Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Narration Helps

I'd like to suggest some some specific Parents' Review articles as wonderfully helpful tools for broadening our understanding of narration. I've given links directly to four articles below.  But you can also search through all the PR articles to see what they say about narration.

Back to these especially helpful narration articles:

 http://amblesideonline.org/PR/PR35p610SomeNotesNarration.shtml  610 Some Notes on Narration by G.F. Husband 

We Narrate and then we Know by E.K. Manders

p 058 Concerning Repeated Narration by Elsie Kitching

 http://amblesideonline.org/PR/PR68p061ThoughtsonNarration.shtml p. 061 Some Thoughts on Narration by Helen E. Wix

 Here's an excerpt from that last article, the one by Helen Wix:

 "But is narration, even at this age, always merely "telling back'? It must be, we know, the child's answer to "What comes next?' It can be acted, with good speaking parts and plenty of criticism from actors and onlookers; nothing may be added or left out. Map drawing can be an excellent narration, or, maybe, clay modelling will supply the means to answer that question, or paper and poster paints, or chalks, even a paper model with scissors and paste pot. Always, however, there should be talk as well, the answer expressed in words; that is, the picture painted, the clay model, etc., will be described and fully described, because, with few exceptions, only words are really satisfying. When children reach the middle school other types of narration may be used; they can offer headings to cover the lesson and then narrate by filling in the details under each heading or the class may be divided into small groups with a leader in each one and narrate part of or all the lesson. The responsible teacher should be keenly aware of everything that is going on. Shy children will often narrate in a group or a specially "mute' child may be given his chance alone with the mistress or a friendly class-mate. There are children and grown- ups too who do not willingly talk; often they will narrate well on paper.

 "At about this stage a lesson should often end with some serious discussion arising from questions asked by the children or by the teacher. One has to be careful not to allow opinions to be formed on too little knowledge; it is an opportunity to show children how dangerous such carelessly formed opinions can be. This teaching develops as the children move up through the school.

" ....By the time children reach the top of the school narration has become an ingrained habit, has led to observation and thought, to an ability to relate what was learnt last term, last week, yesterday, with "this' that we are now considering. Such co- ordination grows from remembered past narrations over a wide field. Some note in to-day's reading awakes an echo in some other subject or lesson and so the power to compare and contrast and illustrate by example is developed. This should lead to a valuable use of analogy, and application of past history to modern times and modern problems."

   See also volume III. There is a section where Miss Mason says there are 'Other Ways of Using Books':

" -But this is only one way to use books: others are to enumerate the statements in a given paragraph or chapter; to analyze a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series; to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause; to discern character and perceive how character and circumstance interact; to get lessons of life and conduct, or the living knowledge which makes for science, out of books; all this is possible for school boys and girls, and until they have begun to use books for themselves in such ways, they can hardly be said to have begun their education."

 And, of course, Ambleside's own webpage has a goodly array of narration ideas, suggestions, and information.

The above gives an overview of many different types of narration, through many different ages.  It is well to have some idea of where you're headed, so you can make any course adjustments you need to along the way.  From the beginning, narration is an essential part of a Charlotte Mason curriculum.  It is not enough to read the excellent books- the children need the mind work necessary that goes into narrations. They need to think about what they have read, to go over it in their minds and think about what it is they are going to say about it.

In Charlotte Mason's classroom, every reading was narrated, but every child did not narrate every reading.  However, every child listened to the reading with focused attention because each child knew that he could be called upon to narrate at any time.

volume 6, page 17:
Another point should be borne in mind; the intellect requires a moral impulse, and we all stir our minds into action the better if there is an implied 'must' in the background; for children in class the 'must' acts through the certainty that they will be required to narrate or write from what they have read with no opportunity of 'looking 'up,' or other devices of the idle. 
It can be a little exhausting in our homeschools if one child has to give the same sort of narration for each and every reading.  But they do need that implied 'must', knowing as they read, that at any given time they could be called to narrate that reading.  Every narration does not have to be the same, however. We can vary the narrations styles. Here are some ideas of other ways to do this:

Beads: I came up with this idea by accident some sixteen years ago.  I had two children in year 3 or 4, two teenagers, as well as a profoundly disabled child, a very busy toddler, and a baby.  One morning as I swept through the living room trying to put it in the kind of order that is about two steps up from being delared a national disaster, I scooped up a couple of beads off the floor so Baby wouldn't swallow them, and popped them in my pocket.

