The Long and Short of It (Narration Q & A, part 6)

I was listening to a music teacher talk about Chopin yesterday. He mentioned that some people might think Chopin was a lesser composer than Beethoven because Chopin’s compositions are so much shorter.

But the music teacher set everyone’s doubts at rest over that matter. Chopin’s works might be shorter, but they are just as well-planned, just as intricately crafted, and just as difficult to perform as Beethoven’s longer epic pieces.

That comment got me thinking about narration. Sometimes we get caught up in the length of the narration. Especially if you are just starting out with this tool of education, knowing what to expect in this area can be very helpful. So today we’re going to address a few questions on the length of narrations as we continue our Narration Q & A series. But as we do, let’s reflect on this timely reminder that—long or short—the most important factor for a composition is its quality.

The Long and Short of It

Narration Question #13: How long should a narration be (on average)?

The length of a narration usually depends on the length of the reading. It should be long enough to cover the material that was read. A narration on a paragraph will most likely be shorter than a narration on a full chapter.

Narration Question #14: How much narration is “enough”? My 9-year-old only says about 2 sentences every time no matter the length of reading.

The length will vary, but it helps to keep in mind the purpose of the narration. It’s like saying, “How much baking time is enough for a cake?” We’re not looking at the time so much as the goal: when it is done, we will pull it out of the oven to eat. Whether it took 25 minutes or 35 minutes isn’t the point; the point is that the cake has finished baking. Just so, the length of the narration can vary, but the purpose is what you want to focus on. What you are looking for is to see the student go through the process of cementing the material into his mind.

Narration Question #15: What about narrations that seem to take as long as the reading itself?

You may want to take up knitting. I say that in half jest, half seriousness. Sometimes we get impatient when a student takes longer than we expected or scheduled. Especially if the student is just starting out with narration, she may require some extra time for this higher level thinking skill. We certainly don’t want to short circuit her efforts at learning to self-educate, so try not to rush a student who is genuinely engaged and doing her best. She will improve with practice. With knitting, you can give her your attention and at the same time keep your hands busy and feel productive.

But if the student seems to be all at sea and floundering in a flood of words, you might throw her a lifeline by asking her to narrate in a different way. Some alternate narration ideas can give her a little more guidance than “tell all you know” and help her move through the material mentally; for example, you might ask her to make up half a dozen questions that cover the content or draw a picture of her favorite scene and tell about her picture.

Narration Question #16: What to do with a child (almost 9) who can narrate about the full text literally? (About as long as I read, even with long pieces of texts). We’re only just beginning to homeschool, so he needs guidance to know what is most important and to be brief. How do I direct him in that?

We want to be careful about parroting. A child who simply repeats to you what you read—no matter the length—is not making the material his own. Charlotte said that “narrations which are mere feats of memory are quite valueless” (Vol. 1, p. 289). So you may want to use some of the alternate narration ideas mentioned above to help him see that there is more than one way to deal with the material. You may want to use the key words technique or perhaps take some turns at narrating, yourself, to give him a model of what you expect. I would also recommend, since you are just beginning, to be sure you are using short passages. He may be reciting long passages because there is just so much material to deal with in his mind.

Narration Question #17: What do you do with children who are resistant to narrating? We are fairly new to narrating, and my 2 oldest children, ages 9 and 7, balk, complain and get irritated when I ask them to narrate back to me. I try to ask some leading questions, and they give the shortest answers possible. Or, they’ll tell a one-line narration of what we just read, instead of telling the story back in their own words.

Keep in mind that, if they are new to narration and have been doing fill-in-the-blank questions in the past, you are now asking them to master a harder skill than they are used to. So grace and patience will be helpful. Make sure the book is interesting. Make sure you are reading short passages. Be cautious of asking leading questions; the students may just need more time to organize their thoughts when they are pausing. You might also want to try some of the alternate narration ideas mentioned above, like drawing or building favorite scenes and then telling about them.

I would also urge you to be careful of inadvertently allowing the students to slip into a habit of complaining. The work may require more effort than they want to give, but complaining need not be allowed. In fact, the more times they are allowed to complain, the more that habit will become ingrained. So I would encourage you to let them know that complaining is no longer allowed. Complaining will bring immediate consequences. Effort toward this new way of learning will be expected and encouraged. Let them know why they are narrating, then lead the way toward self-education with confidence.

As Karen Andreola puts it: “When a student starts narrating for the first time it is like trying on a new suit of clothes. Miss Charlotte Mason would call this suit self-education. And a very fine suit of clothes it is—with room to grow.” The rest of her article, Narration: A New Suit of Clothes, will bolster your courage and your confidence.


  1. Hi! Thanks so much for all the good info. So, if your child complains about narration what consequence would you suggest?

    • Consequences are such a personal thing, relative to so many individual circumstances, that it’s hard to offer specifics. Some ideas to ponder, however, might be revoking a privilege of some kind or adding extra chores. One mom I know required the student to think of three things he was thankful for to counter every complaining statement.

      That word “every” might be a key too. I would recommend that an effort to curb complaining be made across the board, not just for narration. We don’t want to single out that one schooling method and set up a resentful attitude against it. If you are going to replace the bad habit of complaining with the good habit of thanksgiving, make that habit your goal for 6-8 weeks in all areas of life. Address it as it is: a poor attitude no matter when or where it shows up.

  2. Would you please post a link(s) to the #1-5 in this series of Narration Q&A? I can’t find it. I can only navigate to #6. Thank you.

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