Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Charlotte Mason's Method of Narration

Charlotte Mason’s Method of Narration

Home teachers looking over the ideas of Charlotte Mason ask, “What's narration?”

I answer, “It is creating the opportunity for a child to put the reading (experience or observation) in his own words.” It’s that simple. Sometimes it’s the simplest things in life that get overlooked.

Narration is generic. There is nothing strange or special about it, really. The ability to deliver ideas through spoken language has been fundamental to civilizations around the world for centuries. Yet, when I first read about how Miss Mason relied upon the method of narration in a child’s lessons I thought it very strange. As a young mother I had no familiarity with narration. How odd, and what a novelty I found Miss Mason’s 100-year-old method to be!

Narrating Crafts an Understanding
Narration was generally absent in my childhood. My education was incomplete of putting anything audibly in my own words. A docile and quiet child, I never raised my hand in class. And I was never called upon to speak. Except for the odd composition or project, the assignments that required me to follow a train of thought and craft an understanding in my own words, were few-and-far-between. 

Paperwork was the time-saving, big-classroom kind: boxes checked, letters circled, lines drawn from column A to column B. Homework was a questionnaire or lists of facts to cram for tests. Suffice to say, I found Miss Mason’s method of narration to be refreshingly appealing.

Immediately, upon reading about narration, I wanted my children to have the advantage of this basic power of expression. Although in the 1980s I hadn’t yet met a teacher primarily using narration for schoolwork I sought to make narration intrinsic to our home learning experience. I had an awkward time of it at first. Apprehension hung over my head. But after some trial and error we got into the groove. 

I consider the timing of this narration-enlightenment to be one of God’s blessings in our family. As a result of years of practice the Andreolas now rarely stop narrating – hopefully without recklessness – and hopefully with a listening ear or two. It spontaneously occurs around the breakfast and supper table, and in the car. Narration is personable.

Karen talking with the baker at Lands Valley

Oral Tradition
Down through history, how did cultures convey something they wanted the next generation to remember? Children grew up with oral tradition - usually in the form of stories. The ancient Greeks had their mythology. We still refer to the constellations they named with their characters. 

The Greek teacher Aesop, taught morals by way of fables. Notice my book (pictured) is titled The Aesop for Children. Aesop originally wrote these short stories for adults. His animals act out the idiosyncrasies of people - people like us – with their failings or good sense.

Narration is an exercise in “the art of knowing.” With narration a child learns by doing. Having to work at putting something in his own words, a child gains comprehension - and proves it. Narration is a wonderful way of passing on knowledge that is both meaningful and memorable to children. It gets to the heart of the matter. And impression with expression has staying power.

Narration is low-cost (except in economy of time.) And yet it is so effective as a learning tool, it is a valuable use of time. It takes time for a child to “tell” and for you to listen. It takes time for a child to write a narration and to illustrate it for his notebook. And time for a child to, perhaps, once-in-a-while, read his narration to Dad after supper. 

Begin Anytime
If you’ve missed opportunities for narrating, fear not. You can begin right where you are. Since an Aesop fable is short but meaningful - it makes a good source for a new narrator – of whatever age. Read aloud the fable to your student (but not its moral at the end.) Then, ask the student to tell it back in his own words (and guess the moral).

An older student might be more comfortable reading the fable silently and then penning his spin on it. After several he might find it “cool” to come up with his own fables – and morals – like Arnold Lobel did. I remember my son narrating from the humorous, but sensible, pages of Arnold Lobel’s Fables. 

Our Dearest Narrator
What is one of the teaching methods of Jesus? Through parables His hearers gained insight to what the kingdom of heaven is like. The parables of our Lord are short and meaningful, easy to remember, easy to be passed on - to be narrated person to person.

The Road to Emmaus by Robert Zund

I wonder what Jesus spoke – shortly after his resurrection - when he walked incognito with two men on the road to Emmaus. It was a seven-mile walk. He must have talked a long time. Luke says that “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets he expounded to them in all the Scriptures, the things concerning Himself.”

Later at supper, when Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, their eyes where opened. The moment they recognized him, Jesus vanished from sight. They said to one another, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the road?” They were so excited that they got up from the table to walk the seven miles back to Jerusalem, to tell the other followers. I imagine that these especially privileged (yet un-named) men treasured Jesus’ personal narration for years to come. They probably shared it over and over again, in their own words, for the rest of their lives.