Up to that point, my usual method with narrations was to pick a number between one and ten, and have my two grade school students pick a number to see who would narrate.  It worked, except it was taking longer and longer as they spent too much time trying to figure out the magic number, and sometimes the children demanded more transparency in the process.  This particular day, I absentmindedly put my hand in my pocket, found the beads, and a lightbulb flickered.
"R," I said, "You are the red bead.  K, You're the blue.  After the reading I'll put my hand in my pocket and whichever bead I pull out, that's the child who narrates."
So that's what we did.  It saved little bits of time that added up over the day.  It prevented arguments from suspicious children who always doubted that they really had chosen the number closest to mine four times in a row- we could all see the bead was what it was.

But here's an important part of this method- I did not draw the bead before the reading.  I didn't even pull it from my pocket immediately after the reading.  I waited for perhaps just half a minute- in this way, I found that each of my girls was sharpening her wits, readying her narration- which is the most important part of the exercise.  Although only one of them actually narrated, both of them had done the preparatory mind work for a narration.

Obviously, it needn't be a bead.  It could be legos, cuisenaire rods or other math manipulatives, pennies with different dates, different bottle-caps, any items that feel exactly the same but are visually different.

Here's something else we started- the narration jar.  Based on the ideas in the readings I linked above, I wrote different types of narration down on strips of paper- one for each strip.  The children pulled a strip of paper out of the jar, did what it said, and then put it back in the jar.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Draw a picture from your reading.
  2.  Set up a scene from the story with your blocks or other toys. 
  3. Model something from the story using Play-dough.
  4. Narrate into the tape recorder. 
  5. Write down five sentences about what you read. 
  6. Think about another story or event that reminds you of what you just read about. Tell Mama about it.
  7. Write down three sentences about what you read. 
  8. Set the timer. You have 10 minutes to plan a short skit from what you read. 
  9. If you were giving a test on this reading, what are three questions you would ask? 
  10. Call Grandma and tell her what we read about.
  11. Call Daddy and tell him what we read about.
  12. Draw a picture of one of the people from the reading today.
  13. Make paper dolls of the people from the reading today (use index cards)
  14. Narrate to Mama.
  15. Skip the narration today. 

I did not have the same number of each--there was only one 'skip this narration' and only two play dough and skit suggestions.  

The ideas for the narration jar are obviously best for younger children. We do need to gradually lead younger children into narration:
Children in lB require a quantity of matter to be read to them, graduated, not according to their powers which are always present, but they require a little time to employ their power of fixed attention and that other power which they possess of fluent narration. So probably young children should be allowed to narrate paragraph by paragraph, while children of seven or eight will 'tell' chapter by chapter. Corrections must not be made during the act of narration, nor must any interruption be allowed.

 If you have older children, you may also find the narration cube helpful at other times when you want to shake things up a bit and ask for more than just, "Tell me what we read about," although that is also an excellent narration question.

A reading without this mindwork is a wasted reading- which is why even if the children don't end up delivering a narration, they must know that they have every chance of being called up to deliver one.  You might even, from time to time, pause at the end of the reading, count to ten under your breath, and then point to one of the children to choose who narrates, or say, "No narration this time" if that is what you need to do.  Those few seconds give the children time for what matters most- to go over the reading in their own minds.

With narration done as Miss Mason represented it, the mind puts a series of questions to itself, and then answers them.  And that is how children learn.  

Whatever a child or grown-up person can tell, that we may be sure he knows, and what he cannot tell, he does not know.


  1. Thank you for putting all this together in one post. I may use this for my next teacher training at Harvest.

    The bead idea is brilliant! I have found it is harder in a multi-grade classroom in which you have expert narrators who beg to narrate everything and novice narrators who wish to hide. It requires the wisdom of Solomon. Lacking in that, we often have the expert narrators write while the novice narrators take turns narrating orally.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. The PR article from 1924 was extremely helpful! We had some great conversations and brainstorming about better ways to "break-in" a new class next year when there is a combination of new narrators and experienced ones. I would think the 1924 article would be great for new families as well as co-op classes in which you have larger class sizes.