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There is a key technique that we hold to in Charlotte Mason circles that is designed to help our children develop the habit of attention. That technique is summarized in the motto Don’t Repeat Yourself. Sounds pretty straight forward, but it can become a bit fuzzy when you try to put it into practice every day. For example, what if my child did not physically hear what I said? Or, does that mean that once I’ve told my child that his chore is to empty the trash, I shouldn’t ever tell him again? Or, what do I do about a toddler in the room while I’m reading, who is distracting her siblings? When you attempt to apply Don’t Repeat Yourself in the nitty gritty everyday of life and lessons, it sometimes doesn’t seem very simple. So let’s take a closer look at what Don’t Repeat Yourself means and what it doesn’t mean.
Let’s look first at why Charlotte told us not to repeat. The short answer is that it’s a powerful tool to help your students develop a habit of giving full attention. You have other tools to encourage that habit as well—such as, varying the order of subjects as they work through the day’s lessons, using living books, and keeping the lessons short. But not repeating yourself is a far-reaching tool that you can use both inside and outside of lesson times.
You see, habits are formed by repetition. The more often you repeat a certain action, the more it becomes a habit. Our brains are wired that way. So think about this: the more often you repeat a reading or repeat an instruction for your student, the more he will come to depend on your repeating it as a matter of habit. Put another way, he will develop a habit of giving less than full attention, because he knows he will get another opportunity to hear it. On the flip side, the more often you expect him to grasp what was read or spoken the first time, the more that full attention will become his habit.
Charlotte put it this way:
A single reading is a condition insisted upon because a naturally desultory habit of mind leads us all to put off the effort of attention as long as a second or third chance of coping with our subject is to be hoped for.A Philosophy of Education, p. 171
It’s just human nature not to give full attention when you know you’ll have another shot at the subject matter. So when you think about this tool of not repeating, it comes down to this: Are you encouraging a habit of full attention or are you enabling a habit of careless inattention? You’re doing one or the other.
And that idea is the key to determining when to repeat and when not to repeat in the nitty gritty, everyday scenarios. There’s a big difference between, let’s call it “Reactive repetition,” when you are repeating a reading or instruction in reaction to a student’s careless inattention, versus “Proactive repetition,” when you are intentionally repeating something in order to emphasize it, clarify it, or elaborate on it.
Charlotte repeated her principles and methods often in her writings. But those repetitions were intentional; they were proactive to emphasize certain points. In fact, she repeated her instructions not to repeat a reading:
This, of telling again, sounds very simple but it is really a magical creative process by means of which the narrator sees what he has conceived, so definite and so impressive is the act of narrating that which has been read only once. I dwell on the single reading because, let me repeat, it is impossible to fix attention on that which we have heard before and know we shall hear again.A Philosophy of Education, p. 261
Charlotte had a great sense of humor, and I wonder whether she wrote that with a twinkle in her eye. But you can see the difference between intentional repeating in order to emphasize a point, on the one hand, and reactional repeating because the student was careless or inattentive in listening. Those are two completely different things.
I’ve also been asked whether a single reading means that you should never read the same book twice. No, Charlotte was not advocating a single reading over a lifetime; she was concerned about a single reading during a lesson time. Charlotte reread favorite novels over the years during her leisure time. Let your student do the same. There is nothing wrong with revisiting old literature friends. And those are not the only books to reread.
Your student can and should refer to some books again and again over the years. For example, there is always more to be learned from the Bible, and your student will discern new ideas there as he grows and matures. And field guides will be used repeatedly to help your student grow in his skills of comparing and contrasting in his observations.
The key is why you are allowing a repetition of a reading or a directive. If your reason is that you are reacting to your student’s careless listening, that’s when you need to stop yourself. Encourage a habit of full attention; don’t enable a habit of careless inattention.
Want some examples? OK, let’s walk through some of the main times when repetition would be proactive, intentional, and even expected and when it would be reactive and not recommended.
Repetition is necessary for memorizing poetry, Scripture, math tables, hymns, foreign language vocabulary, and even letters and their sounds for our beginning readers. Notice how this repetition is based on living ideas and is a small part of the wide feast of ideas that are being continually offered. It’s much different from a teacher spending class time repeating facts that the students need to memorize and remember for the test. It’s quite the opposite of cramming information. It is a natural next step in the students’s knowledge acquisition: first, they are presented with the ideas, then they take it upon themselves to memorize certain aspects of those ideas.
Repetition is needful for that process; but again, it should be proactive, predetermined repetition. For example, “Let’s set aside ten minutes to work on the poem we are memorizing” is vastly different from “Johnny wasn’t listening when I read the poem, so I’d better read it again.”
The reactive, careless repetition that Charlotte warned us to avoid would include things like reading a passage twice from a book that is to be narrated or giving a dictation phrase more than once (from fourth grade up) or repeating a mental math problem. It would also include giving instructions or directives for school work or for chores or other everyday situations more than once in that encounter. You might need to give the same instruction every day for several days, but try to avoid repeating that instruction more than once in the moment. Remember, it’s not about a single reading or instruction once in a lifetime, but once in a lesson time.
Let me give you a practical tip about giving instructions: make sure you have your child’s attention before you start talking. So rather than yell across the house, “Joey, come here and put your shoes away,” it works much better to go find Joey, get eye contact, make sure he is paying attention, and then tell him what you want him to do. Yes, it requires more effort to go find him and secure his attention before you give the instruction, but the result will be so much better than yelling across the house and then arguing later about whether he heard you and whether you’re going to repeat your instruction.
