One of the most basic elements of a Charlotte Mason learning atmosphere is reading and narration. In its simplest form, reading and narration are reading (either by or to the student) followed by a re-telling in some fashion of what was read. Narration begins with the most basic “tell me what happened in our story” and works its way up through the hierarchy of thought processes until the student is being asked to infer information not directly related in the text, to personalizing the information about a character enough to decide if he/she would be a good friend. Charlotte advocated narrations after every reading. However, how much, how often and in what form your narrations take is entirely up to you.
Traditional narration is either done orally or through writing the narration out in a short paragraph or essay. In my opinion, creating a notebooking page or filling in a lapbook component that asks for information gathered from the text is a modern form of written narration. What narration isn’t is a fill-in-the-blank, workbook type exercise. You aren’t looking for specific information, necessarily. You’re wanting to see how well the child was attending to the reading. It’s not a fact-finding mission, but rather a comprehension exercise. In other words, if you were to read me a short biography of Madame Marie Curie and then ask me to tell you everything I could remember, if I answered that she was a famous scientist born in Poland and worked a great deal with early x-ray equipment, that would be a satisfactory narration. It wouldn’t matter that I couldn’t remember the dates of her birth or death, or the name of her husband, or when she was married, or that she worked mostly in Paris. I had understood and attended to the reading well enough to get the main points. Someone else may have retained the more specific information, but I had told you everything that was relevant to me.
No two listeners or readers will produce identical narrations. No two people hear, understand and process the same information in the same way. Perhaps one is more distracted than the other. Perhaps one is more fixed on certain details than the other. Perhaps one is more familiar with the material or subject of the text, and therefore doesn’t pay as close attention to this particular reading as the other. Narration is better for testing the comprehension of all learning types of students than any other exercise, because it makes allowances for all the different ways in which a person can hear and process information. You can even accommodate active learners with something I call “active narrations.”
Wiggly, giggly little boys and girls, and creative, hands-on older learners, can often become bored and distracted with oral or written narrations. They therefore give less than satisfactory narrations, not because they weren’t listening, but because they aren’t interested in narrating about it. So, ask them to draw you the setting, or what the character looked like. Have them act out a scene. They can record their narrations on video and simulate a television newscast, or on audio to make a radio play or newscast. Narration needn’t be confined to “tell me the story.” It can be as alive as the literature being narrated, and as creative as the children narrating.
Notebooking as narration is an excellent way to create a learning record or portfolio, especially as many Charlotte Mason homeschoolers don’t have nice neat workbooks, worksheets, quizzes, tests and whatnot to compile into a portfolio. Written narrations can also be placed into a notebook, along with drawings, videos, recordings, photos of building block settings, etc. When conducting only oral narrations, the parent-teacher has the option of taking them down as the child narrates, as a secretary would take a dictation. These can be added to the portfolio, either as is, or after being typed and printed. My children and I once created our own illustrated Bible story notebooks. I would read a Bible story, they would narrate. I would write out their narrations on a piece of blank paper. On another piece of blank paper, they would then draw a picture to accompany their narrations. When the two were placed in the notebooks facing one another, we had a two page spread of text and corresponding illustrations. The text and artwork were 100% theirs. The notebooks we created in that year serve as lovely reminders of that early year of our homeschooling, and as a record of all the Bible stories we learned that year.
This brings me to another point – narration shouldn’t be restricted to merely “literature.” Yes, literature – stories and poems – are perfect for narrating. But so too are science and history, Bible and biographies, even maths – all perfect sources for narrations. Asking a child to tell you how the lungs work after reading about it in a science book, or what sort of shapes were read about in your maths lesson is narration in its simplest, most basic form. Asking a child to tell you about a video or play they watched is also narrating in a less formal setting. Nor does narration have to be something that needs to “wait until later.” Younger children can benefit from narration just as much, perhaps even more, than older ones.
Narration needn’t be something you fear doing right or wrong. It needn’t be a “big deal.” And it shouldn’t be stressful or forced. When we see or hear or experience something of interest, we naturally want to share. That sharing, either orally or in writing, is narration. You’ve been doing it with your children since they could talk (possibly before) when you’ve asked about their day, their trip to grandma’s, their storybook, their movie or television show. You do it with other adults when you ask to hear about their day, or the latest book they’ve read or movie that they’ve seen. You just didn’t realize it. So, now that you’re familiar with it, even if you’re not a Charlotte Mason homeschooler, perhaps you can put down the comprehension worksheets and put the joy back into reading and sharing what’s been read!
Suzanne Stewart is a professional freelance writer and marketer, and the author of Homeschooling on the Cheap. She has been homeschooling her children since 2002, using mostly Charlotte Mason’s methods and philosophies. She has studied Charlotte’s writings, as well as others’ works on Charlotte and her ways. She lives just the other side of nowhere in rural WV with her 2 children, 2 dogs, 4 cats, a fish and a hamster. When not writing or homeschooling, she enjoys reading, playing flute and bowed psaltery, tramping across the hills and hollows of home, and practicing the arts and sciences of homemaking and motherhood.