The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The P.N.E.U. Method in Sunday Schools

by Helen E. Wix
Volume 28, no. 9, November 1917, pgs. 687-693
Volume 29, no. 4, April 1918, pgs. 262-265

[After graduating from Scale How, Helen Wix spent eight years as H.M.I. (Her Majesty's Inspector) and in 1929 became the first Headmistress of Overstone P.N.E.U. School until she retired in 1947. There is a 1930s photo of her at the Overstone website. She is seated in front.]

A paper read at a meeting of Sunday School teachers

I feel bound to begin by confessing that I know very little, indeed nothing, about teaching in Sunday School. I have never had any experience of it, so I shall probably make a number of mistakes this afternoon through sheer ignorance. But please be patient with me, and afterwards in the discussion, do not scruple to say where I have suggested impossibilities and so on.

Now one or two people have told me that the present methods of teaching in Sunday Schools do not give complete satisfaction everywhere. The little I know amounts to nothing, so I am not going to criticise or cast reflections on any method, but I understand that there is an extraordinary amount of freedom as regards what is taught in Sunday Schools and how it is taught. So I have been asked to tell you, as clearly as possible, about a method which has been in use now so many years that you might even call it old-fashioned. But its results are admittedly wonderful.

But first perhaps you should know why I, such an ignoramus in these Sunday School matters, should have been asked to explain any method to you who know so very much more than I do.

Some of you have perhaps heard of the Parents' National Educational Union, better known possibly as the P.N.E.U., or of Miss Mason, its founder, or of Ambleside students, those women trained by her to teach according to her principles. It is only as an Ambleside student of fourteen years' experience that I dare to face you. And though I have not taught large classes in Sunday Schools, I have given Scripture lessons to children of all ages up to eighteen, on four days a week regularly. And in Elementary Schools this Ambleside or P.N.E.U. method has been used with most striking success—and that by teachers not trained at Ambleside. So you see anyone can teach on this method who will take the trouble. The real difficulty lies in its simplicity. The teacher with no P.N.E.U. training finds it so extraordinarily difficult to do little enough, to leave enough to the children.

One hears from many sources nowadays, certain regular complaints about children at their lessons—from other than Sunday Schools—that for instance, the children are not enthusiastically keen about their work—the young ones are perhaps, but as they grow older their attention is more and more difficult to capture and keep, their interest less and less lively and bright. And yet, when, in all our history, did teachers work as hard as now? But many of our ancestors would blush at the results! Another complaint that I so often hear, is about the children's memories. "I make them learn it over and over again, and they don't know it at the end;" or, "I give them lovely lessons, and take no end of pains over them, and yet—well, they don't seem thrilled somehow, and next week they only remember the bits that don't matter." And so the progress cannot be rapid, and yet the time is all too short.

You may none of you ever have these difficulties; but I have been enquiring among Sunday School teachers as far as possible, and these objections do not seem unknown. Afterwards, in the discussion time, I hope other objections or difficulties will come up.

But I feel sure there is a common cause underlying all, or nearly all, the difficulties of the modern teacher. It is that we underestimate the child. In olden days people thought the dryer the lesson, the better exercise for the brain. But nowadays lessons to be up-to-date must be amusing, full of ingenious devices which "amuse while they instruct," and so on. I am sure there is no need to describe these lessons, we all know the type. They go on the principle that children, because of their youth, have weak brains, incapable of assimilating undecorated knowledge.

Now Mr. Fisher, the Minister for Education, said in a speech a few weeks ago, "It is as well in teaching to think of the children as cleverer than yourself, with less knowledge, but more imagination." The word "cleverer" does not quite satisfy me, but we all know what Mr. Fisher means. Now the underlying idea of the P.N.E.U. method I am going to tell you about is just that. A child is a person; with mind, intellect and spirit,—all there, all clamouring for food and exercise, all ready to grow if only—such an important "if"—we do not hinder them.

What a responsibility for us teachers! Have you ever noticed what our Lord says about the bringing up of children? "Suffer them to come unto Me," "Offend them (hinder them) not," "Forbid them not," "Take heed that ye despise not these little ones." It is really remarkable how He is always reminding us of their greatness—and yet, so many of us still have that lesson unlearnt.