Which brings us to the area of What do you do when your child wasn’t paying attention? I think the first thing you need to do is to consider whether that inattention is a rare occurrence or a recurring issue. If it’s a rare occurrence, your child might just be having an off day. Probably a gentle word of acknowledgement, letting him know that you noticed the problem, and helping him figure out the reason and how to correct it will suffice.
Or perhaps it was simply an unusual distraction that caused this rare inattention. Perhaps the phone rang or the puppy got loose. In that case, pause, go take care of the distraction, then regain attention and continue on.
But if the inattention is recurring, it is on its way to becoming a habit, and that’s what you’re trying to avoid. You want to encourage a habit of full attention, not enable a habit of careless inattention. So let me give you a few things to consider.
If your student is becoming careless in listening to a read-aloud or even reading for himself, the first place to start is to check the book. Make sure it is a good living book.
The several Forms get through a great deal of reading because we have discovered that a single reading suffices to secure a clear knowledge (as far as it goes) of a subject, given the right book.A Philosophy of Education, p. 267
Books that are fact dumps are very difficult to pay full attention to, let alone narrate. So make sure you’re using a book that makes the subject come alive for your student.
Once you are sure that the book you’re using is a good living book, then check the length of the reading or of the lesson. Short lessons encourage a habit of full attention. Remember, the more often your child can pay attention for the whole lesson, the quicker that will become a habit. So start with reading a short portion of that living book. Every time you reread a passage because the child was careless in listening, you are reinforcing a habit of careless listening.
I have already spoken of the importance of a single reading. If a child is not able to narrate what he has read once, let him not get the notion that he may, or that he must, read it again.
Instead, proactively set the length of the passage to fit your child. Then challenge him little by little to expand his power of attention, but don’t enable a habit of careless listening.
And if your student is old enough to be reading his school books on his own—usually beginning in fourth grade, discuss with him why it is important to allow himself only a single attentive reading before narrating. Assure him that speed is not the goal; comprehension is the goal. So no matter how slowly he needs to read in order to comprehend, he should adjust his speed so that he can narrate after only one reading of the passage.
Charlotte said that the student
should be trained from the first to think that one reading of any lesson is enough to enable him to narrate what he has read, and will thus get the habit of slow, careful reading, intelligent even when it is silent, because he reads with an eye to the full meaning of every clause.Home Education, p. 227
So set a time limit for read-and-narrate lessons and make sure you are emphasizing comprehension over number of pages. When the lesson time is done, set the book aside and then pick up at that point next time.
If your student deals with ADHD, work with him to figure out personal techniques that will help him do his best. Keep that diagnosis as part of the conversation, but don’t allow it to slip into an excuse for carelessness. Everyone can grow in the skill of paying full attention.
Here’s another practical tip. It’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. If something in the environment is making it difficult for your child to pay full attention, make some adjustments to get rid of those obstacles or at least to downgrade their intensity. For example, if the new puppy wants to play and is distracting your student, find a different place for the puppy to go during your lesson. That works pretty well with puppies, but not so easily with babies or toddlers. So maybe shift that lesson to a time when the baby or the toddler is napping, or bring in some help, if you can, to keep the little ones occupied so your student can more easily focus.
Remember, if the baby or toddler—or someone else—causes a distraction, pause the reading. Don’t just keep trying to read over the noise and confusion. Pause, take care of the distraction, then regain attention and continue.
Now, if you have made sure you’re using a good, living book, you have shortened the passage length to fit your student, and you have downgraded or eliminated distractions, and your student has still made the choice not to pay attention, do you read the passage again? No. That’s the kind of repetition that Charlotte warned against. That would be reacting to his careless inattention.
Instead Charlotte encouraged us to use consequences to help motivate the child. Both good and bad consequences can educate.
Charlotte described consequences this way:
But this happens continually—the child who has done well gains some natural reward (like that ten minutes in the garden), which the child forfeits who has done less well; and the mother must brace herself and her child to bear this loss; if she equalise the two children she commits a serious wrong, not against the child who has done well, but against the defaulter, whom she deliberately encourages to repeat his shortcoming. In placing her child under the discipline of consequences, the mother must use much tact and discretion. In many cases, the natural consequence of the child’s fault is precisely that which it is her business to avert, while, at the same time, she looks about for some consequence related to the fault which shall have an educative bearing on the child: for instance, if a boy neglects his studies, the natural consequences is that he remains ignorant; but to allow him to do so would be criminal neglect on the part of the parent.Home Education, p. 149
So you can’t just say to the child, “Well, it’s your choice. You’ll ruin your life by neglecting your studies, but that’s up to you.” Instead, you need to come up with an educative consequence—one that will educate the child. I’ve talked in depth on choosing and using consequences, but the first step is to figure out the life principle that has come into play. In this case, the life principle could be that the child has stolen your time. You invested your time in reading that lesson for him, and he chose to ignore it. So an appropriate consequence might be that he has to pay that time back, taken out of what should have been his free time. You aren’t going to read the passage again for him, but perhaps his consequence is to find an older sibling or your spouse, explain why he needs them to read it, and ask for their help.
Of course it would be easier just to reread the passage yourself. But remember, every time you repeat a passage or an instruction because your child wasn’t paying attention, you are reinforcing that habit of careless listening.
Proactive, intentional repetition is fine when used to emphasize, clarify, or elaborate. Revisiting favorite books during leisure time is great. Repeating a poem or Scripture passage in order to memorize it is necessary. There’s no problem with those types of repetition.
But reactive repetition, prompted by your child’s careless inattention, simply reinforces that bad habit. In those moments, don’t repeat yourself.