Setting Them Up for Success (Narration Q & A, part 5)

When I began using Charlotte Mason’s method of narration, I thought it should look like this: We sit on the couch. I open the book and read the next chapter. I close the book and ask a student to retell the chapter in her own words. End of lesson.

But sometimes I would get blank stares. Sometimes the children had no clue what I had just read. Sometimes it took me half of the chapter to remember what had happened in the storyline last time and how this chapter fit into the overall scheme of things.

Something obviously wasn’t working. So I did more research and found out that my mental picture of what a narration lesson should look like was woefully incomplete. That’s when I discovered some tips and techniques from Charlotte that helped greatly!

As we continue our series on Narration Q & A, let’s address some questions about what to do when we ask for a narration and all we hear is crickets chirping. How can we turn things around and set our students up for success?

Narration Tips and Techniques

Narration Question #7: What to do if the child cannot give a narration after a completed lesson, even after gentle prompts? Should the response to this situation vary with the age of the child or does it solely depend on the reason behind not being able to narrate the lesson?

There’s the key phrase: “depend on the reason.” The first two possible issues that we need to consider when a child cannot narrate are the book and the attention factor. Does the book lend itself easily to narrating? Try reading a chapter and narrating it for yourself to get a feel for it. If the book just isn’t working well, find a different one. There are thousands of living books to choose from!

Also check the attention factor: Is my child unable to narrate because she wasn’t paying attention to the reading? If that is the case, you know you have a habit issue on your hands. You may simply need to read a shorter passage and stop before you lose her attention.

If the book and the child’s paying attention are not the problem, try some of the ideas we’ll mention below.

Narration Question #8: We’ve been working on cultivating the habit of attention and best effort over the past couple months. Sometimes when I ask my child to tell back what she remembers after a brief reading she says she doesn’t know what to say, but I know she listened. What do I do when she’s reluctant to narrate after a first reading?

Sometimes beginning narrators aren’t quite sure what they’re supposed to say. After all, they’ve probably never used this method before, nor heard anyone else use it. You may want to do a couple of narrations yourself to model for the student what you are expecting from her.

And when you finish your narration, be sure to invite your student to add or clarify anything she would like to. Sometimes students freeze when they think we (or they) are expecting perfection. Try to demonstrate what it looks like to give your best effort while also acknowledging that others can contribute some things that you might have left out, and that’s okay.

Narration Question #9: How do I encourage a younger child who consistently responds, “I don’t know”?

If you’ve ruled out the not-paying-attention possibility, it may be that the child was lost during the reading. Think about what it’s like when you come in in the middle of a conversation and don’t know what is being discussed. Sometimes we can leave our students floundering, lost at sea, when we just pick up in the middle of a book and take off reading.

Before you launch into reading the passage for the day, take a moment or two to recall what happened in that book last time. You don’t have to require a detailed complete narration again, but help your student remember enough about last time’s reading to remind him of the framework and know where today’s chapter fits in that framework.

Narration Question #10: My 13-year-old seems to freeze when I say, “Tell me about…”. I really think she doesn’t listen well—probably more visual like me. Any advice?

After you’ve done the pre-reading review described above, you’ll want to briefly whet the student’s appetite for today’s reading. Build anticipation about what she will hear or read. Sometimes it helps to include a visual in those introductory remarks.

Another possibility might be that she can process better if she sees the words for herself. You might allow her to sit beside you and look at the book as you read aloud, or give her another copy and let her follow along as you read, or she may be ready to do more silent reading on her own.

Narration Question #11: I’m trying to get started with narration with my six-year-old. She says “I don’t remember” when I ask what the story was about. Do I ask leading questions to get her started?

We want to be cautious about cultivating a dependence on hints and prompting. Try this idea instead. Before the reading, take a couple of minutes to look over the passage for today and pull out two or three key words. Write those words on a small white board or a sheet of paper. During your introductory remarks, show those words to your student and briefly go over them. Tell her that you want her to especially listen for those words during the reading and be sure to include them in her narration. Then leave the list in sight as you read and as she narrates.

Narration Question #12: How do I motivate my child when she just doesn’t “feel” like narrating?

First we try to make the path as smooth as possible for her with the ideas outlined above. If those techniques don’t help, it may be that you have a character issue on your hands. You might tell her that you don’t “feel” like making supper that night or doing her laundry that week or . . . you get the idea. Part of growing up is growing strong enough to make yourself do things even when you don’t feel like doing them; that’s a lesson many of us wrestle with our entire lives. This may be a prime opportunity to encourage her in strengthening her will so she will be able to do what she knows she should no matter how she feels.

It might also help to make sure your child knows why she is being asked to narrate. Share with her how she can use the process to help herself learn.

Isn’t it great how narration gives us opportunities to set our children up for success in their schoolwork, as well as in life? I hope these tips are helpful to you in that process!


  1. This series is so great. 🙂 I love, “Try to demonstrate what it looks like to give your best effort while also acknowledging that others can contribute some things that you might have left out, and that’s okay.” We haven’t started school “officially” yet, so it’s nice to know some of this ahead of time. Thank you!

  2. Do we require narrations of all books/subjects after age six? I seem to remember reading somewhere that certain subjects are just for enjoyment and they do not narrate them, but I cannot remember where I read that, or if it is true.

  3. Sometimes it’s how you present your question. How about, “Let’s see who can remember the most about what I just read.” If you have two children or more they could take turns stating something or if it’s just you and the child you two could take turns. Competition seems to rev up the brain cells between siblings/chldren!

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