I want to tell you as clearly as I can—please store up questions to ask and talk over afterwards!—exactly what the P.N.E.U. method is.

It differs but little for different ages of children. The younger ones learn only the simpler tales of the Old Testament and the Gospel story as told by the first three Evangelists, but after the age of 12 they take the Old Testament in more detail and the Gospel of St. John and the Acts are also studied. Later on the Prophets and Epistles are taken in fuller detail. Young children who cannot read fluently have the Bible read to them, but after eight years old they can generally read for themselves.

Now may I give an imaginary lesson to a class of children of let us say, seven to nine. In such a class I should read the Bible aloud, the children following in their own books, or, the younger ones, merely listening. A very little time ago I took the Parable of the Sower with children of just this age.

First of all I should connect with last week's lesson. This is best done by asking a question or two—broad questions, simply asked to see whether the children remember the story, whether it is all still fresh in their memory. This should take perhaps two minutes. Then a very short, vivid description of the scene of the Parable; the spring of the year, the gay garments of the crowd, the sower perhaps in the distance. (May I interrupt myself here and say that one of the very best ways of getting the children to visualise the scene is to tell them to shut their eyes, then vividly and shortly describe the scene—say for instance: A hot, blue sky, golden corn, with poppies and a sandy path through the field—now, children can you see it?

The scene they call up is better than a picture, far, far better than the blackboard sketch, and has many other merits.) This introduction must be short, and no things are shown to the children—such as grains of corn, for example. Such things only distract them from the main theme. Then all the children—except those who cannot read at all—open their Bibles, and the teacher reads the story aloud, slowly and as beautifully as she can, as if it were quite the most interesting thing he or she had ever read. At the end of the parable (I should not read the explanation now) the teacher turns to any child: "Tommy, will you begin to tell the story I have just read? See how much of the very Bible words you can remember." He begins, and after a few sentences the teacher turns to some other child: "Now Mary, what happened next?" and so on till the story is finished. All the children will, if the class is small, get a chance of "narrating,' as we call it, but no child knows when he may not be called on and all will listen eagerly to see if Tommy or Mary leaves out anything. During this "narration" the teacher listens, and cheers on with her visible interest. She does not interrupt, does not even correct, but if a narrator goes wrong, she can turn to another child and say, "Can you remember what happened next?"

The narration over, there comes that so important part of all Scripture lessons, the "new thought of God" to be learnt. The teacher will ask this child or that, "Who do you think the Sower was?" and "What then is the seed?" Perhaps you think this too difficult for such young children? Remember, they are cleverer than their teacher! But the teacher has more experience, and will guide the children rightly, and after some little discussion, she can tell the children that there is something particularly wonderful about this parable, for we have Christ's own interpretation of it. She will then read it, as before, without interruption, without talk, and at the end, other children will be called upon to narrate this too, just as they did the story itself.

This parable is so full of lessons for us to take to heart and ponder over, that it will be easy for the children to find many, with the very smallest amount of help from the teacher. In some cases, of course, this most important part of the lesson must come from the teacher; but children remember best, ponder over more, what they have discovered for themselves. Again, sometimes it is wise to re-read the Bible portion at the end of the lesson—if for instance there has been so animated a discussion that the sacred words are clouded by the mist of talk. Then next Sunday the teacher might begin: "Last week we read about the Sower and his seeds, can anyone remember one kind of soil the seed fell on?" I know a crowd of small arms would rise, and the wise teacher would choose a child who had been a little silent perhaps last week. For care must be taken in a large class that every child has a turn in course of time.

It is nothing less than wonderful how lessons given in this way are remembered from week to week. Children that I have taught often remember, far better than I do, the lesson they had from me—I should say with me—a week ago. This is natural, for they did the work; I listened and cheered on; they had to concentrate their whole minds on the story; in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, it would only be read once, and then, in the narration, what concentration is needed! Try for yourselves; read a page or two of an interesting book, and then narrate it to yourself. It is not memory; it is concentrated attention, and if you did it constantly you would be amazed how your powers of concentration would increase. But you read only once, remember!

