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    Educational Philosophy

    Are Narration and Discussion Interchangeable?

    March 2, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    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.

    Short answer: NO. But more important is why: why is narration the irreplaceable queen of our methodology? Come find out!

    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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  • Reply Sara McD March 3, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    We do distinguish between narration and discussion BUT there are one or two books that my child does such a poor job narrating that we have replaced narration with discussion for those one or two only. It usually turns out to be a comprehension issue – unfamiliar vocabulary that is not easily discerned from context.

    And, referring back to another discussion had here, there are books that we would otherwise cut because of their difficulty or length that we’ve changed to free reads or read alouds – and those usually prompt spontaneous discussion and no narration is required.

    My oldest child is a strange learner – maybe it’s rebellion or some other human perversity, but he seems to love and retain knowledge that he has gathered for himself more than anything assigned in school. I often find myself asking him, “How do you know that?” only to have him cite chapter and verse of a book I didn’t know he’d read. I have to admit I was the same way as a student. Narrations are hard for him and they do not seem to help him much in the way of memory BUT they help him with his ability to communicate what he has learned and I think narration is valuable for that alone.

  • Reply Carol March 2, 2016 at 8:11 pm

    I like what you said about the 20 principles, Brandy. ‘… they allow us to distinguish what is essential from what is not — from what is a practice which illustrates a principle…’
    Lots of good thoughts in the comments!

  • Reply Jenny March 2, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    Wow! This is giving me lots to ponder. I’ve been thinking about how my (little) kids and I are lacking because we only narrate and discuss very little. I want to have those meaningful conversations, of course not without first narrating. But your post made me consider that a good narration might be the precursor to a good discussion. If my child hasn’t entered into the story and retold it as an insider, he will not have these “things he did not know until he was retelling” and may not incorporate it into his personal experience. Therefore, the good discussion may not follow (or may be forced by me).

    Love reading the other comments here. You guys are all so deep and articulate.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 3, 2016 at 6:31 am

      Yes! I really think the best discussion flow naturally out of a narration because the act of narrating gets us thinking on a deeper level and then all these questions arise. I also think that sometimes the discussions don’t come directly after the reading — they happen over the weekend when all the readings from the week start to coalesce. 🙂

  • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Oh my goodness, people! Have I declared my love for you lately? I took my children to the park this morning and come home to a FEAST in the comments. ♥

  • Reply Mariel March 2, 2016 at 12:24 pm


    (Such a great post, Brandy. And awesome reader comments.)

    I’m coming at this as a classroom teacher.

    Narration is oral composition. Students who can’t narrate well can’t write well.

    Discussion is a different set of skills, with a different product.

    Discussion is great for revision, but not composition. Discussion is teacher-driven, because discussion is learned, and discussion is only as good as its strongest questioner. And by strongest questioner, I mean one who can ask guiding questions.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2016 at 2:23 pm

      Mariel! I always love having your perspective — the classroom perspective. “Discussion is great for revision, but not composition” — yes. I hadn’t really considered the composition angle when I wrote this, but I agree!

    • Reply Jenny March 2, 2016 at 6:05 pm

      “Narration is oral composition. Students who can’t narrate well can’t write well.”

      YES! I personally struggle with narration, even when a friend asks me about this great book that I just read or what the sermon was about. And it takes me FOREVER to write, even emails, because I can’t quite find the words. Almost like narration creates a storehouse of ideas. Hmmm… looks like I need to practice narration:)

      • Reply Brandy Vencel March 3, 2016 at 6:29 am

        I totally think that practicing narration helps us as adults, too. I just wish I were more disciplined about doing it… hmm…

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol March 2, 2016 at 11:32 am

    I just had an exchange that I think goes along really well with this idea. My y8 daughter came to me with her math, saying that she thought her answer to the math problem was correct, even though it wasn’t what the book said. She then proceeded to narrate to me what she did, why she did what she did, and how she got a different answer. In the process of doing this, she realized she had made a basic computation error which meant that the answer she had was not correct at all. She laughed, went back to the study to fix it, and that was that.

    Now if we had just gone straight for discussion, she would have been insisting her answer was correct and I would have been struggling to reconcile her answer and the answer in the book as she was talking to me, and I would have had to then do the work of figuring out why her answer was wrong and explaining to her where she went wrong.

    The second option would have taken a lot longer, been (potentially) more contentious, and definitely more frustrating for both of us. Starting with narration made it so that most of the work of learning was on her side and I was going alongside, and she was the one who made the discovery, not me.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 3, 2016 at 6:30 am

      I love that, Amber. I think with math I often want to skip this part, but you remind me why it’s such an important step. 🙂

    • Reply Valerie January 19, 2019 at 8:31 am

      I love this example and that you said it puts the learning on the student’s side. That’s so important!

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol March 2, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Yes, they are definitely different things, and I think it is a mistake to go straight to discussion, particularly with younger students. Older students, if they are well versed in narration, could narrate to themselves and then go and discuss with someone without narrating first in the interests of time, but it still shouldn’t be skipped.

