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Written by Karen Andreola

Children like to chatter. Have you noticed? When they are young we can’t wait for them to walk and talk. We take joy in their first steps and their first words. As soon as they begin school, however, they must sit down and be quiet for long stretches of time. But nineteenth century British educator, Charlotte Mason, did things differently. She thought it a pity that “this amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education.” Like tapping a sugar maple for its sap, she tapped this talking resource in children. It was a rich commodity. She considered their telling to be the art of narration.

Putting the Reading in One’s Own Words
When a child narrates, he expresses what he has learned by telling it back to you in his own words. It is that simple. Isn’t it a pity that the simplest things in life get overlooked? Knowledge is not truly assimilated until it can be adequately reproduced. Miss Mason required children to “tell back” what was read aloud or to write about some part of what they read. “What a child digs for becomes his own possession,” she said. This simple, old- fashioned way of learning has been replaced by the convenient use of workbooks and the textbook questionnaire.

Good Books and Narration Go Hand in Hand
Charlotte Mason discovered that children narrate more readily and enthusiastically from books of literary quality than, from the typical schoolbook. One of the first things that impressed me about Miss Mason was her principle of using all sorts of good books for learning. She eschewed the use of the typical schoolbook, with its dry facts, bite-size-pieces of information, excerpts of other books, often watered-down.

At a time when there were far fewer children’s books Miss Mason was an advocate for using what she called “living” books so called because they were alive with ideas. These kinds of books, she said, “open the door of a child’s mind.” She experimented. She observed how naturally children take to well-written books, whether fact or fiction. Yet very few books other than textbooks were ever put into the hands of children in school. This, she thought, was a shame, since England is a land so known for its literary genius. Thus, for the children’s sake, living books were used in her schools, often taking the place of textbooks. According to Miss Mason “A really good book has the right to be called a schoolbook.”

My children were young when I was introduced to this principle. We were already in the habit of visiting the local library. Along with illustrated storybooks, I read aloud from nonfiction picture books. I so enjoyed these cozy read-aloud moments. Therefore it wasn’t difficult to carry the principle of using living books into our home school during the elementary years when they typically begin to disappear to make room for classroom textbooks.
Over the years we have held fast to the living book principle. Biographies, historical fiction, books with a science theme, and children’s classics, are frequently brimming with living ideas. Living books also have a story aspect to them. These kinds of books were not part of my school experience. There were very few stories (or ideas) behind the names, dates, and facts I was supposed to be learning. How about you? Our children’s learning experience can be refreshingly different when we trust Charlotte Mason’s principles.

Room for Originality
The sensible simplicity and thoroughness of this method of having a child narrate from living books fascinated me. Over the years I became convinced that Miss Mason was correct in her claim that narration is the best way to acquire knowledge from books. In 1902, Miss E.A. Parish, a PNEU (Parents National Education Union) teacher, said, “Narrating is not the work of a parrot.” That is workbook mentality. She continued, “It is the absorbing into oneself the beautiful thought [ideas] from the book, making it one’s own and then giving it forth again with just that little touch that comes from one’s own mind.”

Narration invites children to ponder. Isn’t it better to ponder than to parrot? Even today, in PNEU schools, the teacher will read aloud a passage from a well-written book. Children will “tell back” their own version of the passage (or chapter) with surprising fluency, picking up phrases and vocabulary that strike them. We can see how narration invites the child’s personality to become part of his learning process.
In Miss Mason’s curriculum classic literature was part of each semester’s work. In A Philosophy of Education she claims,

“...All children show the same surprising power of knowing, [demonstrated] by the one sure test; - they are able to ‘tell’ each work they have read not only with accuracy but with spirit and originality. How is it possible it may be asked, to show originality in ‘mere narration’? Let us ask Scott, Shakespeare, Homer, who told what they knew, that is narrated, but with continual [sparks] from their own genius playing upon the written word. Just so in their small degree do the children narrate; they see it all so vividly that when you read or hear their versions the theme is illuminated for you too.”

The Power of Something so Simple
Let us not undervalue the power of something as simple as the method of narration. Narration is important for the young learner because it challenges and strengthens all the powers of mind. Charlotte Mason categorized some of the mental powers this way: attending, remembering, visualizing, comprehending, synthesizing (seeing the whole from the parts), and articulating. Children may find narration difficult when ideas are not present in what is being read. As ideas are what the mind feeds on, let us aim to give our children at least one idea a day. Living books work best for the use of narration because ideas are required for their sustenance. Children grow and thrive upon ideas for their intellectual life. When you educate with living books, a child’s mind does the sorting, rejecting, and classifying for which modern textbook committees think they are responsible.

Natural and Effective Narration
“Telling” is the most natural and effective way to acquire knowledge and to develop language skills. Charlotte Mason proclaims in Home Education, that

“Narrating is an art, like poetry making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. Let him narrate; and the child narrates, fluently copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity [. . . ] as soon as he can speak with ease. [. . . ] Bobbie will come home with a heroic narrative of a fight he has seen between Duke and a dog in the street. It is wonderful! He has seen everything, and he tells everything with splendid vigor in the true epic vein; but so ingrained is our contempt for children that we see nothing in this but Bobbie’s foolish childish way! Whereas here, if we have eyes to see and grace to build, is the ground-plan of his education.”

