Some Thoughts on Narration

by Donna-Jean Breckenridge

I have the blessing of seeing the end result of narrating. It's hard sometimes to keep asking for it (forcing it, sometimes) when you wonder yourself if it is really the best way of doing things. But my oldest did school this way all the way through, and she is very articulate and able to express herself well, both verbally and in writing, and I attribute that to diligence in narration.

Over the years we used many different narration techniques. Narration, to me, is similar to a 'workout' - you emphasize different muscles at different times.

In the early years, the habit of attention is the main goal. Children learn to train their minds to interact with the material, not to look out the window, think about what's going to happen after school, or poke their sibling :-) My child might not always get out of the reading what I would have gotten out of it - and they might even miss the three or four points I would like them to know, but they are learning the habit of attention. Learning a few random facts may make them sound 'educated' but they will be ill-equipped in the discipline of self-education for the work ahead that requires serious concentration and attention. (Just a note: if there is some fact that my children missed that I want them to really, really know, I teach it to them in a rhyme or song of some sort. I also might go over 'this is the name of the man in the next story,' so that they don't narrate it as 'there was this guy, I forget his name,' if the person's name is really crucial to learn. But otherwise I try and stay out of the way.)

With my younger two children (learning disabled son who needs me to read aloud the material, age 12, and daughter, age just-turned-9), I use Wendi C's idea of the beads. I have four different colored beads, and I select one out of my closed fist after a single reading of a chapter or section of a chapter. They've each chosen two colors ahead of time, so the color I pick determines who must narrate. I'll sometimes give them both the chance to 'gather their thoughts' before I select so that they both are prepared to narrate without knowing who will start.

My children's narrations are relatively short most of the time. Perhaps this is personality, perhaps this is difficulty of some of the material, or perhaps it's because I require narration after each chapter or section of a chapter that we read. (No school-time book is un-narrated in our house right now.)

I type their narrations on an old laptop (too slow for much else, but good for this) as they dictate them. This way I have a record of them (and their progress), and also I can read them back to them. This reinforces the idea that narration is, along with teaching the habit of attention, the foundation of composition. I will sometimes say 'Here's what you wrote: 'Tree in the Trail, chapter 20, by Nathan Breckenridge' - and they realize they are writing something. They also then hear their own errors. When they've heard back 'So then the guy is like 'This is a medicine tree' they usually ask me to correct it to 'So then the guy said'. They are beginning to hear how writing should sound.

(I have not always kept records of their narrations, and it's not necessary to do this. However, at other times, I've used a little child's tape recorder and had them narrate into that. We've also had times when I didn't record/write the narrations down in any way.)

Most of our narrations are in the form of 'Tell it back.' One child goes first, and when they're done, if the other child wants to add something, they can (though they don't have to.) But my children often ask to narrate in other ways. The idea of acting out doesn't usually work well for them - but they have done it a couple of times. They've sometimes drawn their narration. More often, they will want to do narration in question form. They'll come up with five questions from the material. They can ask the other child - or me! - to answer the questions, or we can leave them unanswered. Sometimes they want to do 'cliff-hangers' - the child whose bead is selected gets to start. "The Little Duke was sitting listening to the woman tell him stories. And then he heard outside and he ran to the window. And THENNNNN..." They usually draw out that last word, looking at me or their sibling to continue the 'cliff-hanger.'

The other day, my youngest daughter came up with a new narration idea. I had read them Farmer Boy, and she came up with 'fill in the blank' statements. Here is Hannah's 'fill-in-the-blank' from chapter 3. "When Almanzo was in bed, his mother yelled out to him, 'What are you doing, Almanzo? It's _______ o'clock in the morning.' At the end, Almanzo did not want to go to school because he did not want to see the big boys ________ Mr. Corse, but he had to. That night, it was ______ below zero degrees."

I was pleased that this narrative technique caused her to think more succinctly about sentence formation. When she does the 'tell it back' narration technique, her sentences nearly all begin with "And then" - and they run on and on and on. I don't correct that, but I did praise her for her expressive sentences when she did her 'fill in the blank' narration technique.

