Charlotte Mason Narration Done Right

Today we are going to examine narration, which is a very Charlotte-Masonish thing to do.

I first discovered Charlotte Mason after I had been officially homeschooling for about six years. It was a re-discovery for all of us early homeschoolers back then. Susan Schaeffer Macauley’s book, For the Children’s Sake and Karen Andreola’s book, A Charlotte Mason Companion were among the books published that set us all abuzz.

I first learned of it in one of those email “chats” we had in to those days (because the Internet was all dial-up and was rationed, so we got on quickly and downloaded then read the conversations).

At the time I had my children in boxed curriculum, and it was killing them. My poor dear son, who is a genius (I’m not kidding) and compliant almost to a fault, would spend hours filling in the blanks in his workbooks. He would sit devotedly but also sadly head in hand, and my heart was moved with compassion for him.

When I found out about narrating, it set us both free. I gave him a children’s biography of Lafeyette, a Red Chief tablet, and a pencil, and I told him he didn’t have to do those awful workbooks anymore. All he had to do was to read a chapter at a time and write what he had read.

He and I were both so relieved!

I still have the book he used, and the narrations (that was almost 30 years ago now). Since then, I have learned a lot more about this wonderful tool.

Just what is it?

In dictionary terms, “to narrate” means simply to tell a story–like a narrator in a movie fills in the gaps of the action going on–and a “narrative” is simply a recounting of what has occurred.

Basically, a narration is a “telling back” what the child has just heard or read.

Let him read to a child of any age from six to ten an account of an incident, graphically and tersely told, and the child will relate what he has heard point by point, though not word for word, and will add delightful original touches; what is more, he will relate the passage months later because he has visualized the scene and appropriated that bit of knowledge.

Charlotte Mason

What is its purpose?

Glad you asked. Actually, I like to state what is not its purpose:

It is not to test a child or make sure he is comprehending “correctly.”

This is a very important distinction. I’m afraid we are all too comfortable with the factory-school mindset, so that, at least at first, we can turn narration into a pressure-filled situation.

For one thing, children do not naturally know what we expect of them. It is very helpful to show them an example. One way to do this is to watch a short movie together and then tell sequentially what happened. Then, move on to a folk tale, such as The Little Red Hen. After just a few sessions it will seem like second nature.

For another thing, we can discourage our children (sometimes permanently) from wanting to give a candid narration by offering criticism. While it is good to be an active listener, we should allow the child room to move around in his own head while he is narrating, even if he does not get everything correct. As long as he is not being disruptive or defiant, we should be happy to hear his efforts, not matter how halting at first.

Then, these purposes of narration will unfold without fail:

  • Increased comprehension. Something conventional education complains constantly about is lack of comprehension of what is read. It seems entire branches of the established system are devoted to this problem. If only children in schools could be allowed to practice this simple method, the problem would poof like a puff of smoke.
  • Increased memory of the material. When I child takes outside information, rolls it around in his mind, reorders it, and vocalizes (or writes) it, it becomes a part of his own thinking. Then it is much easier to recall later.
  • Increased joy of learning. As a child builds a library of items he has put into his memory, he is able to make connections and then feels confident enough to delve deeply into subjects that interest him. As he digs and dives, he becomes enthused and gains great satisfaction from the discoveries he makes. Before long, learning turns from a drudge to a joy!

Here are some tips and tricks that I have learned over the years:

  • If your child is giving an oral narration and gets stuck, it’s OK to ask some open-ended questions. Now, this is not for Charlotte Mason purists, but it is a must for this mom. Open ended questions are ones that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer, such as “Where did they go next?”
  • It’s OK to turn the narration into more of a discussion on the setting, the technique of the writer, the characters, or the message.
  • For the child who is unwilling to talk, play the thumbs up or down game. Give the name of a place or a character and have him signal his like or dislike with his thumb and then ask him why he feels the way he does.
  • When having a number of children of different ages and stages narrate a passage or a story, have the youngest begin first, then the next older child can either start from the beginning or just add in some details that were missed, and so-on.
  • Draw it. This works really well for those who are not able to write well. Even young children like to draw what they remember about a story. I have placed spaces in my lesson books (or free lesson sheets) just for this purpose.
  • For kinetic learners, you can lay down a long strip of tape on the floor with short, perpendicular pieces placed a few paces apart along the strip. Then have your child stand on the beginning of the strip, tell the first thing that happened, and move to the next crosswise strip and tell the next event, and so-on.

As your child progresses to writing his narrations, don’t expect a lot at first. At first it will only be a sentence or two, but as you are consistent to assign written narrations, he will gradually increase until he is writing entire pages.

Eventually, you will want to use this same strategy with informational, non-fiction reading. If you are enjoying an article on snails, for instance, you can have your child tell back to you what he has read or heard. This, then, becomes the basis for learning how to write an informal essay. As he gets used to these formal essays, you can give him the basic essay outline:

  • Thesis statement
  • Thesis paragraph with three points.
  • Three paragraphs expounding on the three points.
  • A conclusion paragraph.

This is when you can give your child a subject or thesis statement and have him do some research (using at least three different sources) and write an original essay.

Develop Active listening skills.

This is most important.

  • Make encouraging comments such as “Great observation,” “Good point,” “I never saw it that way,” Interesting,” etc.
  • Lean in, nod your head, smile or act concerned where appropriate and affirm that you are paying attention.
  • Pull more out–ask what the child thinks about different points, have him make moral judgments on the actions of the different characters. Ask him what he would have done instead, or how he wishes the story had turned out.

As you model active listening, your children will learn to do the same, but you may have to enforce rules of politeness nonetheless if you are practicing group narration (“If you want others to listen when you narrate, you must be still and listen when they narrate.”)

If you begin early, you will have children who enjoy reading, and your discussions will become more and more enriched.

We have been narrating for so many years that it is part of our family culture.

We “narrate” after movies, after church, after dinner about the events of the day. We’ll be in the car and I will ask each person in turn,” So, what did you think about/get out of ______?” Even when our grown children come home for a visit they participate!

In this way it has also increased family cohesion and communication. When we get together, we are a lively bunch!

How many different ways have you done narrations?

Here is the podcast if you like to listen instead of read:

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4 thoughts on “Charlotte Mason Narration Done Right”

  1. Sherry, do you think this will work with using Mystery of History since it’s not exactly a living book, but it’s also not a dry textbook? I got MOH for this year, we start Monday. I think I asked on your YouTube messages a while back if you were familiar with MOH and you said your daughter uses it and enjoys it with her children. Is she using narration instead of this massive teacher guide? Lol! The guide is HUGE. But I do like the maps it includes! Many blessings to you and yours as always!

  2. I actually believe narration would be a terrific way to use that resource, and I also think MOH could exist in the “living” books list❤️

  3. Thank you so much for this post. I am in Australia, and I’m starting to plan for our next school year ( Year 7) in January. I keep looking at many curriculums and their websites with beautiful worksheets and workbooks, and I know my son won’t want to fill them in. He’ll hate them! I think it is just me wanting to feel more confident in the narration process and just to let go of the school-like way of getting them to ‘fill in the blank’ worksheets and all the busywork that a lot of curriculums use, often bundled up with attractive pictures and brightly coloured images.

    I really needed to read this post today, many thanks!


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