Raising the Bar (Narration Q & A, part 15)

Can you touch your ceiling? I can’t touch the ceiling in my kitchen even if I jump. It’s a standard height, but I can barely reach it with a 2-foot-long fly swatter.

Now can you imagine jumping over your ceiling? That’s the current world record for high jump: a smidgen over 8 feet. It boggles the mind!

I daresay the man who holds that record didn’t start clearing the bar at 8 feet on his first try. In high jump—as well as most other sports—achieving the goal is a gradual process. You start with the bar lower as you learn and practice the technique. Then as you master that level, the bar is raised a little higher and you work toward clearing it. Once that height is mastered, it is raised a little higher still, then even higher, until pretty soon those lower heights seem too easy.

So it is with narration.

How to Raise the Bar

Narration is not just “retell the story” forever and ever, even into high school. No. We are expected to raise the bar on our children’s narrations as they grow older and more experienced.

Narration Question #51: What are the characteristics of a good narration? Is it important that they have a clear beginning, middle and end of the story? Does it have to be in complete sentences? What other specifics would define a good narration?

Those characteristics are ways of incrementally raising the bar. As your children grow comfortable with the concept of telling back in their own words, you can introduce higher expectations. Keep in mind that improvement in narration will be a process that requires practice, just as any other skill does; so encourage growth, model your expectations, guide as needed, but try not to criticize or discourage the children. Ultimately, yes, we want correct recall, logical progression, complete and well-crafted sentences, originality of style potentially sprinkled with the author’s phrasing at poignant times, but many of those details will come with prolonged exposure to good writing (in the living books they read) and practice narrating. Keep those goals in mind, but give the children plenty of time to achieve that height.

What characteristics or goals you have in mind can depend on what type of narration you are asking for. Read on.

Narration Question #52: Can you briefly outline what depth of narration we should expect at different ages? Specifically, how will an upper elementary narration differ from a middle school narration, and how will a middle school narration differ from a high school narration?

When I was doing the research for our complete Charlotte Mason language arts reference book, Hearing and Reading, Telling and Writing, I compiled a list of narration questions that Charlotte gave as examples. Once that list was complete, I discovered something that fascinated me: Charlotte raised the bar as the children got older by asking for different types of narration. Most composition courses cover the same four types of writing: narrative, expository, descriptive, and persuasive. Charlotte didn’t need a separate composition course to teach those ways of communication. She incorporated them simply in the way she worded narration questions, and she introduced them gradually as the children advanced through the grade levels.

So following her example, an older student should be required to narrate in different ways, not just retell the story. Here is a brief overview of the natural progression.

  • Grades 1–3: Narrative, asking the student to retell the plot in chronological order.
  • Grades 4–6: (Narrative and) Expository, asking the student to give a clear and accurate explanation of how something works.
  • Grades 7–9: (Narrative, Expository, and) Descriptive, asking the student to describe something, usually progressing from large scope to smaller details.
  • Grades 10–12: (Narrative, Expository, Descriptive, and) Persuasive, asking the student to state his opinion and give supporting points in a logical manner.

Narration Question #53: Can you give examples of narration prompts for middle and then high school so we see how they change with our children’s developing critical thinking skills?

Narration Question #54: Examples of specific written narration prompts for older kids would be beneficial. That transition time from tell me all you know to compare and contrast, etc. seems to be a sticking point with many.

Here are some of the narration questions I found in Charlotte’s writings. Where possible, I have highlighted her specific topics or removed them and inserted generic descriptive phrases so you can repurpose the questions more easily.


  • Tell the story of . . .
  • Tell what you know about . . .
  • What is a hero? What heroes have you heard of? Tell about one.


  • Tell the history of [a current item or phrase read about].
  • Give a diagram of [body part studied], and explain how it works.
  • How many kinds of bees are there in a hive? What work does each do? Tell how they build the comb.


  • Describe the founding of Christ’s Kingdom. What are the laws of His Kingdom?
  • Describe a journey in [geographical area read about].
  • How are the following seeds dispersed? Give diagrams and observations.
  • Describe the condition of (a) the clergy, (b) the army, (c) the navy, (d) the general public in and about [time period studied].


  • Discuss [modern political person’s] scheme. How is it working?
  • Write an essay on [current event], showing what some of the difficulties have been and what has been achieved.
  • Write a letter in the manner of [historical person read about] on any Modern Topic.
  • Write a letter to [a newspaper] on [a current event or topic studied].
  • Write a ballad on [current event studied].
  • Write an essay on the present condition of [own country], or on [leader of another country].

Narration Question #55: How do we come up with narration questions that are more than “tell back what you read”, especially if you have not read the material thoroughly yourself? Instead of having a separate writing course, I’ve always wanted to study a certain form of writing and then apply it to the daily narrations for that week, but I’m not sure how to work that out practically.

Of course, there is no substitute for reading the material yourself. The more familiar you are with the reading, the more detailed you can make your narration request. However, certain genres lend themselves well to certain types of narrations. For example, biographies, living history books, and Bible readings often provide good opportunities for narratives or for persuasive opinions and comparisons between characters; living geography books often lean toward descriptive narrations; and living science books toward expository or descriptive questions. So if you know the genre and the topic, you may be able to craft an appropriate narration question that is a higher level than just “retell the story”; but to really raise the bar, you’ll want to read for yourself and get the details.


  1. I have to say how incredibly helpful this series on narration has been. I am going to save this article in particular, to help me help my 6th grader as he continues to learn to narrate. Thanks so much.

    Robyn Dolan, author, “The Working Parent’s Guide To Homeschooling”

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