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Let’s walk through a foundational method used in many Charlotte Mason-style lessons: narration. You will be using this method for history, geography, Bible, science, and other subjects, so let’s make sure you understand it and feel confident using it.
What You Will Need
Really all that you need to do a narration lesson is a living book. Remember that a living book is one that makes the subject come alive. It conveys ideas, not just dry facts. It will probably be written in narrative, or story-, form or in a conversational tone. As you read, you will be able to picture in your mind’s eye what is said or what is happening. That’s what I mean by a “living book.”
All right, once you have the book, you’re ready to begin.
Step 1: Review last time’s reading.
Of course, if you’re just starting a new book, you can skip this step. But usually you will be continuing a story that you have already begun. So before you dive into the day’s reading, take a moment to help your child recall where you left off.
Step 2: Introduce today’s reading.
You want to give your child a heads-up on what is coming next. This doesn’t have to be elaborate, and try not to give any spoilers, but it can be helpful to give an overview, to set the stage for what is about to be read. If you want to, you can list a few key words on a small whiteboard or a sheet of paper. Go over those words briefly and tell your child to listen for them and include them in his narration. You don’t have to, but for some children, or some chapters, that’s helpful.
Step 3: Read today’s reading and ask for a narration.
Now that you’ve helped your child find his bearings and set the stage, go ahead and read the portion of the book for today. Read it only once. Then ask the student to tell it back to you in his own words. Don’t quiz him on specific facts; rather, allow him to tell you what he remembers. Give him plenty of time and don’t interrupt. If you have several children listening, you can ask different children to narrate different parts of the reading.
Step 4: Discuss ideas from today’s reading.
This step is optional. You can leave off the discussion or include it at your discretion, depending on which children are involved and what the story is about that day. This is an opportunity to connect hearts and draw out character issues. It is also a prime time to get a peek inside your child’s thought processes and inner growth. You don’t have to do a discussion every time; just be aware that it’s an option at the end.
So those are the steps: review, introduce, read and narrate, discuss if you want to.
Try It Yourself
Now let’s go through those steps with the book Stories of the Nations, Volume 2, so you can get a feel for how it looks. We’ll say last time you read the chapter on “The Prizes of Alfred Nobel,” so today’s chapter is “Marie Curie.”
Say something like, “Last time we read about “The Prizes of Alfred Nobel.” What do you remember about him?”
Pause and give your student time to bring up those memories and determine how to communicate them. This review doesn’t need to be completely detailed, but it should be enough to assure you that the student remembers.
Then you can say, “Today we’re going to read about Marie Curie, who won a Nobel Prize just a few years later.” If you want to use the key word list, you can show that list and say, “In this chapter you will hear about Marie Curie, Poland, and radiation. Be sure to listen especially for those.”
Now we read—pleasantly, clearly, and only once. Give your full attention and listen/read carefully.
On a cold November day in 1867, the Sklodowski family welcomed baby Marie, the fifth child to be born into their close-knit group. They were a Polish family, and very proud of it, too; but to be Polish was a difficult thing in those days. Poland did not even exist as its own independent nation; it had been divided up among other nations. The city of Warsaw, where the Sklodowski family lived, was controlled by Russia and its faraway tsar, who was determined to stamp out anything that remained of Poland. The people were forbidden to study Polish culture or learn the Polish language. Marie’s family, though, were Polish patriots. Her parents, who were both teachers, did all that they could to secretly educate their students and their own children about their Polish heritage.
This was a dangerous course. The Russian authorities were suspicious of the family, and the Sklodowski’s children and their students knew from a young age that they must be very careful. Marie wrote later, “Constantly held in suspicion and spied upon, the children knew that a single conversation in Polish, or an imprudent word, might seriously harm not only themselves, but also their families.” Eventually, Marie’s father was fired from his teaching position because of his Polish sympathies, and the family began to struggle for money to live on. And then, in 1878, Marie’s mother died, plunging the whole family into deep and lasting sadness. Marie, who was ten years old that sad year, could not stop crying for weeks. But then she and her sisters invented a game, pretending that they were genius doctors who found miracle cures to heal the sick. Marie began to dream of using science and medicine for the good of all mankind.
