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I love what one little girl said when asked about how her Charlotte Mason-style lessons worked. She said, “Well—we read—and we narrate—and then we know” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 167). That, in a nutshell, is the power of Charlotte Mason narration. Telling back what you have read, in your own words, is narration. And it results in knowledge. But it’s not always easy to require it consistently or to do it, for that matter. So let’s take a look at why we use narration. Here are three reasons it’s such a great method.
That little girl’s description—we read and we narrate and then we know—makes narration sound pretty simple. And on one hand it is. It’s not a complicated method: read or experience something and then retell it in your own words. But it does require effort. In fact, it requires more effort than the true/false, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank type questions that many other educational approaches use. So at some point, don’t be surprised if your student looks at you and says something like, “Why do I have to retell it to you? You just read it. Weren’t you listening?”
And that’s when you can assure your student that narration is not for your benefit as the teacher; it’s for the student’s benefit. Here’s why.
Reason #1: Narration gives practice with an essential skill
The methods that Charlotte Mason used were all designed to equip your student to be able to learn for herself. Narration is one of those lifelong, foundational methods. If you want to grasp what you have read or heard, you replay it to yourself, mentally asking “what’s next? and what’s next?” as you go along through the narrative. That mental work of remembering, comprehending, organizing, sequencing, and forming the material into your own words—is narration. It’s a powerful tool!
You see, information can enter your mind; but not until you work with it, process it, and make it your own, do you really know it. Narration is built upon the principle that what you can tell, you know.
In fact, Charlotte called this process “the act of knowing.”
They must read the given pages and tell what they have read, they must perform, that is, what we may call the act of knowing.A Philosophy of Education, p. 99
Do you want to try an experiment? OK, let’s take just a short, well-known motto: “All for one and one for all.” Got it?
All right, first, let’s do a typical school-type exercise with it: All for _____ and one for _____. Can you fill in the blanks? Good.
Do you feel like you know that motto?
OK, now I want you to put it in your own words and give me your opinion of the idea that it conveys. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Take a moment or two and try to narrate that motto.
I think you will agree that narrating the motto required much more brain power than the fill-in-the-blank exercise, right? And how well do you feel like you know that motto now? Narrating it helped you make it your own. You read and you narrated and now you know—not just know about it, but know it on a personal level.
Trying to put something into your own words requires much more of the mind and heart to be engaged. It is a higher-level thinking process than memorization and recitation. It requires you to interact with the ideas, process them, and understand them for yourself.
It’s interesting that we all turn to this technique quite naturally when we want to make sure we understand. We’ll listen to someone who is telling us something, then we’ll reply, “So what you’re saying is…,” and we’ll restate their message in our own words. It’s a common tool to assure comprehension.
We’re just harnessing that powerful, yet natural, tool and teaching our children to use it intentionally in their schoolwork to self-educate—not just to know about, but to know for themselves. And we start using it when the child is six years old and beginning formal lessons.
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.A Philosophy of Education, pp. 172, 173
Here’s another reason why narration is such a great method for the student:
Reason #2: Narration provides a relationship-building opportunity
Recalling the correct words to fill in the blanks tells you nothing about your child as a person. There is one right answer; she either knows it or she doesn’t. But narration is a relationship-building activity.
Each child’s retelling will be different. That just makes sense, because each child is a unique individual. So as you listen to your student narrate, you are getting another peek into her personality and learning more about her as a whole person. The child is invited to tell what she does know and what stood out to her as a person, an individual. You will find yourselves laughing together, perhaps weeping together at times, definitely wondering together. And those shared experiences will deepen your relationship with each other.
But narration also helps your student build relationships in other directions: with other people—both past and present, with herself, with God, and with the things God has made. As she reads about the lives of people who shared this Earth in the past; and she works with the unchangeable laws of mathematics, proving them for herself as you guide her along; and she observes God’s creation in nature—lingering, listening, and seeing for herself; and she grows in her personal habits; as she does all of those things and narrates about those experiences, she builds relationships in those areas of knowledge.
The beauty of a Charlotte Mason education is that the focus is not on dispensing all of the information, but on forming and building ongoing relationships that your student can continue to deepen all her life. And narration provides an opportunity to focus on relationships.
But there’s one more reason why narration is such a great method.
Reason #3: Regular experience organizing and expressing thoughts
The fill-in-the-blank type quizzes or questions that have only one right answer do nothing to help your student think for herself and communicate her own ideas. Narration, on the other hand, offers your student that opportunity multiple times a day.
For the talkative child, having set times for narration helps her grow in regulating when it is time to listen and take in ideas and when it is time to express her own thoughts. On the one hand, she realizes that she shouldn’t be talking all the time; on the other hand, she is reassured that she will have opportunities to express her thoughts as you go through the lessons.
For the quiet child, having set times for narration helps her know what to expect. There will be set times to practice communicating her thoughts, and she is required to participate. But there will also be plenty of times to listen and take in and ponder great ideas in her own heart.
All of us, as people—whether talkative, quiet, or somewhere in between—can benefit from practice in organizing our thoughts and expressing them clearly. Regular narration lessons offer that practice to your student.
More often than not, her first attempts are going to be faltering, perhaps incomplete, and maybe even grammatically incorrect. But that’s okay. This is all about growth. And growing in any skill requires consistent practice. The more consistent you are in requiring narrations, the more practice your student will have, and you will see growth.
Best of all, that growth will happen in an atmosphere that respects each child as a person, that encourages relationships, and that offers your student a large room full of worthy ideas to explore over her entire life.
All of that can happen with the “simple” method of narration.