Narration for the Newbie by Carroll Smith
The next series of Charlotte Mason Institute Blog posts on narration are a conclusion to what I started by in the summer. Narration, the practice of students telling back after a single reading what they have heard or read, is a cornerstone in the educational practice of Charlotte Mason. The previous posts on narration began to set the background for these more practical posts on narration. In these my wish is to help those who are just beginning to use Mason’s ideas, to give as clear as possible an understanding of narration and to provide practical suggestions on how to narrate. The following question format is my attempt to condense my years of research into a user friendly format so the beginning parent or teacher can implement narration immediately. From decades of working with educators in schools, homes and colleges, I unreservedly say that narration is both an essential key to learning and a most satisfying and worthy life possession. This post and the ones that follow are not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of narration.
1. What is narration?
At its most basic level, narration is a retelling of what a person has experienced, and as an educational practice it requires a student to carefully listen or read so that after a single reading, he can describe with detail what happened. The describing can take various forms: oral, written, dramatic, drawing, etc.
Narration involves the full powers of the child’s mind as this practice requires significant mental processing, organising thoughts, imagining and language development as he must carefully attend to the material, see in his minds eye all that he reads or hears, organize it so he can give it back using his own words, drawings, or actings. It is through this kind of processing, of assimilating, and giving back that the material becomes his own, that his knowing becomes real.
Although narration is used most frequently with reading texts of living books, it can also be used to retell or carefully describe other things like pictures, specimens, buildings or theater performances that the student has observed attentively. However, this article will primarily deal with narration as it relates to reading, either with read-alouds or independent student reading.
2. What are living books?
In a Mason context narration is used daily with the slow reading of literary texts written by the best writers our culture can offer. These books are known as living books. Mason knew that these rich, well written literary narratives have the power to delight and engage children because they naturally pull the students into the story, and it is these kinds of books that work so naturally in conjunction with the imagination and mind of the child. Liz Cottrill of the Living Books Library says she thinks of living books as “re-living” books because they are written with a power that engages the children’s imaginations so they relive what they have read.
Therefore, not all books are living and thus are not narratable.
3. Why is narration important?
A. Narration is the means to know truly. Mason (1954) called this narration process the act of knowing (p. 99) and I think it is one of her brilliant educational contributions. For knowing to be real, we must be able to give it back, so what we can’t narrate we don’t really know. This richer, deeper way of knowing in which the child processes, assimilates, and gives back what she has read has a vital transformative power to nourish, grow, and steady the student for life. This kind of knowing develops character and quite simply, our children are impoverished without this kind of knowing.
Knowing can easily elude us in this fast paced digital information age enamored with data collection, sound bites and virtual and digital images. We are glad and relieved when our children pass their required state tests that are designed to prove that the child has met the state’s standards (although tests really aren’t good at proving this). The cramming of facts and skills measured by some multiple choice test is a barren, ignoble substitute for real knowing; it has no power to transform our children’s character. We must resolve that knowing something or someone is far more than a mind filled with data, just as we resolve that riches are far more than the amount of money we have.
B. Since narration helps students own what they know, this kind of knowledge is transformative and builds moral character. Our goal in a Mason education is for our children to grow in character, to live full, generous, enriching lives. Moral development comes through having relationships with many people, and in Mason’s model, as students read and narrate excellent biographies, narrative histories and other engaging literary forms, they meet many people past and present. As these characters’ battles, inventions, hardships, disappointments, sacrifices, creations, good and bad choices are not just dry facts, but have that living vitality; they awaken children to wonder, to care, to explore things, ideas, and ennoble their decisions as we never know who or what they meet that will supply, inspire or illuminate future decisions. We can see how the knowing that comes from reading and narrating these wonderful living books is transformative. Brian Cambourne, back in the 1980s, wrote about this transformative power. He says, “Transformation is the process that enables learners to ‘own’ or be responsible for their learning. The process of making something one’s own involves learners transforming the meanings and/or skills that someone else has demonstrated into a set of meanings and/or skills that are uniquely theirs. In the domain of language, this is highly similar to creating personal paraphrases. Expressing some concept or knowledge in one’s own words while closely approximating the core meanings involved seems to co-occur with the decision to take control of (i.e., assume ownership of, take responsibility for) the concepts and knowledge involved. Our data suggest that learning that is not accompanied by transformation is shallow and transitory” (p. 188).
Mason’s whole educational theory and methods are designed to avoid this “shallow and transitory” learning. How we short change our children when the goal of their education is facts and skills for multiple choice questions rather than real knowing. More is written on the relationship between the knower and the known and observation in a Mason paradigm on the Charlotte Mason Institute blog at www.charlottemasoninstitute.org.
Why do we narrate? We narrate to know, to be changed, to be better persons, to love our neighbour, to understand our fellow man, to be strong citizens, to have strong moral character, to not be persuaded by destructive arguments that can seem so very correct.
C. Narration develops students who are better readers, thinkers, and writers in a holistic way. Narration calls forth a deeper understanding and engagement with text, places, people and things so it increases the child’s capacity to understand, consider, wonder, imagine, and critique among others things. The practice of narration involves the full powers of a child’s mind in a way that other instructional practices such as end-of-lesson teacher questions, fill in the blank worksheets, memorising, or end of chapter comprehension questions simply do not. Mason described how narration developed a child’s ability to “generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discrimininate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, ” (p. 179) and Husband using her language says, “condense, classify, generalise, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour with their minds in one way or another” (p. 616).
The above abilities are the elements that develop good readers and writers. Reading strategies, such as how to sequence, critique a given content, or infer are all naturally embedded in the practice of narration so the child who is reading and narrating many living books is not only finding delight but is developing naturally as a reader and thinker without continual teacher directed questioning.
Narration serves as a tutor for good composition. Copious amounts of reading and narration, consistently done over time, serves as a tutor for good writing. With the steady daily practice of narration, echoes of the great writers become part of the student’s thinking and writing. She who reads and narrates much becomes a better speller and writer, using richer and varied vocabulary, greater imagery, and more interesting sentence structure. Often children raised in Mason’s educational model need very little formal writing instruction. The key is consistent, daily narrations as a way of life, not an “educational activity” tacked on the end of a lesson. For more about composition and narration, Sandy Rusby Bell and others have written about the importance of narration for composition and the teaching of composition in posts on the Institute blog at www.charlottemasoninstitute.org.
The next post will answer such questions as: Is Narration a Fad? What are guidelines for narration? What about the Preschool Child? What about the older child coming to a Mason paradigm for the first time and more. . . ?
Cambourne, B. (1995). Toward an educationally relevant theory of literacy learning: Twenty years of inquiry. The Reading Teacher, 49, 182—190.
Husband, G. F. (1924). Some notes on narration. Parents’ Review, 35(9), 610—617.
Mason, C.M. (1953). Home and school education: The training and education of children over nine. Oxford: The Scrivener Press.
Mason, C.M. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education: A liberal education for all. London: J. M. Dent & Sons LTD.
© 2014 by Carroll Smith
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