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Your Questions Answered: Narration with Multiple Children

Today my friend and coworker, Laura Pitney, is with me to discuss a question that we received about narration: “With more than one child in the phase of doing oral narration, how do I have them each do a narration on what we read together without them just copying the child that goes first? At what point do you transition into written narration and how does that work?”

Sonya: Why don’t we start by backing up, and for anyone who’s watching that might not know what narration is, let’s talk about what narration is.

Laura: That would be a good place to start.

Sonya: Narration is basically telling back in your own words what you just heard or read. It’s a much higher thinking level than true/false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank. We’re asking them to do many things: pay full attention, take it all in, remember it, put it in the right sequence, mix it with ideas already in their heads, form it into coherent sentences, and then give it back to you. So there’s a reason Charlotte called it oral composition.

Laura: I think that’s a huge thing, to remember why you’re doing narration. It’s one of the stepping stones to composition. We need to realize that, by doing narration, it becomes their own possession, and that’s what we want for our children and that’s why we do it.

Sonya: Yes, it’s a tool that they can use their entire lives, really, to help them learn anything.

Laura: I remember, years ago, . . . it was so interesting, the fact that oftentimes what we remember is that first narration that we told. It’s not actually the real thing, per se, but it’s the narration, the words that we told back. Anyway, I thought about the times when my husband and I would talk about sermons. We would discuss one, and then years later, I would remember that discussion more than the original content.

Sonya: More than the actual delivery of the sermon. You remember what you said about it.

Laura: In my own life, I’ve seen the importance of that narration. So to teach our children and to do it correctly with them is lifelong for them.

Sonya: Absolutely. So how does this mama do it with all of these children in the oral narration phase and not just copying the first one? In my mind, there are many ways you can approach an oral narration with several children. The first one, which she doesn’t want to do very often, is to line them up, youngest to oldest, and say, “Okay, youngest one go first. And now the next one.” You could have them each do the whole narration again, but I think that would be a bit redundant, and that’s where she’s coming into these problems. So another way to approach it would be have the youngest one give the narration and then just go down the line: “Do you have anything to add? Do you have anything to add?” But we don’t do this one very often.

Laura: They say, “Nope, we don’t have anything else to add.”

Sonya: “Oh, he did a great job, yeah! We don’t need to add anything.” So don’t use that one very often, but you could also do, “You start,” and when you get into it a little bit then say, “Okay, hold it there. Who do you want to pick it up from there? Oh, you want Joey to do it? Okay.” Then Joey picks it up from there and then, “Hold it. Who goes next?” So it’s kind of like popcorn style, and the kids never know which section of the story they’re going to have to narrate, so they’ve got to be paying attention to the other narrations as well.

Laura: I definitely think that that works well and I’ve used that in my home. Leading up to that, as far as training them, I have given them a heads up to say, “Okay, Chloe, you’re going to be the one to narrate first so give your full attention,” because she’s younger—six, seven, eight, you know, younger years. To build her up for success, I have given her a heads up that she will be the first one to narrate or she’ll be the one doing this next section that we’re reading. We have weaned away from that, but to build up their confidence and that habit of, like you said, listening, processing, putting it in the correct order, telling it back, I feel like that has to be mastered first, in a lot of ways, before we can branch out to these other methods and styles.

And you know your children best. I’ve done it both ways: I have let my children know ahead of time, but I’ve also done it that way where the children choose who’s next. I’ve done it from youngest to oldest, all kinds of combinations. They have grown in their ability to narrate, for sure, using those things.

Sonya: That reminds me of another way to set them up for success, especially if they’re having trouble with the sequencing.

Laura: Yes, that’s hard.

Sonya: I think of it as shining a spotlight on the different segments of the story. So you might say, “At the beginning of this story, so-and-so did this. What do you remember about that part of the story?” And get that narration, maybe from this child, and then say, “Okay, next in the story, this happened. What do you remember about that?” and say which child you want to narrate that section. So you’re not asking direct questions on the content, you’re just saying, “Let’s take this section and you tell me about it, and then this, and then this.”