    I think that going right to discussion can lead to going right to forming an opinion without really understanding the facts or the setting for the material that the person is responding to. I think in our age of constant opinion being spouted off everywhere at every moment we could use a little more time actually getting a handle on what people are saying or what actually happened before getting to the discussion. And narration is, hands down, the best way to help us internalize what we are reading, seeing, or experiencing.

    • Reply COMama March 2, 2016 at 11:35 am

      “I think that going right to discussion can lead to going right to forming an opinion without really understanding the facts or the setting for the material that the person is responding to.”

      You brought out an idea that was teasing around in my mind as I read. Narration is submissive–the reader ENTERS INTO the story, allowing the author to speak his piece, and simply trying to understand what he is saying. In discussion, we STEP OUT, removing ourselves so that we can scrutinize the author’s claims and decide whether and to what extent we agree with them, and in what particulars we differ.

      There is a humility in narration that discussion lacks. I can’t help but wonder if there is some soul training that goes on when we narrate. (Now that I write that, I also realize that my child who is always pushing back against authority is also the one who fights narration the most. Hmmmmm… I can’t draw a conclusion here, but it’s something to think more about.)

      • Reply Karen @ The Simply Blog March 2, 2016 at 11:52 am

        “Narration is submissive–the reader ENTERS INTO the story, allowing the author to speak his piece, and simply trying to understand what he is saying. In discussion, we STEP OUT, removing ourselves so that we can scrutinize the author’s claims and decide whether and to what extent we agree with them, and in what particulars we differ.”

        I love how you explained this! Narration as entering into the narrative, understanding what the author is saying. Discussion as stepping out, analyzing what was read.

      • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2016 at 2:21 pm

        Wow. Narration as soul training. I cannot tell you how much I LOVE this! ♥

        • Reply SarahD March 6, 2016 at 1:36 pm

          This was an insight for me. Narration is submission to what IS in the material rather than what you think about it. My oldest child also resists narration (we only discovered cm in 7th grade with him, so I do not push it) because he prefers to talk ABOUT what he has read, i.e. Discussion. But he is also my child who forms opinions somewhat easily and prematurely.

          Bingo, I think you’re on to something there and I may be able to explain this to him.

  • Reply Dawn March 2, 2016 at 10:44 am

    Yes! I LOVE this post, Brandy! You have articulated this incredibly well – as usual. I have nothing to add, but am leaving a comment in order to subscribe to future ones and keep my ear in this interesting conversation.

  • Reply Melissa March 2, 2016 at 10:20 am

    Great post and discussion! So, if I understood correctly, synthesizing is putting it all together, making the parts whole, narrating the different parts of the story. Then analyzing would be pulling it back apart – discussing the parts possibly for deeper meaning, but more likely to form opinions or relationships.

    I’m chewing on all this as I prepare to give a CM presentation next week. While studying Charlotte’s 20 principles and reading A Philosophy of Education, it was very apparent how important the act of narration was to Charlotte’s philosophy. I would even be so bold as to say it is one of the cornerstones of her philosophy. It cannot and should not be replaced.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      I agree with you that narration is one of the cornerstones! I find it interesting how few practices are in the 20 principles. I mean, I love commonplacing and using a BOC, but neither of those are in there. Of course, this is why I love the 20 principles so much — because they allow us to distinguish what is essential from what is not — from what is a practice which illustrates a principle, yes, but what might be able {hypothetically} with a different practice which also illustrates the same principle.

      If that makes sense.

      Anyhow, there are so many practices that Miss Mason used in her classrooms, but narration is the one that made it into the 20 principles. ♥

  • Reply Karen @ The Simply Blog March 2, 2016 at 5:36 am

    Well stink. I just wrote out a long comment and it wouldn’t post. Okay, here goes again.

    Very well said. I will basically be reiterating what you said but I’ll share my thoughts anyway. 🙂 I see narration and discussion as two different things. Narration is the act of knowing. What we narrate, we remember better. Narration also helps you internalize the material more. Discussion is talking about what we have read and narrated.

    For example, sharing something I’ve read with my husband (i.e. narration) solidifies that material in my mind more. Then once I’ve shared what I’ve read, I’ll share my thoughts on it. Then my husband will share his thoughts on it. Then we’ll continue to share what we think on the reading, on what the other person has shared, and so forth. In my opinion, the sharing of thoughts about the material is discussion.

    • Reply Heather March 2, 2016 at 6:12 am

      I’m not sure if this is true, but I think of narration as synthesizing and discussion as analyzing and younger students especially should be encouraged to synthesize before they analyze. If I had more time, I would get my copy of Consider This and check how Karen Glass talks about this. I don’t right now, so I’m just hanging it out there, more than willing to be corrected.
      Good discussion. 😉

      • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2016 at 7:39 am

        Heather, that is so interesting! I hadn’t considered it in the synthesis/analysis terms, but you make so much sense.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2016 at 7:38 am

      I totally agree with you, Karen! And…I’m sorry you lost your longer comment. I hate it when that happens! 🙁

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