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True confession time: I did narration wrong for several years. I thought it was simply a matter of plopping down on the couch, opening the book, and reading the passage. Then I would look at the children and say, “Tell me what happened in today’s story.” It wasn’t until I dug a little deeper that I realized there were some simple things that I could do to set them up for success and help make narration lessons more enjoyable. Let me share those five simple steps with you.
It’s tempting to think that we can just open a book, start reading, ask one of the children to tell us what happened, and be done. But such a process leaves out a couple of key components that can make the difference between just going through the motions and real learning, the difference between a frustrating lesson and an enjoyable lesson. Usually when a homeschool parent is frustrated with narration, it’s because she is leaving out one of these five steps. So let’s walk through them.
Step #1: Pick a good living book.
This is where it all starts. Some books are well nigh impossible to narrate, even for an experienced narrator. If you’re using one of those, you won’t make much progress. You want to make sure the book you’re reading touches the emotions, fires the imagination, and paints a picture that you can see in your mind’s eye as the author describes what is happening. This type of living book—one that gives ideas, not just dry facts—will pave the way for a smooth narration lesson.
What’s the difference? Let me give you an example. Here’s an event conveyed with just the facts:
Sources report that an unnamed male was assaulted near the main highway. Several items in his possession are now missing. A male of mixed nationality found him and brought him to a local hotel to recover and has offered to reimburse any expenses incurred, according to the hotel manager.
Now here is the same event conveyed in a living narrative:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’Luke 10:30–35
The first account is much harder to narrate because it doesn’t paint a vivid mental picture, nor involve the reader’s emotions. The living narrative, however, does both of those things. It pulls you into the story and helps you share the experience. It contains ideas to be pondered—ideas that can shape who you are becoming. And isn’t that true education: shaping the whole person?
Did you notice those ideas in the living narrative? It contains ideas about social status and how those perceived positions can affect people’s attitudes toward each other; it gives ideas about doing someone a kindness even when it’s inconvenient and about using your possessions to help someone else.
Step #2: Look ahead and behind.
This step is probably the one that is omitted most often. Yet it is an important part of the process and can make the difference between success and frustration in a narration lesson. Before you start reading, take a few minutes to help your student gain his bearings.
First, touch briefly on what was read last time from that book. Don’t go into great detail; you want the student to do the mental exercise of pulling up that memory. Once that mental “rope” has been pulled out of the mental “well,” it will be easy to tie the next portion of the book onto it, thus constructing a continuous line of thought. It can be as simple as saying something like, “Last time we read about the Good Samaritan. What do you recall about that story?”
After your student has mentioned the main points, or highlights, of last time’s reading, then set the stage for what is coming in today’s reading. Tell him just a bit about what he will be hearing or reading next. Charlotte called it “exciting his anticipation.” So you might say something like, “Today we’re going to read about two of Jesus’s friends, the choices they made, and what Jesus thought about those choices.” Give your student the context, so he has that mental framework ready to fill in as he listens.
You can also use this setting-the-stage step to define any crucial words that you know will be needed in order for your student to understand the reading. For example, I recently read a short story about “The Boy and the Filberts.” If I were going to read that story aloud to my children, I would tell them right up front that “filberts” are a type of hazelnut. Just think about words that will hinder your student’s ability to picture the story in his mind’s eye. There probably won’t be many. Most words will be defined quite naturally in the story line.
Then, if there are any special names or locations or key words in the passage, write them on a little white board or sheet of paper so the student can see them. Tell him that he will hear those two or three words in the story and should use them in his narration. Leave the list on display while you read and while he narrates. They will act as mental hooks that he can hang his narration on.
By doing that quick review and short introduction, including any key words to keep in mind, you are giving your student a solid framework for the reading. You are helping him know what to expect and doing all you can to pave the way for his efforts. He still has to do the work, but you can support him in that work by looking behind and looking ahead.
Step #3: Read the passage.
Now it’s time to start reading. Once your student’s mind is prepared and he has that important framework for what he is about to hear, now he is ready to receive the great ideas that the author will share.
His mind will gain great food for thought. Just make sure that you know when to stop that “eating,” rather than continuing to stuff his mind too full and not allow time to digest. In other words, keep a watchful eye on the length of the passage you read.
If the student is just starting with this method of narration, read a short bit and have him narrate. Then read another short bit and ask for a narration. As a student gains experience and proficiency in listening and narrating, the length of the passage can be bumped out gradually until he is reading and narrating an entire chapter.
Even if a student can narrate a long passage, don’t feel like you need to keep pushing the boundary. He will most likely benefit more from a moderate-length passage that he can ponder over than an epic-length passage that bombards him with too many ideas. When in doubt, too short is better than too long.
Step #4: Have your student retell the passage.
Now it’s time for the narration. You have made sure you’re using a good living book, you have set the stage for the day’s reading, and you have read the passage. Now it’s time for your student to interact with the material, to make it his own, to put the reading into his own words.
As he considers what was read, ponders how it applies to other ideas he’s gained, puts it into order, recalls details, mixes it with his own opinion, and then forms those thoughts into coherent sentences and tells them to you—that’s when real learning takes place. It’s a much higher thinking level than multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank.
Older students who are experienced at narrating orally can write their narrations. Usually this gradual transition starts around fourth grade or so. We’ll talk more about making that transition in a separate post. Just keep in mind that oral narration is a great way to practice organizing and communicating your thoughts. So make sure your student has plenty of practice doing that mental process before you add the extra challenge of putting it on paper.
You can also use different kinds of narration in order to keep things fresh. For example, you might have your student draw his favorite scene or act out the story. A student who is writing a narration could compose a diary entry from one character’s point of view or take the challenge to write the narration in poetry form. Here’s a link with 50 other ideas for you.
Step #5: Discuss any related questions or ideas.
This step is optional. Simply open the floor for any related questions or comments after the narration is done. Some passages will raise all kinds of questions in your student’s mind. That’s great; discuss them. Other passages might not; that’s okay too.
Just take advantage of the living ideas that come naturally in a good living book and draw attention to them with tact and kindness. You can pose open-ended questions that encourage your student to give his opinion about something, or to explain whether he would have chosen to do the same thing the main character did, or to speculate about what might happen as a result, or to draw character traits from the attitudes and actions that you read about.
This is the final step, after the narration, because sometimes your student might address the point you planned to discuss as part of his narration. All the better! Leave it at that or expand on it. It’s up to you.
The key is to make this discussion part of the relationship-building atmosphere that is so vital: to respect each student’s questions or comments and to give them the thought and attention that they deserve.
So that’s how to do a successful narration lesson:
- Pick a good living book.
- Look ahead and behind.
- Read the passage.
- Retell the passage.
- Discuss questions and ideas.
You can download our free e-book called 5 Steps to Successful Narration. It will give you a helpful reminder of what we talked about today.