Laura: Giving them the key words ahead of time definitely helps. It’s kind of like spotlighting, but in a different way. I give each child a person or a place or an event. That way it’s the one that they’re specifically looking forward to hearing about. It helps them hold that attention. Even though a lot of other things are happening, it’s almost become a game. That has worked well, especially when you go back to what you’re saying, spotlighting the different events of the chapter or the story.

Sonya: And you can also do those other methods of narration. For example, if you have all kids in the early elementary age and they’re all doing oral narration, you could say, “Each of you draw a picture of your favorite part of the story.” And then when they’re done drawing, have them take turns telling you about their pictures.

Laura: You’re going to need them to tell you about their pictures, because you might not be able to tell what it is. So, that usually works well.

Sonya: And you always want it to end up orally. You want them to be able to say something at the end.

Laura: We’ve had quite the adventures in our living room when we read a chapter. Some of the stories or chapters lend itself well to acting it out.

Sonya: Yes.

Laura: This past school year we were studying Early Modern, so a lot of wars happened, a lot of situations, a lot of strategic things had to be in place for other events to happen. And so we had lots of war acted out in our living room.

Sonya: Historical reenactments!

Laura: Yes! And it wasn’t okay just to do it one time, because everybody wanted to trade roles and the people that they played. A lot of the children actually loved being the bad guy, loved being the mischievous person that had to chop off somebody’s head or something. They remember that. They’re able to recall those events well, and that’s one of the goals of narration.

Sonya: Absolutely! So, the other part of the question was transitioning into written narration. When does that happen and how does that happen?

Laura: That’s a great question. In my home, when I know a child is getting close to the age 10, it’s on my radar. I know it’s coming. I feel like we’ve really tried to master the oral narration; so once they turn 10 or that school year they’ve turned 10, we’ve just had to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk about what my expectations are, what’s going to be happening. That way they’re not frustrated with, “Okay, go write it.”

Sonya: Good point. That could hit them broadside; they don’t know what’s happening.

Laura: I give them that ownership of “You’re maturing, you’re getting older in your school years, and so this is one of the next things that you’re going to get to do.” I like to give them a pep talk that it’s gonna be okay: “You don’t know how to do this yet, but we’re going to get there, and this is what we’re going to do.” I’ve done that with my older ones and it has helped not have as much backlash or a heart of “oh, this is so hard, I don’t want to do it.” It hasn’t happened all at once. We’ve had steps. “We’re going to do written narrations together for a while. You’re going to tell it to me, and I’m going to write it.” And it may be when the younger ones are busy doing something else. I think it’s a matter of knowing the end result that you want. Let’s say, transitioning, you want to eventually have two written narrations a week from your 10-year-old. To get to them independently doing two written narrations a week, you’re going to have to backtrack and say, “Okay, let’s start with us doing one together.” And then we’re going to meet together again and it’s going to be me writing 90% of it and then the child does the conclusion.

Sonya: I think that’s a great way to transition, because then the child’s not looking at a blank sheet of paper, getting writer’s block.

Laura: Right.

Sonya: And let me just throw this in too. Ten years old is when Charlotte recommended we transition, but if you’re starting narration with an older child, you might want to start with oral first, because the 10-year-old mark assumes that the child has become fluent in the oral part of it.

Laura: Right.

Sonya: So that’s another thing as you consider when to make the transition.

Laura: Right. Knowing your child best, knowing that you feel 100% confident that they can do those oral narrations well, the next natural step is to switch them over to a few written narrations a week.

Sonya: And then, as you said, you could go ahead and type or write what they’re saying and stop like a sentence from the end and say, “Here, you finish it up.” That’s not so overwhelming. And then as you do that more and more, you could stop sooner and sooner and gradually get to where they’re writing the whole thing.

Laura: Sure. One of my older daughters has a flare for the dramatic. And so, to transition her over to written narration, she would write plays. She would write the scripts of the story that happened and she would give the other children their assigned roles and they would get in costume and she was the director of that play.

Sonya: Nice.

Laura: But that was her way of doing a written narration, getting the whole family to act this scene out, which lent itself well to her just writing a normal narrative eventually.

