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Narration-So Simple, Yet So Complex by Shannon Whiteside

19 Nov 2017 6:39 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

            Narration or retelling is an essential part of a Charlotte Mason education. In some ways, it seems so simple that we may wonder if we should add more to make sure our students are really learning. However, the danger of adding more is that the students may actually be learning less. If the teacher is the one asking the questions, lecturing about the topic or summarizing the text, the students are not actively involved in assimilating the information to become their own knowledge that is personal, meaningful and a springboard for further thought and action. Mason understands that people may be skeptical about the perceived simplicity of narration and states, “This, of telling again, sounds very simple but it is really a magical creative process by means of which the narrator sees what he has conceived, so definite and so impressive is the act of narrating that which has been read only once” (Vol. 6, p.261).  The word “magical” can be defined as “beautiful or delightful in such a way as to seem removed from everyday life.” On the surface narration may seem simple, but beneath the surface lies a method that transforms the learner intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. I want to talk about the following three ways that I see narration as a “magical” educational practice: it values the role of the reader, it utilizes oral language and it leads to long-term memory.

            Narration values the role of the reader and what they bring to the reading process. Most of reading comprehension instruction throughout history has focused on comprehension-as-outcome (looking for the standard interpretation) or comprehension-as-procedure (mastering reading strategies) (Aukerman, 2013). These methods of reading instruction promote uniformity and finding the one correct answer the teacher is looking for, while narration promotes originality and allows students’ unique backgrounds, and idiosyncrasies of their thoughts and attitudes to shape their understanding of a text.  When children feel that their narrations are not being critically judged against some standard, they can feel free to enjoy narration as a chance to be a storyteller, or an artist or an actor. Certain readings will cause my children to want to act it out or even sing a song about it. I treasure those moments when their personality can really shine through.

            Mason did not want children’s narrations to be exact replicas of the text or to be overly focused on using the author’s language. Mason states, “He will recast, condense, illustrate, or narrate with vividness and with freedom the arrangement of his words. The child who has got only information will write and speak in the stereotyped phrases of his text-book, or will mangle in his notes the words of his teacher” (Vol. 3, p. 225). This ability to create a new, original narration shows that true learning has occurred. Meaning is not written straight from the text onto the blank slate of his mind. The text is not doing the meaning, the child is bringing his life knowledge to the piece. That is why we cannot interpret or narrate for them. Their background knowledge and experiences are different from ours and they can only make meaning from their perspective.  We cannot expect them to think about things or pick out the same ideas that adults would. Only this method of reading comprehension allows them to enter where they are. Comprehension questions do not allow any room for this individual meaning to take place. Mason consistently emphasized the fact that narrations were to be a reflection of the individual child and should reflect “a certain spirit and coloring which express the narrator.” She continued, “By the way, it is very important that children should be allowed to narrate in their own way, and should not be pulled up or helped with words and expressions from the text” (Vol. 1, p. 289).  Narration treats the child as a person and allows reading to be a relational, meaningful activity.

            The second way that narration is “magical” is that it utilizes oral language in the formation of cognitive development.  Everyone knows that children need many opportunities to talk in order to learn. However, most talk in classrooms or homeschools is geared around the IRE conversation which stands for Initiation, Response and Evaluation. The teacher initiates the question, the student responds and then the teacher evaluates the answer and states whether it is right or wrong. The questions are directed questions that the teacher already knows the answer to. The students are expected to answer in what has been called “final draft talk.” They are expected to have a polished answer where they show that they have already come to some conclusion about what they understood about that topic. It is mostly just repeating back exactly what was written in the book or what the teacher just said.

            The opposite of final draft talk is “exploratory talk” where talking is used as a means for coming to know or understand something (Barnes, 1992). This is where students do not have to have a polished answer before talking. They feel free to use language as a means for knowledge building. Narrating is a perfect example of this exploratory talk. When a student tells back, they are creating their narration “on the spot” and not expected to have this polished answer. Sometimes it may sound kind of rough to us with all the ums and run-on sentences. However, we want to encourage our children to talk freely and not interrupt them or judge them.  All these opportunities for language are building up their composition skills, their reasoning skills, their public speaking skills and incorporating new vocabulary into their language. Giving them a simple fact to recite or having them answer a comprehension question would take away all those opportunities for learning and growing. 