The Vikings told stories around a blazing fire. The American Indians passed on their knowledge to their children with practical hands-on training and with stories. Who are we letting tell the stories to our children? Those who tell the stories are the ones guiding the next generation. 

A sweet hymn came to mind while I was writing this post. You might know it. The first verse is:

I love to tell the story of unseen things above.
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story because I know ‘tis true;
It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.

Has a form of narration found its way into your life?

Post Script
Most of the photographs on this post were taken at Landis Valley Museum.
My daughter, Yolanda, while in Maine, took the water themed photographs. I think they’re beautifully peaceful.
A Charlotte Mason Companion has chapters that explain the philosophy of narration and its benefits. I also give examples of its use. Narration is applicable to a range of literary subjects. It is flexible enough to be made suitable for a range of ages. My book, Story Starters gives students opportunities to narrate creatively.

On her Charlotte Mason blog, Sonja Shafer has generously answered questions that commonly arise on the how-to of narration.

It’s nice to have you stopping by my place in the blog neighborhood. May it support your way of life - in some way - in bearing fruitfulness.
Karen Andreola


  1. How fun to recognize the location of your daughters photos! MDI is right near us. :)
    My 7 year old is an avid reader and it is impossible for me to keep up with him, or preread everything he reads, but narration could really help us slow down and talk more so I can find out what he is absorbing. Thank you for the reminder to do this! We have done it just a few times. I found that at first he was nervous but when I started typing his narration, he loved seeing his words appear so quickly on the computer screen.

  2. I have been inspired for years by your writings and as I read this post there was such a peaceful spirit about it. It was soothing and encouraging and enlightening all at once. Thank you for your inspirational words!

  3. What an encouraging post, Karen! Thank you!!! We have both of those books you featured here. I need to dust of my Lobel title...that would make a nice afternoon read! Aesop's is well loved here!

  4. I find that we naturally narrate. I may say to one of the children "What is your book about?" or "What part are you on?" that kind of thing. They will tell me all the details. It is also neat to hear the connections they make between things we are studying.

    Your photos and Yoli's are beautiful.


  5. I loved this so much I linked to it on my blog! I hope that is ok!!!

  6. Dear Karen,

    Your blog always encourages fruitfulness in my life. I thank you for that.

    A dear friend always used to ask, "What have you been reading lately?" Never content with just the name of the book, he wanted to know about the book...what was liked, what was disliked. Did the book make the reader better in any way? Was the book worth recommending?

    I've been asking my great-nieces to tell me the best part of their day and the worst part of their day since they were first able to answer that question. You've inspired me to start asking them about their reading. One of my nieces is in a bit of a reading slump these days. She thinks it's only for "school work" that one reads. Maybe this will encourage her to rediscover the delights of reading for one's very own enjoyment.


  7. Hello Ladies,

    How fun that Yolanda's photograph was a recognized spot. The blog world is smaller than I thought.

    My youngest students used to like very much when I read their oral narration back aloud to them - that I had taken in dictation. I'm sure they would have liked seeing their words appear on a screen.

    Thank you for passing it along to me that you've been encouraged (and with a peacefulness).

    Oh, I am honored that you would link or quote me. Thank you.

    Yes, dust off your Arnold Lobel. He is usually good for a laugh and more than a penny's worth of thoughts.

    Sharing the details of a book to a listening hear is an intellectual occupation that also builds relationship.

    To encourage a child to rediscover the delights of reading and see reading as something people willingly and eagerly do outside of "school" is one of the best kinds of encouragements I can think of.

    Going over in your mind something you have read during the day - in some quiet moments on your bed - really helps you to absorb it and make it your possession. This is something Leonardo Di Vinci said.

    Thanks for the chat, friends.
    Karen A.

  8. I love this as I do each one of your posts. I don't always comment because I tend to read them on my iPad and I have not set it up to comment from. The iPad is my "hit and run" method of reading favorite blogs I'm afraid.

    Love the photos! My daughter lives near Old Sturbridge Village and I thought it was my favorite place until we went to Colonial Williamsburg with her family a few years ago. It is quite amazing the peace I felt in both of those places.

  9. I wish we'd used narration more when the kids were younger.