What Narration Is and What Narration Is Not: My Opinion

In my humble opinion, narration is quite misunderstood. One of the newer habits I have aimed to introduce into our home education is the art of narration. I once read that an art is something practiced, but it is not a system to be mastered.

In my humble opinion, narration is quite misunderstood.  One of the newer habits I have aimed to introduce into our home education is the art of narration.  I once read that an art is something practiced, but it is not a system to be mastered. 

My oldest narrating the Frog and Toad story, “Down The Hill”. He recreated the scene by designing the sled in the story.

My go-to book for the art of narration has been Know and Tell: The Art of Narration by Karen Glass. It is a resource I have referred to from time-to-time.  At the same time, I have found a look at Your Questions Answered: Narration by Sonya Shafer to be helpful in coming up with alternatives to the question, “What did you read about?”.   I also designed a narration matrix to provide a variety of ideas you can implement to practice the art of retelling. It does not have to be boring!

In short, narration helps one to practice sifting through a reading.  A student beholds knowledge for herself as she sifts through and articulates her own relationships between the subjects and herself. 

I’ve found that our readings of The Story of the World (Ancient Times) captivate my seven-year-old son’s attention and engage us all.  The subjects in the history stories come up at mealtimes, during car rides, and within questions at bedtime.

I am not a purist, and I’m learning to do this thing called narration, however imperfectly.  I know I’ve been lacking in some areas, and I haven’t consistently kept up the habit of follow-up discussion after narration.  I’m going to keep up narration, though!

The texts from which I usually ask my seven-year-old son for a narration:

The Story of the World (Ancient Times)  (after he listens to me read)

Independent reading books, like Frog and Toad All Year  and Sharks (after he reads aloud)

If you don’t know where to start, just remember that oral narration is usually NOT practiced before age six.  Written narration happens a lot later – at earliest, age nine.

“The Corner”, from Frog and Toad series. Narration by drawing.

Narration is NOT Memorizing

Rote memorization is not about building relationships with the subjects in a book.  Narration is about building relationships.  No matter how basic or flawed, a child’s oral narration can give him enormous benefits of synthesizing information.  He doesn’t extract rote sentences he has memorized from the story. He puts together the pieces of the story, recounting them, simultaneously making meaning. Children are given mental food, i.e., books.  It is their job to assimilate it for themselves.  Think of the books we give our children as a feast.  We do not give them just one kind of mental food during their feast.  Neither do we chew the food up for them and feed to them like they are baby birds (GROSS!).  Rather, we feed them the right quantity and variety, and they assimilate it into their being.  Giving a narration is like digesting the mental food.  Yum!  If narration were merely memorizing, it would be like looking at the mental food, knowing about the mental food, but never eating nor digesting the mental food.  Are you familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy?  It’s like a hierarchy of thinking skills.  It goes from most basic, knowledge, to-comprehension-analysis-synthesis-and finally, evaluation. The most basic tier of the thinking skills is knowledge.  Memorization is an exercise in acquiring knowledge, BUT it is the most basic of thinking skills.  Karen Glass reminds us in Know and Tell: The Art of Narration that “narration gives us an opportunity to reclaim those higher-thinking skills for the next generation and even to develop them for ourselves” (2018, p. 25).  Agree with this statement, and you probably realize that narration is different from memorizing.

Narration is NOT Only Oral

Narration can take the oral form as early as age six.  However, around age nine, when hand muscles and reading skills have developed, written narration can begin. I love how Glass puts it so frankly here, in Know and Tell : “Too often we attempt to address the symptom of poor writing rather than the disease of weak thinking” (2018, p. 25).  So, she seems to say that weak thinking causes poor writing.  Perhaps.  If we start narration in the written form and fail to give children the chance to narrate orally first, then we are not exercising the muscles of critical thinking.  We must start orally, get the feel for synthetic thinking, then allow that same thinking process to flow out as words on paper.  I have not started written narration with my own children, but hope to be able to in the future, as they approach the recommended age.

Narration is NOT Formal Rhetoric Instruction

This is interesting.  There are different camps regarding how people best develop written language.  One camp believes it is prudent to learn formal rhetoric (i.e., a modern-day grammar and composition program) to be able to write eloquently.  Another camp believes that good rhetorical practiced can be achieved more naturally, through narration of good, living books.  For example, Augustine wrote:

And, therefore, as infants cannot learn to speak except by learning words and phrases from those who do speak, why should not men become eloquent without being taught any art of speech, simply by reading and learning the speeches of eloquent men, and by imitating them as far as they can?  And what do we find from the examples themselves to be the case in this respect?  We know numbers who, without acquaintance with rhetorical rules, are more eloquent than many who have learnt these; but we know no one who is eloquent without having read and listened to the speeches and debates of eloquent men.

