Narration and Composition in the High School Years

Charlotte Mason High School Composition

Of all of the questions we received on homeschooling through high school with the Charlotte Mason Method, the area that raised the most concerns, by far, was composition.

I find that fact interesting . . . and a bit ironic.

Think about it. Most of us were given the traditional and typical separate classes focused on lessons in composition from first grade through twelfth grade. And most of us feel unqualified or ill prepared to guide our children to write well. Somewhere that twelve-year, isolated approach to writing failed us.

Happily, Charlotte Mason’s approach to composition is quite different. Yet many of us struggle with trusting it and find ourselves continually drawn back to the less effective methods just because they are more familiar or because our friends are using them.

So I’m glad you’re asking the questions that will help you break free from the everybody-should-sound-the-same type of writing lessons and give your children a better way—the Charlotte Mason way. Let’s take a look at how composition should be taught in high school.

High School Question #42: My main concern with high school is teaching composition and assigning grades for transcripts.

As with many things, composition in a Charlotte Mason high school is a continuation of skills that were taught and practiced in the earlier grades. Beginning in first grade, oral narration gives the student practice in the mental process of composition. In fact, Charlotte called oral narration “oral composition.” Once his handwriting is well established and he has gained skill in oral narration, the student begins to do some written narration, usually around fourth grade. Those narrations are not separated from the rest of his studies; they are integrated into his history or geography or Bible or science lessons. As the student becomes comfortable capturing his thoughts and getting them onto paper, he then becomes ready for some guidance in strengthening that skill. So the following years, including high school, add a focus on helping the student fine tune his ability to communicate on paper.

That’s the big picture. You can also watch our overview video on The Natural Progression of Language Arts to see how other aspects of a Charlotte Mason approach support composition. The questions below will dive into details.

(See the High School Questions #22 and 23 in the post, Courses, Credits, Grades, and Transcripts, for help with the transcript part of the question.)

High School Question #43: Lots of sample narration questions for high schoolers. I just get so stumped, especially when I’m not reading the book too.

By the high school years you can use a wide variety of narration requests, including narrative, descriptive, expository, and persuasive prompts. You will find sample narration questions in the narration post, Raising the Bar. And the book, Your Questions Answered: Narration, includes lots of sample questions and sample narrations from Charlotte’s students and modern-day students.

You’re right, trying to facilitate a narration without having read the book is very difficult. It can feel like asking a person to translate a sentence into German when you don’t know the language! So I encourage you to do all you can to learn along with your student and enjoy the benefits of filling your own mind with the wonderful ideas in the living books he is reading. See the narration post, An Added Bonus, for some encouragement and practical tips for making that happen.

High School Question #44: On narrating: this may be a bit if a side topic, but i would love to see a way to share narration questions that are book specific, particularly for these high school years. Many of us are not able to keep up with reading along and if the student is a reluctant narrator, it is hard to get him to share enough good material to be able to come up with challenging and book appropriate prompts for written narration. I get the idea and the huge range of possibilities for expanding these to take care of most, if not all high school composition… But I would love to have a trusted resource I could put in Victory in the Pacific, and have a few suggestions come up for upper level narration.

Book-specific narration prompts are a great help, especially for those upper level narrations. That’s why we are working on adding more titles to the Narration Notecards collection, and high school level books are high on the list. Each set of cards is book specific. The cards give beginner, intermediate, and advanced narration prompts for every chapter, any of which can be used at various times for high school students.

High School Question #45: The forms scaffolding and narration can take at the high school level.

The simplest form of narration (and don’t be deceived by that term “simplest,” it’s actually quite demanding to do) is to retell what you just read, putting it in your own words. But there are many other ways to narrate. This list of ideas may help.

Scaffolding is a term that educators use when talking about different ways to support a student in the learning process, as a scaffold is a support for those working on a construction project or large art mural, for example.

Scaffolding can include such techniques as showing an example, demonstrating how to do something, talking through a thought process, comparing a new experience to a known one, giving definitions ahead of time, using visual aids, or allowing extra time for the student to talk through something before doing it.

Scaffolding techniques can vary widely, depending on the student’s needs. But a key feature of scaffolding is that it is a temporary support, just as a construction scaffold is temporary. Your goal is to gradually fade it out of use as the student grasps the concept and demonstrates that he is able to apply it across different situations or assignments.

The next question and answer (below) give an example of scaffolding.

