When it comes to teaching our children the art of writing, it’s not enough that we employ copywork and choose living books from which to learn and grow. We must also ask our children to engage with the books—to think, consider, and understand the story or content well enough to explain it in their own words. This is called oral narration, a foundational Charlotte Mason methodology.
Narration is the act and art of telling another what one has read or learned.
Narration gives children an opportunity to:
- ponder, consider, and think upon the substance of their reading
- assimilate it by mentally organizing, sequencing, and categorizing the relevant material
- understand it well enough to recount it in spoken words
This practice later translates to written words. Indeed, oral narration is the foremost precursor to composition.
NARRATION AND NEUROPLASTICITY
Not only is narration a powerful tool that results in articulate speech and writing, but when a child engages in narration, the material itself moves from the short-term memory to the long-term memory. How? Through neuroplasticity.
You see, when a person is learning something new, there is a chemical change—a flow of chemicals within the fixed neural pathways. This chemical change is important. However it’s the physical change—the growth of new neural pathways—that we’re after. This can only happen when the child mentally and physically engages with the material on a deeper level.
Oral narration produces new neural pathways because the child must engage the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for memory and creativity. In order to narrate, a child must review in his mind the sequence of events or material learned (memory) and express his learning in his own unique words (creativity).
And narration (oral, visual, or written) is the manner in which knowledge can be creatively reproduced. It is tried and true, far superior to the methodologies used in school—namely fill-in-the-blank worksheets.
Several years ago, I received an email from a mom who expressed,
“I want to thank you because my daughter still remembers so many details she learned in your Astronomy book, even after three years. I realized this because this week she was playing a trivia game with our neighbors. The question she was given was, ‘How many Earths can fit inside the sun?’ My daughter was so excited because she knew the answer from Exploring Creation with Astronomy. However, the card had a different answer. She insisted her answer was correct. They looked it up and confirmed she was right. I was amazed that she could recall that small detail from a course we studied three years ago.”
I responded by asking her if she did all the experiments, activities, and projects in the book. She replied that they did not. Her daughter only read the text and explained to her what she had learned when she came upon a narration prompt.
The fact is, narration works. This simple activity of recounting creates the physical change in the brain that affects both long-term retention and the ability to comprehensively express one’s thoughts in words and in writing.
It’s a simple activity. After your child’s reading session, simply have him recount to you what he read. Most children are eager to do this.
Narration may seem easy, but the effort required to do it is much more labor intensive than you might think. It’s hard work to think. Most children are never taught to do it in all their years of education.
College professors bemoan the fact that their students have no desire or ability to think critically, to make connections, to understand the material learned.
One study of over a hundred thousand college students found that only four percent are competent in critical thinking.
And because it’s hard work on the brain, many children struggle when first asked to exercise their mind in this way. It can be arduous to develop neural pathways.
MAKING NARRATION A DELIGHT
What most people don’t realize is that narration is—in its essence—a verbal exchange, a dialogue between two persons.
Occasionally I’ve heard mothers say, “My child hates to narrate.”
My follow up question is, “Does he hate to tell you things?” or “Does she hate to have conversations with you?”
Because this is what oral narration truly is—a conversation.
Our children naturally enjoy discussions with us. They delight to tell things they’ve learned or discovered. Why then would a child dislike oral narration if his natural inclination is to enjoy interacting with you in this manner?
We must be careful that we don’t make narration into an arduous chore—a stressful, unpleasant examination or test—rather than the delightful conversation it really is and should be.
So how do we make oral narration a delight? By treating the activity as a natural, organic dialogue rather than a test.
We need not say in schoolish tones, “Okay, now narrate what we just read.” That doesn’t feel organic; that doesn’t feel natural. What we want to do is enter into a conversation with our child. If he is genuinely struggling to learn the skill of narration, begin by telling what you thought of what war read—something that struck you—and then ask your child to comment on that.
Treat the exercise as you might a book club. There, everyone arrives to discuss the book. Someone starts with a thought or asks a question related to the book. If everyone has read the book, a lively discussion will happen naturally.
The purpose of oral narration is to use the ideas that sparked the imagination from the reading as catalysts for dialogue, deeper thought, and discussion.
STARTING THE CONVERSATION
Young children who are in the habit of narrating will become champions at narration (both oral and written) as they get older. However, if you’re just starting narration with older children who are reading independently, you can teach the skill by first asking open-ended questions, such as:
Science, history, or other academic subjects:
- What was the most interesting thing you learned?
- What was something you already knew?
- Could you picture any of it in your mind while you were reading?
- If you had to teach that to a group of little kids, what would you tell them?
Novel or other types of literature:
- What just happened and what do you think’s going to happen next?
- What is the thing the main character wants the most?
- What is keeping the main character from obtaining that?
- Who or what is the villain, the thing that is an obstacle to the main character?
- What are you afraid is going to happen?
- What do you hope is going to happen?
- How do you think the book is going to end?
These conversation starters should be approached as a tête-à-tête, not an examination.
BENEFITS OF NARRATION
Develops the habit of attention: Children who are expecting to tell back or have a dialogue about what they read will naturally be more attentive to the lesson. This will become a habit if practiced regularly.
Develops thinking skills: As they assimilate the information in their mind by ordering, sequencing, and categorizing it, they develop critical thinking skills. Reasoning comes into play because they have to reason their learning out before they can explain it to another.
Develops long-term retention: I mentioned before, when a child has explains what he knows, the knowledge is transferred to the long-term memory.
Develops vocabulary: As the child remembers the special words from the reading and uses them in his narration, they organically increase their vocabulary.
Develops oratory skills: It’s been said that 95% of people fear speaking in public more than death. That means 95% of people would rather be in the casket than at the podium. Children who have developed the habit of narration are naturally more articulate. They can think and speak what’s on their mind in a comprehensive manner without effort. Half the battle is won if the child can get over the hurdle of an audience.
Develops writing skills: Writing is thinking with pen in hand. If you’ve taught your children to think well through the act of narration, they will naturally be able to write well.
In the next post, I’ll discuss the progression from oral to visual to written narration and how that translates to notebooking. I truly believe narration is one of the most important tools in our Charlotte Mason toolbox. If we approach the activity with joy, and move serenely, sweetly, and steadily forward as our children’s brains develop, we’ll find narration is a delight for everyone involved.