows what has been read or heard to enter into the memory in a way that is equivalent to personal experience. Because of this, it cannot be replaced.
Discussion has its place, for sure! I am not saying do not discuss. 🙂 I sometimes think that a great reason to homeschool is to be able to have wonderful conversations with our children about all sorts of things.
Discussion is not an act of the imagination. It does not require visualization. And when discussion precedes narration, there is a loss of a certain richness that is only possible when the mind has turned the story over again through narration — remember what Miss Mason said, that some things come to light and become known only through narration. Those things would be lacking if narration were skipped.
All of this is to say that I’ve decided I think we ought to preserve our esteem for narration and not consider it replaceable. Discussion is a wonderful, noble thing, but it is not interchangeable with narration, and much is lost when narration is lost.
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