The Next Step (Narration Q & A, part 8)

It’s easy to look at narration as the be-all and end-all Charlotte Mason method of learning. What we don’t realize is that we are focusing on just a portion of the picture. We are mistaken if we think that a CM-style lesson is, They read. They narrate. That’s it.

Narration is a powerful tool, but it is not complete all by itself. There are other steps that come before and after a narration that paint the rest of the picture and help our children learn well.

We already talked about doing a pre-reading review and a brief introduction to help our children mentally prepare for the passage about to be read.

Then we read the passage and ask for a narration of it.

The next step is just as important: the discussion. The discussion is a great time to encourage students to expand on their narrations, to clarify certain points, or to summarize and organize what has been narrated.

Narration Question #22: How to get the children to expand on their narration? Or do you just accept whatever they narrate, because it is “theirs”?

We do want the children to form their own relations, but as their guide, it is perfectly acceptable to point out things they may not have seen along the way and to encourage them to think more deeply or broadly. A discussion after the narration is a prime opportunity to do that.

Now, we need to be careful of misusing the discussion time. Sometimes it’s tempting to fire off a series of direct questions on the content of what was read, quizzing the student to see if he knows the parts he didn’t mention in his narration.

Charlotte said, “Direct questions on the subject-matter of what a child has read are always a mistake” (Vol. 1, p. 228).

Narration Question #23: What’s the difference between a narration question and a direct question on the content?

A direct question on the content can usually be answered with one or two words or a short phrase directly from the passage; whereas, a narration-style discussion question presents a topic and invites the student to tell what he knows and thinks about it.

It would be the difference between “Who won the race: the tortoise or the hare?” versus “What do you recall about the end of the race? Why, do you think, it ended that way?”

Narration Question #24: Why did Charlotte say that direct questions are a mistake?

Charlotte often talked about the idea that when a person is truly self-educating, he will pose questions to himself about the passage and try to answer them. When the teacher poses the questions, that changes the entire focus. Now it is no longer self-education—learning for myself so I can grow personally—but a performance-based mind-set—guessing what the teacher will ask and having the answer she wants.

Most of us were “educated” with the direct-questions method. Many of us learned how to jump through those hoops and perform well enough to get good grades. But how much of that material do we really know?

And so we happily use something different with our students: narration and discussion.

Narration Question #25: Mason writes in Vol. 1, p. 233: “When the narration is over, there should be a little talk in which moral points are brought out, pictures shown to illustrate the lesson, or diagrams drawn on the blackboard.” I’d like to know how we are to do this without encroaching upon the student’s understanding of the text. How are we to bring out the moral points? I’m particularly interested in this as it pertains to literature and Bible.

The discussion can highlight certain aspects of the passage that was read in order to expand on a point, clarify a portion, summarize main points, or organize what the student learned from it.

For example, in a lesson on Alexander the Great, the teacher would invite the students to discuss some character traits observed in the reading for the day. She had certain character traits in mind to suggest if the students did not bring them up. You can do the same with literary or Biblical characters: inviting the students to share what they think and to support their observations as appropriate, sharing what you think, and pointing out omissions or misunderstandings with care.

Pictures of artifacts or people can be used to illustrate or help students relate with something that was mentioned in the story, much like The Stuff They Left Behind portfolios do. Maps and diagrams can also be used to clarify or elaborate on something that was read about in the passage.

The main point is to make sure the book remains the source of knowledge; the teacher merely helps the student organize the knowledge that he gained from the book. “The teachers give the uplift of their sympathy in the work and where necessary elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars” (Vol. 6, p. 241).

I hope this Narration Q & A series is proving helpful to you. We’ll answer more questions next time.