She asked her brother if he could give the missing words, and I was surprised when he gave all the correct answers (five, thrash, and forty).

Before I start reading a chapter or section, I sometimes ask if anyone remembers what happened last, or if someone wants to give a review. I make this voluntary - but I've noticed they're quite proud of themselves if they can tell me, especially since a week has gone by since they last heard it.

As children get older and improve on their narration skills, moving to written narrations often means moving to shorter narrations initially. The mechanics of writing slow some children down. That is sometimes a good thing, because it causes them to be more selective in what they say. But it's also important to maintain oral narration in some form all the way through high school. When my oldest daughter Bethany was in high school, she was allowed to choose which of her assignments for that day she would narrate orally (often it was something like a speech, which was already an 'oral' composition, or a play).

We moved to other narration techniques as Bethany got older. Initially that would come in the form of what would be called essay questions. That could be done with younger children as well, if the usual narration techniques are frustrating them. Usually, though, my younger children have their own idea of what they want to tell me, and my question to them just prompts them to think of what they wanted to say in the first place. ('Oh, wait, now I remember...') But with older children (and here I mean children who have narrated for several years), I ask for that essay question to be answered as I asked it.

In junior high and high school, we used several narration techniques: the typical 'tell it back' written narration, a 'tell it back' oral narration, ask 10 questions (I upped the number of questions required), notes narration (I would sometimes ask her to write down what she remembered in a list form; it didn't to be in full sentence format), essay question, or an occasional drawn narration.

For longer projects, though, we used creative narrations. This would be for when she completed a novel or other work, and she was given a few days to a week to work on this narration. We would talk over ideas when she finished the book and often would come up with the idea together. Here are a few of the assignments she did (please remember this was after many years of narration, and was given at the end of a book, and with a much longer time to complete):

-for Louisa May Alcott's "Jo's Boys," write a round-robin letter from Jo to the grown children, letting them know how things are going with each child -for Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey," write a one-act play about teens planning a play about this novel -for Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," write a letter as though from Swift to a publisher, telling about the book he's just written and presenting it - along with a few illustrations - for publication -for Charles Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities," write the first chapter of a potential novel, setting the story in the US during the Civil War -for history, write a diary of a young girl living on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812, leaving out what she could not have known yet and making sure the information is in chronological format -for poetry, write a poetic narration of Wordsworth's works, in sonnet form

These creative narrations took time - and when they were done, they were corrected (that way she was able to complete a 'final' copy of the creative narration). This was a departure from narrations done in younger years. When she struggled with spelling for a time, I asked her to read aloud her work to me at first, so that my reactions were to the writing, not to the spelling :-)

Exams were also times for narrations. I came up with questions and she could select one to write on. One of my favorite ones was her narration of an imaginary conversation between Karl Marx and Susan B. Anthony.

When Bethany wrote an essay for her college entrance application, she was to write about what famous person she would like to talk to. She used narration-style techniques, writing about an imaginary encounter between herself, sitting in a New York Starbucks, and the New Testament character Priscilla. They 'discussed' together the role of women in the church, and it allowed Bethany to expose her own questions as to what she was seeking for her own future, and seeking from the school.

Narration is an important tool. It can be very hard when a child just doesn't want to do it, or answers with "I don't remember," or seems to miss the whole point of a chapter. But I have found that perseverance with narration - making it a habit - produces a beautiful fruit of expression, attention, and education.

Love in Him,

P.S. - My kids just now came up with another narration idea - each of them now have their own small 'white boards' for doing their dictation reviews (I don't know if I'm doing this CM-perfect, but they get a sentence from their copywork at the beginning of the week. For the rest of the week, they get a different sentence each day for copywork, but they also review that dictation sentence. To make it different, they write the dictation review on a whiteboard, rather than in their copywork book.), so after I read them the selection for Bible over breakfast, they wanted to do a drawn narration on their whiteboards.

It made for something 'different' which is always helpful. I also asked them to tell me about their pictures, which turned drawn narration into oral narration, somewhat. I did give them a limit on time, because I wanted this narration exercise to be about what they remembered, not a drawing lesson :-)

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