So, for me to give her the freedom to express herself confidently in a different way than maybe ultimately what I wanted to get to, really helped her transition over to not being fearful to write.

Sonya: That’s a great point. Because Charlotte did have her students write scenes from plays; they would write letters, diary entries, poetry form. So you could tailor-make that to whatever the child’s really interested in to set them up for success, give them that boost of confidence to begin with.

Laura: That just made me think of another crazy thing she did this year. One of the stories we were reading about was a letter that one of the Americans had written to King George. She had gotten distressed paper, and she had crumpled it around the edge. She’d gotten her feather pen out. She had done it in script. She even got the wax seal, folded the paper, and did the seal just like, in her mind, she had envisioned it.

Sonya: Yes!

Laura: So that was her written narration for that. I went to my school desk and saw it, and I’m thinking, “What in the world? Where did this come from? Why do I have a wax-seal letter here?” And it was great! And of course that went in our keepsake box for the school year.

Sonya: Along with the different styles, the scripts and the poetry and the letters and such, Charlotte also had the children progress in the types of narrations they were writing. Eventually your goal, long-term, is that they will be able to write a narrative—which is to tell the story—that’s where it starts, and then a descriptive—where they’re describing how something looks or works, an expository—which is explaining something step-by-step, and a persuasive narration—which is “State your opinion and support it.”

Laura: Sure.

Sonya: And those don’t all happen at once.

Laura: Thank goodness.

Sonya: The kids get practice with the narrative in their oral narrations very easily. But then as they get confident with transitioning to written in those narratives, you can start bringing in a little bit of the descriptive, a little bit of the expository. It kind of depends on the chapter and what it lends itself toward.

Laura: I would agree, the content that you’re covering and what’s being discussed. Jumping back just for a second, I thought of one other thing I would love to mention. It seems like the question that, there was a little thread in there about, yes, transitioning children, but having multiple kids trying to give oral narrations. The comment that comes to my mind is being organized and knowing I need to spend time with this child getting this narration, so my other children need to be not under foot so that this child trying to succeed in their own narration has my full attention.

Sonya: Yes, it’s so easy if you’re not organized to say, “Oh, we don’t have time for that today. Oh, we don’t have time for that today.” And the child’s left hanging.

Laura: Or just the distractions of having multiple children in the home and trying to get these oral narrations directly after a reading when there’s just crazy happening. It’s hard when you do want to have your children all narrate back to you, and ideally you’re doing it in a group setting, but there’s also times when your children do need that one-on-one full attention from you for them to be able to give you their oral narration. So, I just say that as an encouragement to figure out what works best when your children do happen to need that one-on-one attention for their oral narrations when there’s a host of other children around or distractions happening. I don’t have the answer for that but I just know looking back in my homeschool, that is a challenge. To figure out exactly how to maneuver all the moving pieces when, you know, five kids need to give a oral narration directly after the history reading.

The ideas that you mentioned about the popcorn game, or going in a certain order, or a lot of other ideas for the narration, those are so handy to have. We’ve talked a lot about the Your Questions Answered: Narration book that has a lot of those troubleshooting type questions in there. “I have this situation. What do I do?”

Sonya: Yes.

Laura: Or “I have a high-schooler and an elementary. How do I manage this?” What else would you like to mention about that? I have it on my shelf and I use it.

Sonya: The Your Questions Answered: Narration book also has sample written narrations, which I think are very helpful when you’re wondering, “What should I expect from this kid? As they progress, when should I expect more and how much more should I expect?” So it has sample narrations. It has sample narration questions. A lot of getting those different types of narration—like expository and descriptive and persuasive—is all in how you word the narration question. And so it has sample narration questions. Oh, and another resource for that is the Narration Notecards.

Laura: I love those. This year was the first time we really used those. They were my go-to. One of the reasons I loved them so much is that I did not have the time to pre-read.

Sonya: It’s a common problem.