A Listener Rather than a Lecturer
With the method of narration, the teacher becomes more of a listener and less of a lecturer. The books themselves (often read aloud) become the teachers. Be available to hear any spontaneous “telling” from your younger-than-six-year-old. Only after the age of six should you begin to require a bit of “telling” from short passages read aloud to him. By the age of eight or nine, a child should be able to narrate from an episode, then eventually, half a chapter, and later a whole chapter at a time. Even older children who have had little to no experience can start by narrating from Aesop’s fables. These ancient Greek fables (originally written to amuse grown-ups) are short but meaningful. Aesop’s symbolism provokes thought. You may also require the older student to narrate from any book that he is particularly interested in.

Narration Facilitates Writing
Over time a child’s ability to narrate orally carries over beautifully to his writing ability. By the age of ten or eleven a student can be required to write his narration. Because narrating is at the heart of good writing it facilitates writing. Workbook activities, true-and-false questions, multiple-choice options, and fill-in-the-blank quizzes, do not. These make the student give the expected answer – the only right answer. Narration allows room for a student to form a reasonable opinion or put into words his personal perspective based upon what impresses him most in his reading.

From a Teacher I Esteem
In my 1992 interview with Eve Anderson, retired headmistress of Eton End PNEU School in Britain, she told of the extensive role narration has played in her school and offered a few hints for classroom use. She relied upon Charlotte Mason’s method of narration for the duration of her teaching career. I treasure my memory of meeting her. It was an honor to talk with her. She shared with me that when she was a young student she attended one of Miss Mason’s PNEU schools. She loved this school and its teachers and resolved, while she was quite young, to become a teacher in a PNEU school. She states:

I believe that narration is still of great value, but in fewer subjects than in Charlotte’s time, particularly in scientific and geographical subjects, as these are now more factual. Narration can be useful in all literature, Bible study, history, etc. It promotes good concentration. The child who is able to retell a story in his own words can remember the story clearly, as long as a good introduction has been given. The teacher should not get between the text and the child retelling the passage. Avoid too much questioning, summarizing at the end, and if necessary, drawing out a particular point. I think some teachers try to read aloud too long a passage for a narration lesson. This can lead to confusion and a poor narration. Within a narration lesson one can involve most of the class in either giving a recapitulation of the last lesson, a full narration, or filling in after someone else, so there is normally full class involvement.

The Marvelous Key
Over the course of sixty years of working with children Charlotte Mason witnessed the results of so straightforward a method. In A Philosophy of Education she announced,

“Here on the very surface is the key to that attention, interest, literary style, wide vocabulary, love of books and readiness in speaking, which we all feel should belong to an education that is only begun in school and continued throughout life.”

I am very fond of this quote. Some years ago I purchased a big iron skeleton key after rummaging at an antique store. I use it as a paperweight. I wonder what door it once opened. Was it the door of a Victorian carriage house or the heavy front door of a mansion? When I look at this key, pick it up, and feel its weight, it reminds of the above quote by Miss Mason and of what I am aiming for with the method of narration.

How can we fit time for narration into the already busy school day? It is difficult keeping up with the many demands of homeschooling. We mothers burnout when we try to serve two masters: both living books with narration and a complete set of traditional textbooks and workbooks. Therefore, in place of a work sheet or chapter quiz, make occasion to provide what I call “a narration request.” This will prompt your student to tell in his own words something he is studying, whether by oral narration or by writing (even if it is just two or three sentences given by the young or new narrator.) You will be giving him that marvelous key of which Miss Mason speaks. Keep this key conspicuously handy. Hook it on to a definite place at the door of your curriculum.

Trust in this key. Use it to free yourself from the textbook/workbook grind. A love of knowledge will return. With living books and narration you will experience the kind of educational life you have always wanted for your child.

Ways of Incorporating Narration with Narration Requests

Here are some examples of how you can prompt children to tell.

“Tell me all you know about…” (Her favorite request)

  • Heidi’s visit with Peter’s grandmother.
  • The peculiar habits of a squirrel.
  • Living creatures in a tide pool.
  • The Pilgrim voyage of the Mayflower.
  • The expedition of Lewis and Clark.

“Explain how…”

  • A daffodil is pollinated
  • Sedimentary rock is formed.
  • Jesus heals the blind man.
  • The Declaration of Independence comes to be written.
  • Elizabeth I becomes queen.
  • Robinson Crusoe settles on the lonely island.

“Describe the…”

  • Structure of the inner ear.
  • Landscape of this painting.
  • Various occupations in a Colonial village.
  • Winter conditions of Washington’s Valley Forge.
  • Customs of ancient Athens compared with those of Sparta.

“Describe our…”

  • Picnic at the seashore.
  • Nature walk in the woods.
  • Visit to the nursing home.
  • Planetarium experience.
  • Christmas Day at the grandparents.

“Tell anything new you have just learned in this chapter.”

  • “Tell the story (passage, episode) back in your own words.”
  • “What four things have you learned about ---in this chapter?”
  • “Ask or write six questions covering the material of this chapter.”
  • “Sketch the character and manners of ---from your novel.”
  • “Draw me a picture, map or likeness of----“

“What impressions have you on the life of:
(Abraham Lincoln, Oliver Cromwell, Abigail Adams, William Tyndale, Daniel Boone, Sir Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale, Andrew Carnegie, Julius Caesar, Ebenezer Scrooge, Achilles, Heidi …) in this chapter?” (My examples represent a cross section of characters, factual and fictional, that carry a student into a variety of subjects: history, science, novels, myths. An enormous amount of “inside” information is learned by studying lives.)


Endnotes:
Quotations by Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) were taken from her books, Home Education (published 1886) and A Philosophy of Education (published posthumously). The quote by Miss Parish came from The Story of Charlotte Mason, written in 1960 by Essex Cholmondeley