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Charlotte Mason wrote a great summary statement of how to do a narration lesson in the book School Education. It goes like this:
The simplest way of dealing with a paragraph or a chapter is to require the child to narrate its contents after a single attentive reading.School Education, p. 179
I like that: “the simplest way.” Simple is good—as long as it’s effective. And I think there are a couple of details in that summary statement that can make a big difference in how effective a narration lesson is. They both have to do with how much reading is happening before the narration. Let’s take a look.
Let’s break Charlotte’s simple summary down into the three key elements: (1) require the child to narrate, (2) a paragraph or a chapter, (3) after a single attentive reading.
First, require the child to narrate…
At its simplest level, narration is telling back what you have heard or read or experienced in your own words.
Notice that Charlotte did not say, “Require the child to answer your questions on the content.” Narration is not a quiz. It is not a feat of memory. It’s a much higher thinking level than that. If you are going to ask a question to prompt a narration, make sure it is open-ended. It should not have one and only one correct answer.
So you might ask something like, “Tell me the story of Lewis and Clark” or “What do you recall about Galileo?” Those would be appropriate narration prompts.
Let me also throw in here that when Charlotte said “the child,” she was referring to children aged six and up. In a Charlotte Mason education, formal lessons begin when the child is six, so narration is not required before that age.
…a paragraph or a chapter…
Okay, we require the child to narrate “a paragraph or a chapter.” Now we get into the big question: Which is it? There can be a huge difference in length between a paragraph and a chapter.
The answer is one that we all love to hate: It depends. But before you get frustrated with that answer, think about the beauty of it. You are allowed, and even encouraged, to custom-fit the length of the passage for your student. It’s another way that the Charlotte Mason Method respects the child as a person.
So how do you do that? How do you determine whether to read a paragraph or a chapter or something in between? If your student is just starting with narration, start short. Read a paragraph and ask her to narrate it. Then read another paragraph and ask her to narrate. If she is sailing through those short passages and can narrate them with ease, go ahead and bump out the length a little bit. Maybe read two paragraphs or a page before asking for a narration. Then just continue in that way, gradually reading longer passages, until you’ve worked up to a whole chapter.
Let me give you one word of advice: When you are breaking a chapter into smaller sections, keep an eye on the clock. You still want to keep that lesson within the confines of Charlotte’s recommended time limits. Here’s a quick review. For narration lessons especially, in grades 1–3, no lesson should be longer than 20 minutes; in grades 4–6, that maximum lesson time is bumped out to 30 minutes, that’s the limit; in grades 7–9, the maximum is bumped out again to no lesson longer than 45 minutes; and in grades 10–12, you can do 45- to 60-minute lessons.
So if you are reading, let’s say, your history book, and you have an inexperienced narrator who needs shorter passages, you would read a short section and ask for a narration. Then look at the clock, do you have time to read another short section and hear its narration in the time you have left? If so, keep going. But if not, stop there, put in the bookmark, and pick it up at that point next time.
I know, I know, some of you might be panicking right now! “But if we don’t finish that chapter, we might fall behind in the schedule!” And there is where we come back to your child as a person. Which is more important: your child’s education or the date on the calendar? If your goal is that your child will form personal relations with the ideas in those wonderful living books and will find learning enjoyable, have the courage to adjust the plan to fit your child, rather than trying to force your child to fit the plan. In other words, teach the child, not the curriculum.
…after a single attentive reading.
Now let’s look at the final element of Charlotte’s summary statement: Require the child to narrate a paragraph or a chapter after a single attentive reading.
Charlotte often wrote that we must insist on this. Why? Because it’s human nature not to pay full attention when we know we get another shot at it. If you know that you can replay that podcast, it’s easy to let your mind wander. But, on the other hand, if the speaker said, “I’m going to give you a seven-digit number, and I’m only going to say it once. You may not write it down; you must keep it in your mind. At the end of this podcast, if you can remember that seven-digit number, you will win $100,” how much attention would you give? You’d probably be fully focused, zeroed in on what she was about to say.
It’s the same way with Charlotte’s narration lessons. Charlotte realized that it can be helpful to have an incentive to pay full attention. So she made the expectation clear: the passage will be read only once in the lesson, and you will be required to narrate it. That expectation helps your student to focus and pay attention.
What If It Doesn’t Work?
That all sounds ideal. But what do you do if it doesn’t work? What if you read the passage, ask your student to narrate, and you get a blank stare? What do you do then?
Well, first, don’t panic and start dropping hints or asking direct questions. Give your student some time. Especially if the passage was a whole chapter, the student might need a few moments to replay it all in her mind and get everything organized and even figure out how to begin. So breathe, relax, and offer that gift of thinking time.
If, however, even after given some thinking time, your student is lost, ask yourself whether this is a one-time event or a habitual reaction. If your student usually tracks with you and gives good narrations, this might just be an “off” day. Perhaps she isn’t feeling well or she’s extra tired today. In that case, mention your observation and help her make adjustments in her daily routine to feel better. If, however, you’ve been getting a blank stare several times in a row now, it can be helpful to check a few things about your narration lessons and see if you need to make any adjustments.
First, check the book. Is it a good living book? Remember, a textbook that presents just dry facts is nearly impossible to narrate. It must be a living book that contains ideas. But even then, some living books are easier to narrate than others. Even Charlotte found that some of the books she had selected just didn’t click with her students and she needed to find a different book on the same topic. It happens sometimes. The good news is that there are thousands of living books out there to choose from.
If you need some alternate living book recommendations, check the CM Bookfinder on our website. The Bookfinder is part of the CM Organizer and is free to use. It’s a database full of thousands of living books that you can search by keyword, by subject, by grade level, by author, even by time period or geographic location. Look for the little “SCM” beside the title for books that we have personally used and recommend.
Also check the length of the passage you are reading. It’s possible that the passage was just too long for your student at this point. There was too much to remember and organize and retell. You might try backing off the length.
Another thing to check is whether you set the stage well for your student. Did you do a brief review of the previous reading and a short introduction to this reading to help your student understand the context and have a mental framework for what she was about to hear?
And did you scan the passage ahead of time and pull out two or three key words? They might be names or locations or important concepts. Write those key words on a small whiteboard or a sheet of paper, show them to your student before you read, and explain that she should listen carefully for these key words and include them in her narration. Then leave that list up where she can see it as you read and as she narrates. It will give her mental hooks to hang her narration on.
There is one more technique that I think is very helpful. I saw a head teacher in a Charlotte Mason school do this with a classroom of students, and it worked beautifully. I call it “shining the spotlight.” The idea is to spotlight one portion of the reading and ask a student to narrate that portion. So you might say something like, “First we learned about the Minoan people and their relationship to Ancient Egypt. What do you recall about that?” and let your student narrate. Then move the spotlight to the next part of the chapter: “Next we read about the climate and culture and art of the Minoans. What can you tell me about that?” And so on, moving the spotlight in sequence to different sections of the passage. That technique can be a helpful way to guide a narration lesson.
“The simplest way of dealing with a paragraph or a chapter is to require the child to narrate its contents after a single attentive reading.” Now you know how to do that in an effective way.
If you have more questions about narration, they are probably addressed in the book Your Questions Answered: Narration. It covers much of what we’ve talked about here as well as many other practical tips and details for all the grade levels.