High School Question #46: I think my biggest problems is writing/composition, written narrations, having them read instead of me. I have a son who is an audio learner and does so much better narrating when he listens. But I want him to read more, visually see good writing, and practice writing better. It is a struggle. These are topics I would love discussed.

Some people do find it easier to process when they listen to someone talk or read aloud rather than read for themselves. But, you’re right, it is important that a student learn to read for himself—to see the words and sentences on the printed page—in order to reinforce proper spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. The more he sees it done correctly, the easier it will be to do it correctly in his own writing.

Here is an idea that might help bridge the gap and strengthen his reading-for-himself skills. You might allow him to listen to an audio version of the book he is assigned, and require him to read along with the audio in a printed copy. That way he is still getting the audio input but he is also seeing the words on paper.

Then you might alternate every other chapter: chapter 1 is listened to and read, chapter 2 is only read, chapter 3 is listened to and read, chapter 4 is only read, etc. As he becomes more comfortable with that process, you can phase it out more by using the audio only every third chapter, etc.

You want to acknowledge the way that student learns best, but you also need to help him learn skills that will be needed in his future life. He won’t always have an audio version to depend on in every situation, so try to use temporary scaffolding to help him gradually develop the skill of capably comprehending the written word.

High School Question #47: How can I encourage and motivate my very practical hands-on son to be positive about his written work?

This is another example of respecting how a person is wired while also helping him to develop skills that will be a benefit in his future life. It’s good that you recognize that your son is a “very practical hands-on” person. Those traits can help you know what direction to take with his writing.

Too many parents mistakenly hold up written work as the epitome of an educated person. They think that a student’s writing is the litmus test of whether he is well educated or intelligent. Such is not the case. Thomas Edison is not known for his essays.

Not everyone is designed to be a brilliant writer, and that’s okay. On the other hand, everyone can benefit from being able to clearly and accurately express their thoughts. So I encourage you to focus on helping your son learn to communicate in writing what is in his mind—accurately and thoroughly—without pressuring him to be another Longfellow. It might be helpful to discuss with him the advantages, and even importance, of being able to give clear instructions in writing. He may need to document a hands-on repair job or send someone an explanation of how to problem solve a troublesome engine or hard drive. He can probably see the steps in his mind, but it will be valuable to be able to communicate exactly what is in his mind to someone else’s mind. He needs motivation to work on that skill.

You might encourage him to practice writing with topics that interest him. For a simple example, if he were reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, he could explain how a certain tool was constructed and how it worked for his narration of a particular chapter. (Along those lines, he would probably enjoy Diary of an Early American Boy by Eric Sloane.)

Be careful not to overload him with written narration assignments. Better to concentrate on a few well-written pieces than waste his time and yours on many poorly-written ones.

And of course, try to encourage him more than correct him. Focus on improving just one or two points at a time in his writing. And be sure to continue oral narration to reinforce the mental process of communicating clearly and accurately.

High School Question #48: My main concern is that we have so far been following a CM-ish method. My 13 yr old son is not proficient in the art of narration. He can orally narrate fairly well, but he has not written any. I have not been requiring many narrations, because we had been so bogged down with other course “requirements”. Going forward from here, I want to make sure he is prepared for a CM high school education. So I guess I need to know where I need to “catch up”.

First, don’t panic. You still have several years to fine tune his composition. The good news is that you have been working on a strong foundation with oral narration. So continue to assign good living books for him to read and continue to require oral narrations.

Then ease into the written side of things. You might require one written narration per week this year. Next year require two per week, and continue to add another one each year. By the time he graduates, he will be doing at least four written narrations every week. That’s a respectable amount.

You can also ease into the different types of narration that you require. Since he has been doing oral narrations, I assume he is pretty familiar with a narrative style (tell the story). So start with that type for his first few written narrations. After a few weeks of narrative, ask for some descriptive narrations (describe how something looks) as the chapter lends itself to that style. You can spend all of this year working on narrative and descriptive to help him get comfortable with capturing his thoughts and getting them down on paper. Next year add expository (explain how something works) to the mix, so you can ask for any of the three types—narrative, descriptive, expository—in your twice a week written narrations that year. The following year add the final type, persuasive (state an opinion and support it), as you increase the number of written narrations to three per week.

I think you get the idea. All you have to do is lay out a simple plan to gradually get to your goal. You have time. Just work the plan. The following questions and answers will give you more practical ideas.

