What Happened? The Art of Narration
by Stephanie Marshall Ward
Photo from worldofstock.com
Photographer: Carrie Singletary
This article explores narration - inspired by Charlotte Mason.
Two-year-old Addie and 2-1/2-year-old Nathaniel, who are in my care while their parents work,
have several favorite phrases in their repertoires. Along with the ubiquitous "me" and "mine," a favorite
refrain is "what happened?!" Usually, Nathaniel or Addie answers his or her own question.
Sometimes, the child tells what he or she just did.
Nathaniel, having just dropped the father figure from the dollhouse set, says "Daddy fell down!" with a delighted grin.
The toddlers often provide moment-by-moment commentaries on their own activities:
"Addie is reading the Clifford book!" or "I'm throwing the ball!"
Or the child describes something he or she just saw. "The squirrels chasing each other!"
With all the ecstasy of a child experiencing a new gift, they glory in their newfound verbal skills.
They use these "what happened?!" moments to draw attention to themselves, enliven their activities,
and share their experiences. And they always seem to delight in my response.
Nathaniel and Addie are at amazing age, when verbal skills are burgeoning. My older daughter Sarah also reached this point,
somewhere between ages two and three. After watching her, for months, engaging in what seemed to be
imaginative play, I felt as if a mystical door had just been thrown open, revealing her rich imagination. I revelled in it. At one point, when she was somewhere between ages two and
2-1/2, I was amazed to realize she already understood the concept of dreams. She had laid her
small Winnie-the-Pooh figure on his plastic bed and was acting out a scene with other figures from the same playset (including a duplicate of the now-sleeping Pooh figure) right beside him. "This is Pooh's dream,"
In this way, the art of narration (telling), a cornerstone of Charlotte Mason's and other classical
education approaches, begins to blossom.
Part of Mason's genius was that she crystallized and built upon the ways in which children naturally learn and develop. Narration, the act of "telling," is an integral part of the naturally unfolding process of
learning language, and of the child's
cognitive, emotional, and social development. I believe this simple, yet incredibly sophisticated,
act is as natural to a developing human as swimming to a fish. It is how we share
experiences, learn to think and understand, reveal our emotions and imaginings, and keep stories alive. It is an art which a child develops throughout different developmental stages. Mason seemed to understand this, and refined it into a powerful teaching technique.
As children grow, they usually love to have adults or older children read to them or
tell them stories. I can personally vouch for the fact that a toddler typically wants to hear the same story again and again. One parent once divulged to me that she and her husband had - in desparation - hidden their one-year-old's favorite book for a while. They felt they simply could not face The Cow Says Moo one more time without irreparable damage to their sanity. Soon, the child begins retelling
these favorite stories, "reading" aloud as he turns the pages, or telling parts of it while she runs around or
plays with toys.
Charlotte Mason's educational method uses formal narration - beginning around age 6 -
as an essential part of daily learning. The child listens to a single reading of a
passage from a book then retells, in his or her own words, what he has heard.
"As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should 'tell back'
after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.
A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention;
but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning,
summarising. and the like."
(A Philosophy of Education, Volume 6 of the Charlotte Mason
Series, "Author's Preface."
This seemingly simple and natural act of telling is actually a challenging and sophisticated
technique. Through this method, the child develops the "Habit of Attention," gaining
the skill of intense mental focus on the thing being learned. In this way, Mason's students learned complex
material perfectly, after reading or listening one time. They were able to recite what they had learned at the end of the term,
without further review or study.
teaches all the essential skills instilled by the best teachers.
Students learn to read or listen attentively, extract the main ideas, and summarize.
They gain the ability to sequence ideas
and events, which develops abilities in logic,
critical thinking, and communication along with reading and listening skills. They build skills in reading comprehension, visualizing, reasoning, synthesizing, and generalizing. They develop understanding of
character development, setting, mood, theme, and other literary concepts. They gain writing and
speaking skills. The
child accomplishes all this through narration, without the need for reading curricula, textbooks,
study guides, worksheets, or other teaching aides. It is, in the opinion of many homeschoolers,
the most effective and certainly
the cheapest method going.
The resources listed below, and others, offer coaching on how to begin having your children do narrations. Before age 6, according to Charlotte Mason, a child should not be asked to narrate, though we should listen to and encourage the spontaneous "narrations" the child offers about stories, ideas, or experiences. With a younger child (ages 6-10), narration should be done orally, though I like to jot down my daughter's narration as she gives it. I later type it, adding capitalization and punctuation, and give her the opportunity to illustrate it before placing it in one of her notebooks. Written narrations begin when the child is ready, around age 10 or so.
There are many variations in the narration process. A book or story is typically the subject of a narration, but a child can also narrate a walk in the park, a dream, a conversation, or a half-hour spent watching the bird feeder. An illustration of a story, book, or experience is a type of narration. We sometimes use Penny Gardner's narration cube, and some families use a narration jar. The links below have been helpful to me, as a novice home schooler and student of the Charlotte Mason approach, and will take you to many more ideas.
copyright by author
Helpful Online Resources on Narration
Ambleside Online's Narration Discussion
Narration Beats Tests by Karen Andreola
Narration Jars and Other Tips on Narration by Wendi Capehart
Narration by Penny Gardner
Narration by Catherine Levison
The Original Homeschooling Series by Charlotte Mason
Narration:The Art of Storytelling by the Parker Family
Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 4, page