Laura: The bottom of my list of things to do is to pre-read. So, I could trust those Narration Notecards, and they gave me the confidence to be able to direct my children correctly. And to have the keywords and the dates, and be able to hand it to my older children for the spelling. Giving them the freedom, maybe, to choose between question two or three or whatever applied to them. Those were a life-saver for me this year, especially having a busy schedule, busy home. That was one of the things beyond me this year that I just couldn’t do, and so those were definitely by my side.

Sonya: Oh, good. I’m glad they were helpful. I think those two resources, Your Questions Answered: Narration book and the Narration Notecards, are going to help many mamas with narration.

Laura: Definitely great tools to have on the shelf! Whether you use them everyday or reference them every once in a while, they have definitely been a good resource for me.

Sonya: Excellent.

What about you? Do you have any extra tips that are going to help with narration? Leave those in the comments. Or do you have any questions that you would like us to discuss? Leave those in the comments, as well. We want to make sure we get your questions answered.

5 Responses to “Your Questions Answered: Narration with Multiple Children”

  1. Kelsey August 2, 2019 at 2:32 pm #

    I have a 10 yr old and a 9 yr old who have not done oral narrations for very long. I wanted to help them remember the order of events so we started doing it this way. We’re doing Story of the World as our History spine. We do about 1 section per day-we’re not delving deep yet, just getting an overview. For each section they each have a printout I made that has a spot for key words, the place, and years involved. Those things they just copy from my notes. Then below that they have four blank squares. Each section has about 4 pages so I read one page, then give them about a minute to make a little drawing-just stick figures. Then after the whole section they come one at a time to explain their drawings. Currently I’m trying to encourage full sentences, then we’ll move onto linking the 4 bits of information into more of a narrative. So far it has helped a lot for organizing us, and they have the bonus of a written record of the chapters we’ve done. 🙂

  2. Jeanette Heintzman August 5, 2019 at 2:57 pm #

    Are we expected to do individual oral narrations as well as group narrations? That was unclear in this interview. Or, are the individual oral decorations just for kids that need the individual attention?

    • Sonya Shafer August 6, 2019 at 8:31 am #

      When reading to a group of children, you can use any of the ideas for a group narration. (If you have older children in the group, you could assign any of them to do an individual written narration instead if desired.) Individual oral narrations would be for books read by or to individual students.

  3. Karin Bellomo August 14, 2019 at 11:40 am #

    I have a question: I have been really wanting to start narration for some time but my children complain so much about the concept of “telling back” and I haven’t pushed it so far because I want them to enjoy our read aloud times. Please share any tips for easing into this habit without it becoming dreaded and without stealing the joy of story. Thank you!

    • Tamara Bell August 14, 2019 at 3:48 pm #

      When we ask children to narrate we are asking them to work hard. It’s important that when we ask them to narrate, we have our “why”. Why am I asking them to do this? Why should they narrate? Students often think they are being asked to narrate for our benefit. The truth is that we are asking them for their own benefit. When they are required to narrate children must remember, organize, sequence, and then form into their own words what happened in the reading. It’s a higher level process than true/false and multiple choice. It helps them cement the reading into their mind and make it there own. Charlotte called this the “act of knowing.”
      Sometimes children are helped by having Momma narrate. We can model the process (it’s hard for even me!) It’s important to give them a digestible amount as they learn the art of narration. This may mean that they are needing to narrate only a paragraph or an episode. Many recommend having learn the skill of narration by having them narrate Aesop’s Fables. I used this tool to introduce reading to my children and it worked. The fable are interesting, short, and lend themselves to moral lessons. We also only ask children to narrate readings that we want them to remember. When we are reading aloud Charlotte’s Web, Mark Twain, or The Hobbit, we just enjoy the readings. When we are working through history, science, The Word, a biography, etc, we ask for a narration. We want those details cemented it. If your children are baulking at narrating, try requiring 1-2 oral narrations a day and vary how you ask for narration. You can ask them to orally retell, draw a scene from the reading (they then have to tell you about the reading), re-create the scene with stuffed animals, etc. This will get them used to the skill and they will realize that Momma is requiring it despite protests.
      We have a wonderful series that details questions families had about the subject of narration. I encourage you to look through it as time allows. https://simplycharlottemason.com/blog/series/narration-qa/

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