            This aspect of narration as a way of coming to understand a text is not emphasized as much as narration being a way to communicate what you know about a text.  However, I think this is an important facet of narration. When I asked my 11-year-old daughter about narration to get a child’s perspective, she said that when she reads something or listens aloud to something that is a little more challenging, for example Plutarch or ancient history, she is sometimes unsure whether she is understanding the passage during the reading process. But when she narrates and puts those ideas in her own words, she says that retelling helps her come to understand the text and make sense of it. When she first told me that, I was intrigued by that insight and had not thought of narration in that way.  Then I came across this quote from Mason, “But, it will be said, reading or hearing various books read, chapter by chapter, and then narrating or writing what has been read or some part of it, ––all this is mere memory work. . . he will find that in the act of narrating every power of his mind comes into play, that points and bearings which he had not observed are brought out” (Vol. 6, p. 16). Learning is happening at this unconscious level and it is brought out through narration.

            Narration is a “magical” process because it allows short-term memory to become long-term memory. The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. So how do we get information from the short- term memory to the long-term memory?  There needs to be a “dialogue” between those two kinds of memories. Even if a student is listening or reading attentively and thinks they have comprehended what they read, most of their thinking is in the short-term memory which will soon decay and is lost.  What is important is to actively and consciously reach into long-term memory through short-term memory to retrieve and think about and process the reading. The more we process and think about something new to the learned, the more enduring and retrievable the memories become. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham (2008) makes the simple but profound statement, "Memory is the residue of thought."  He continues, “What remains in your memory from an experience depends mostly on what you thought about during the experience . . . Students have to be given a specific task that will force them to think about meaning” (p. 20). Willingham does not mention narration, but narration sounds like the ideal way to implement that understanding of memory making. We cannot tell kids to just think about something because what does that mean? There has to be some kind of action going on, a turning over of information in their mind. Through narration you are naturally synthesizing, evaluating, and sequencing. Because you have the goal in mind of narrating, you are attending to the material before you. It is not questions set by a teacher that causes this deep thinking because a lot of questions, especially direct questions, do not require a lot of thinking. Direct questions already pull out specific facts for the student. It is the students asking themselves the questions that engages them in thinking.  Is not that the way Mason described the process of narration?  She said, “The mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself” (Vol. 6, p. 16).

            This idea of linking new knowledge to old happens naturally during narration because students are drawing on their previous readings from that text and adding new ideas and details they learned in the present reading. They are also drawing on experiences, vocabulary knowledge, understanding of characters, plots, human nature, other events that connect to this the new information. What is left over after thinking and reflecting or creating interaction between short-term and long-term memory is the stuff of learning.

             In a Parent’s Review article, the Emily Miall talks about this idea of linking old to new. She writes, “This mental digestion is not a rapid process; gradually fresh facts sink into the mind, associating themselves to facts already there, pictured in the imagination, weighed and accepted by reason, brooded over and developed; slowly new ideas take root, finding through many channels a resting-place in the intelligence, and mysteriously cherished till the day comes when they shall bear fruit. This operation cannot be hurried; every child, every youth and maiden will digest their knowledge in their own way and at their own pace; all that is wanted is leisure and rest. Knowledge acquired in any other way is absolutely worthless and temporary; it leads nowhere and to nothing; it is much unassimilated mental food doomed to be rejected.

(Vol. 3, p. 362). Those words should inspire us all to press on and realize that through the um’s, hesitations, and run-on sentences of oral narration, magic is taking place.


Aukerman, M. (2013). Rereading comprehension pedagogies: Toward a dialogic teaching ethic that honors student sensemaking. Dialogic Pedagogy Journal, 1(1), A1-A31.

Barnes, D. (1992). From Communication to Curriculum. Michigan: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Mason, C. M. (1989a).  Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original  work published in 1925).

Mason, C. M. (1989b).  Parents and Children. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.   (Original work published in 1925).

Mason, C. M. (1989c).  Philosophy of Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.   (Original work published in 1925).

Miall, Emily (1892). There is no necessity for it. The Parent’s Review, 3(5), 362-364.

Willingham, D. (2008) What will improve a student’s memory? American Educator, Winter  2008-2009.

© 2017 Shannon Whiteside


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