High School Question #49: I would love to see more details from SCM about how to help our high school students develop their writing skills for college.  I need more guidance in how to help my kids polish their narrations and become proficient writers.

One of the key differences between a Charlotte Mason approach to composition and a typical composition course is that Charlotte Mason sought to cultivate each student’s individual writing voice. The goal is to encourage and equip each unique person to better communicate his own ideas.

So she was very careful not to squelch the student’s enthusiasm with an overload of expectations and corrections all dumped on him at once. The oral narrations and written narrations in the earlier grades encourage him in the process. The polishing aspect should happen only one or two points at a time.

Focus on one area that needs improvement. Talk about it with your student. Show him examples of how it should be done correctly. Work with him to correct that one aspect in a recent written narration. Then tell him that he is responsible to incorporate that aspect correctly in his next narration. Hold him accountable for it and continue to encourage him in it. As he shows continuous progress in that area, repeat the process with another aspect.

You’ll find more ideas in the questions and answers to follow.

High School Question #50: I’ve always struggled with the confidence and know how to teach high school writing (and know what to teach) with my children. There are often book lists of recommended living books to read, how do I use these books to teach good essay writing and other writing?

It’s important when teaching composition to differentiate between the voice of the author and the format of the written piece.

Of the two—the voice and the format—the hardest part is developing a good writing voice. So Charlotte focused on that aspect throughout the grade levels by using wonderfully written books. The living books cultivate your student’s expectations of good writing; plus, they give examples of well written ideas in various voices. (They reinforce the mechanics of spelling and punctuation and good grammar too, by the way.) Living books—read and narrated—are about the voice. As your student spends time with excellent authors, his writing voice continues to be influenced and shaped by them.

The other part of composition—the format of the written piece—is the easier part to learn. You can know what form is expected in a five-paragraph essay, but if you have nothing to say or cannot get your thoughts captured on paper you’re stuck. So cultivating that unique writing voice is the main focus. Then in the high school years, you can take a look at some specific types of papers that will most likely be expected in college and give your student practice in formatting his writing in that fashion.

Which brings us to the next question.

High School Questions #51 and 52: How do you teach high school level writing (all forms) and research?

How does one go from narration to writing different types/forms of essays, research papers etc. that colleges are looking for?

First, let’s identify what colleges are looking for. Most every paper that college professors will assign will be either a research paper or some type of essay. And lest that word essay should unnerve you, it simply means “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.”

So if you focus on just those two formats, your student should be adequately prepared. An essay can take various tones, such as a narrative essay, a descriptive essay, an expository essay, or a persuasive essay. Do those terms sound familiar? They are the four types of narrations we’ve already talked about assigning to your student (in Questions #43 and 48 above).

Other types of essay can include comparison and contrast, tracing cause and effect, and arguing both sides of a case. Those are standard critical thinking skills that Charlotte Mason recommended including in upper grade narration questions and discussions.

So about the only type of essay that is not already covered in narrations is the literary essay. For that format and the research paper format, I like to recommend a succinct, clear resource from Analytical Grammar. They have a series called Beyond the Book Report. Look for Season 3 in that series; it teaches the literary essay and the research paper. It also covers a couple of other essays and giving an oral presentation. Best of all, it is a video course, so you can rest easy that a 34-year veteran language arts teacher is doing the instructing.

High School Question #53: How to move from written narrations to more formal writing? Would you just teach so they know it and then go back to regular written narrations or do you begin to give guidance to narrations or do you use more formal on exams?

Once you have taught the essay and the research paper format, you can include those in your written narration requirements. Since the essay is a short piece, it could easily be used as a regular narration prompt interspersed with other types of narrations. Exam week would be an ideal time to assign a longer paper, such as a research paper.

Now, keep in mind that if college is not the best route for a particular student, you might not need to worry about teaching those structured formats of writing. That’s a decision that should be made intentionally for each student. (See High School Question #38.)

High School Question #54: One question I have is about reading. Obviously CM’s method is predicated on reading small amount of material at a time and processing it deeply. However in college I was often expected to read hundreds of pages a week for several different class, with the expectation that I would scan for the most important ideas and then synthesize across several sources. How can I make sure my students are prepared for college level reading without sacrificing CM’s ideals of depth? Also, I know CM asked students to do compare/contrast or synthesis etc. on her exams, but that was only at the end of the term. During the term did she really only have high schoolers narrate back from one source at a time, or did she expect them to do more analysis, synthesis, etc.?