Through all of this, Marie continued attending school and doing her best, even if it meant that she must do all of her lessons in the hated Russian language. She was the star pupil in her class, and when she graduated at age 15, she was awarded the school’s gold medal. She hoped to go on with her schooling; her brother Josef had entered the medical school at the University of Warsaw, and she would have liked to do the same. But women were not allowed to study there, and so Marie and her sister Bronya were forced to find another way to study. They began to attend Warsaw’s Floating University.
Are you imagining brick buildings floating up among the clouds? Actually, this school got its name from the fact that its classes met at night, changing its location every week to avoid the watchful eyes of the Russian authorities. The classes were taught by professors who, like Marie’s parents, were educators and Polish patriots. Marie and Bronya studied at the Floating University for several years, but they both wanted desperately to leave Warsaw and travel to Paris, where they could study at a real university. But how could this be done? The family was poor; there was no money available to support two daughters studying in a foreign country.
Marie and Bronya made a pact: Marie would go out and find work, and she would pay for Bronya’s tuition at a medical school in Paris. Then Bronya would work and pay for Marie to attend the university. Working together, they could both realize their dreams.
So, at age 17, Marie left Warsaw to become a governess for a family of seventeen children, the offspring of a scientist who ran a beet-sugar factory in a village far to the north of Warsaw. The teaching of the children was hardly enough work to fill her long days, and so she began to study. She read great works of literature and large science textbooks. She studied advanced mathematics. She took chemistry lessons from a chemist in the sugar factory. It became clear that she had a talent and love for science, especially physics, which is the science of light and gravity and all of the other forces that power our universe at its deepest level.
Marie worked hard, faithfully sending money to Bronya each month. By the fall of 1891, Bronya had finished her medical training, and it was Marie’s turn to enter the University. She arrived in Paris in November, filled with happiness. She wrote about it later: “So it was in November 1891, at the age of 24, that I was able to realize the dream that had been constantly in my mind for several years.”
Let’s stop there for time’s sake in this example. When you are finished reading, you then ask for the narration: “OK, tell me what you know about Marie Curie.” Go ahead and try it for yourself. What do you remember from that much of the story? Pause here and try to tell aloud that part of Marie’s life in your own words.
Now, if you used the key word list, you would remind the student to include those words in the narration. (At this point in the story, you and I have covered only Marie and Poland; the Curie part and radiation part come later in the chapter. But you see how it would work.)
If you have several children to narrate, you can direct the narration by shining the spotlight on different parts of the story. So you could say, “First, we read about Marie’s family. Joey, what do you remember about that? . . . Next, Marie and her sister formed a pact. Suzy, what can you tell me about that?”
Listen fully to each child. Show respect and encouragement in your attention and manner. Don’t interrupt and don’t allow other children to interrupt.
After the narration, you can invite discussion if you want to. You might ask, “What do you think about the pact the sisters made?” or “What do you think might happen next?” or any other open-ended question.
Level Up or Down
Narration is a powerful method that can easily be adapted to fit each student.
The easiest way to scale it down is to read shorter passages. So maybe you start by reading one or two paragraphs and ask your student to narrate only that much. Then read another couple of paragraphs and ask for a narration on that. As your child becomes more proficient, you can gradually lengthen the passage to a full page, then a page and a half or two pages, and so on.
For a student in grades 1–3, you will read all of the books aloud. Once your child is reading comfortably at about a fourth grade level, you can start assigning him to read some of the books, or portions of those books, independently. At that stage, you can also level up the narration by asking him to write his narration.
As the student continues to grow in proficiency, you can level up again by asking for different types of narrations. Continue to ask him to tell the story in his own words, but sometimes you can ask him to describe something or to explain how something works or to state his opinion about something in the story and support it.
If you want some help with leveling up, take a look at our Narration Notecards. They are book-specific narration prompts that give you three options for each chapter, plus help with key words.
Narration is a powerful tool through all the grades. It may seem easy, but try it for yourself and you’ll see that it requires a lot of effort and skills to do it well. So give your student (and yourself) some grace as you find your feet with this simple yet powerful method.
As you go along, you might have some questions. If you would like a handy book that gives lots of practical tips about the nitty, gritty details, I invite you to grab a copy of the book Your Questions Answered: Narration. I think you will find it a great help.