 (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/doctrine)

So the question still remains: are formal grammar programs and composition instruction necessary?  Well, I do not know.  I believe they still probably have their place in education, BUT I am also apt to believe the efficacy of narration goes far beyond just developing thinking skills.  Since thinking skills are required in order to write well, I am in agreement with Glass that, “narration becomes the key that builds our relationship with knowledge, develops our thinking skills, and gives us the power to collect our thoughts and relate them accurately and effectively, both in speech and in writing” (2018, p. 12).  Yes, my homeschool will be focusing more on narration in these younger elementary years than on formal grammar and composition. 

Narration is NOT Done In Isolation

If we fail to give some context for what we are reading, it may cause frustration when the child is trying to give a narration.  Giving the children a little context about “what we read about last time” before jumping into the “what happens next” of today’s reading is suggested.  A discussion after narration cannot hurt, either.  The narration itself is not a discussion.  It is the child’s hard work assimilating knowledge to be conveyed in his or her own way, perhaps even in the same style as the author’s. The teacher leaves the children to do the work.  The teacher is not to interrupt and ask, “What’s his name?” or anything like that.  Remember, it is the child’s knowledge to behold, and he is working on developing this muscle. 

Narration is NOT Done In Response to Empty Books

As always, narration is to be done in response to literary books that convey a variety of ideas.  In other words, the books we read together must be captivating – not entertaining – rather, wholesome, substantial, and well-written.  Living books are those written by an author who is passionate about the subject, are well-written, fire the imagination, and engage the emotions.  If these criteria are met, then chances are, the book will be captivating to children. 

Narration is NOT Original to Charlotte Mason

Narration has been around for centuries.  The early Greeks “formalized the study of rhetoric, and narration was one of the earliest exercises, appropriate for beginners” (Glass, 2018, p. 13).  In the Greco-Roman world, the simpler topics of rhetoric practiced by beginners was called the “progymnasmata”.  Narration was one of these topics, and it was meant to give practice in telling something that occurred.  The thinking skills a student would have to employ are varied: paying attention to matters of definition, classification, differentiation from similar forms, and etymology.  How interesting!  We know the Ancient Greeks were advanced for their time, so this idea of narration is one to which we can pay attention.  Charlotte Mason paid attention, too!  She recorded the narrations of many of her students, aged six to eighteen. 

Narration of “The Corner” from Frog and Toad series with modeling clay.

Narration is Relationship-Building, NOT Contrived

I love this Karen Glass quote from Know and Tell:  

Everything will be connected and presented in some way that has required the narrator to think: to order and classify, to structure and formulate, and finally to articulate her thoughts in adequate sentences and vocabulary.  In short, the deceptively simple act of narration incorporates all the powers of the mind and exercises them in a coordinated way, just as tossing a ball requires the coordinated efforts of the nervous, skeletal, and muscular systems, which are energized by the digestive and endocrine systems. (p. 19)

So, narration connects mental processes, for sure.  Does it connect anything else?  For me, anecdotally, narration has allowed us to continue the conversation beyond the reading time.  We discuss the ideas and events found in our history at the dinner table.  The kids recount a scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis in their imaginative play together. So many ideas are being tried on and masterfully woven together during a narration and afterwards.  For us, narration has been a way to step into another person’s world.  Instead of asking questions like, “how does this passage make you feel?”, the narrator is asking more about a time and place and character that is outside of himself.  I think that is a good thing.  While introspection is good and has its own place, narration is not that place.  Let’s be the outsiders looking into another person’s world.  Mirrors can be good, too, but windows are paramount in narration.  I think that mirrors will occur, no matter what.  Identifying oneself with another character is a natural process that takes place while reading. Yet, the narration exercise takes more looking outside than looking inside. 

Narration is NOT Self-Centered and Introspective

Narration is certainly not spouting off facts as if they are just there to be spouted off and that’s it.  No.  Narration is thoughtfully describing the experience of another, the series of processes happening in the natural world, etc.   And narration helps us see things in relation to each other as they all rest under the unity of knowledge that only our trinitarian God provides.  I once read in Jen Wilkin’s book, Women of the Word, that one fallacy we tend to gravitate toward when reading the Bible is to look for OURSELVES in God’s word.  While we can certainly find out about ourselves by reading the Bible, our aim is better placed in finding out more about God Himself – His character, His relationship with us, His will.  The Bible is, after all, about Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Jesus was even referred to as “the Word made flesh” in John 1:14.  Mirrors are important, but if they do not reveal a greater Purpose and Power, the mirrors are empty. Narration is like this.  Narration takes looking into another person’s window much more often than looking at one’s own reflection in a mirror.

Want to talk more narration?  Let’s chat!  Email me and the conversation can continue. In the meantime, check out these fun resources I developed:

Narration Matrix

The Big Maine Basket

Until later, friends!  Have fun reading (and narrating) with your children.

Author: mylittlebrickschoolhouse

I am a homeschooling mom, who likes to think that I am always open to learning new ideas and methods to employ in our brick schoolhouse. I will keep you updated on our journey!

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