The ideal situation is to read smaller portions of a single source and have time to digest them thoroughly. But as you point out, our students may not be given the ideal situation in college level classes. That is another reason we recommend that you use a few textbooks in high school—advanced science courses are a logical choice—and that you spend some time teaching your student how to use a textbook. (See High School Question #27.)

But you don’t need to use textbooks for every subject. You can still use living books, shorter readings, and time for processing in other subjects, like history, geography, Bible, and literature. A mixed balance is best.

Regarding analysis and synthesis, Charlotte Mason explained that narration and discussion at the upper levels can include requests to give “the points of a description, the sequence of a series of incidents, the links in a chain of argument . . . . others are to enumerate the statements in a given paragraph or chapter; to analyse a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series; to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause; to discern character and perceive how character and circumstance interact; to get lessons of life and conduct” (School Education, p. 180).

Many times discussions naturally lead into analysis and synthesis in various forms. You could ask for some narrations like that, but let me encourage you to keep the main goal in mind even as you guide your student in giving critical-thinking responses. Whatever and whenever you ask for such a response from your student, make sure he has thought deeply enough to have formed a just opinion for himself. Be on guard against the tendency (and it’s one that we may all be guilty of) of simply repeating an opinion he has picked up second-hand in order to appear knowledgeable and check off the assignment.

High School Question #55: Should we discuss things after narration or not? How do we keep from giving our opinions to teenagers? How to facilitate CM discussion? How often? What about Literary Analysis?

The older your student gets, the more interesting your discussions can become. By all means, allow time for discussions after narrations. Sometimes you may have a discussion question prepared; other times you might allow the student to initiate a discussion if desired. One family I know uses the supper table as the setting for discussions on books that family members are reading, current events, plays, art, museum visits, and anything else that they have experienced recently. Of course, make sure that such a discussion is amiable and conducive to a pleasant meal together.

You can certainly give your opinion to your students. Charlotte Mason warned against offering opinions that have no basis in principle. So whenever you give your opinion, make sure your children know the timeless principle behind it and your thought process in order to arrive at it.

Good discussions will grow from open-ended questions, rather than single-answer or guess-what-the-teacher-is-thinking type questions. And they grow best in an atmosphere of candor and respect. Encourage your students to express their thoughts openly and also to respectfully listen to others’ thoughts as they are expressed frankly and openly. Candor goes both ways and is a habit that Charlotte Mason encouraged us to cultivate in our children.

Literary Analysis lends itself well to discussions. During various discussion on a book you can use analysis terms—such as plot, character development, setting, point of view, theme, and tone—appropriately and expand on them over time rather than dissecting that book to bits and stealing all the joy from reading it.

Discussions are a great time to gauge your student’s thought processing and help guide him in logical thinking. You can also reinforce the concepts of strong and weak supportive evidence during discussions. But in order to be allowed that privilege of peeking into your high school student’s thoughts, you will need to secure an atmosphere of unconditional love and acceptance.

Good discussions include atmosphere, discipline, and life: a living idea being discussed candidly, courteously, and logically in an atmosphere of mutual love and kindness.

I hope these questions and answers have been helpful. Next time we will wrap up this series by discussing the challenge of starting with Charlotte Mason methods in high school.

More Narration Answers

Your Questions Answered: Narration

Narration is a can’t-do-without method in your Charlotte Mason home school. Your Questions Answered: Narration gives you more great answers to the questions real homeschool moms ask about narration. This handy, practical reference book collects answers from years of blog posts, web pages, and conversations all in one place.


  1. Loved this blog post…thanks so much for answering all the questions and calming all of our fears and struggles for us undergoing the high school years!

  2. This post was VERY helpful and encouraging. Thanks a lot.
    Only the answer to question number 54 isn’t given fully, in my opinion. How can we teach our children to “scan” books? To read quicker? Without sacrificing CM’s ideals of depth! That really is a good question which I’ve been asking myself for many times already.

    • Usually the type of book that colleges require students to scan, synthesize, and summarize are not the literary books but the textbooks or reference type books. So I would recommend practicing the mental process of synthesizing and summarizing when discussing the good literary books that the student has had time to ponder and practicing the scanning process with textbooks. Then they can use all of those skills with textbooks and reference books when learning/doing research for the research paper. (See High School Questions #51 and 52 above.)

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