You will have noticed that, except at the beginning of the lesson, there is no questioning. Instead of being continually egged on by leading questions, or irritated by niggly questions, the child tells you the lesson all by himself; certainly no more sure test of knowledge could be demanded. None of us knows a thing till we can tell all about it; if we want to know something thoroughly we, unconsciously perhaps, narrate it to ourselves, constantly answering the reiterated question, "What came next?, What came next?" Do you see how a child's vocabulary increases who "narrates"?

No more set answers to set questions, no more jerky monosyllables, but a good, flowing account of what was read in good English—you remember they narrate "in the Bible words as much as possible"—and what finer English is there? Then also you will have noticed that there were no fascinating objects for the children to look at. They know what corn is like, and any country child has seen a sower sowing. But they should visualise the scene. And Mr. Fisher said, you remember, that a child has more imagination than a grown-up. If an illustration or explanation of something is needed, we use the bit of india rubber, the ruler and pencil that are lying about, and a few words and the children's imagination fills in the rest. And what about pictures? A good one—Millais' "Sower" is beautiful—may be sometimes a help, but what child wants a picture of Daniel in the Lions' Den, of Saul escaping in the basket, and so on?

Unless of course he has been taught from some "watered-down" version of the story which doesn't give enough details for his imagination to picture it all. A child who can tell you the whole story, vivid touches and all, needs no picture; he can see it. Indeed many a child I have known much disappointed by pictures. I once showed Watt's "For he had great possessions," and the child's comment was, "But he was a young man, and beautiful; that man is quite old." But I would all the same use pictures sometimes, after the lesson.

Perhaps it will have struck you that a lesson given on this method must be short. It must; none of us can work at one subject, to the top of our bent, for long at a time, and Scripture lessons in the P.U.S. School last only twenty minutes. A child cannot concentrate his mind for too long, and short lessons produce, firstly more knowledge, and secondly, more power of attention than the longer and necessarily slacker lesson.

But I understand that Sunday School lasts for about fifty minutes or a little less; so that the rest of the time would have to be filled up. Well, here I have a suggestion to make, not my own, but I am very warmly in favour of it. Why not use the rest of the time in reading aloud to the children some interesting and well-written book? Say Pilgrim's Progress, a life of Livingstone, an account of present-day mission worka well-written account, nothing "goodygoody" nor watered down for the children, but some good, bracing narrative. And always have narration, just as I have tried to explain. If only—a big IF, I fear,—you can manage it, it would of course be splendid to let the elder ones read quietly to themselves. But that is a detail that it is too soon to discuss.

Poetry could also be read in this time, for few things open the doors of the spirit and the thoughtful mind as poetry does, provided it is of the best and the field covered is wide. There are in these days such splendid collections of real treasures that the responsibility of the teacher is greatly lessened.

I would like to add a few hints. This method is so simple, based on such simple rules that therein lies perhaps its greatest difficulty. But if we can bear in mind that we wish the children to learn how to learn, that will be a help. If we wish to teach a baby to walk, the baby must himself do the walking and it does not help him a bit if we walk. But it is a help for him if we are there ready to cheer him on and save him from just the hardest tumbles. So we must leave the work to the children, and their brains, their minds, their spirits, will grow by exercise, and grow as they should grow, for we under God's guidance shall be able to help them into the right way. So here is the first thing to remember. Let the children do the work. That is, let them narrate, do not question. Don't interrupt and don't hurry the child.

Then again (I am not now speaking from personal experience, but from someone else's), let those children narrate who are keenest. Do not force the shy and retiring; they will all become keen soon.

Again, do not expect flowing narration at once; it is difficult.

Again, do not read too much at a time, particularly to begin with. Slow and sure is very specially the case in beginning this method. As nothing is ever read twice, no time is ever lost. So that two or three pages of a book or some twenty verses or so of the Bible are enough.

Again, no revising is done before examinations. I have brought with me some examination answers written by children of the Elementary Schools. These have been set by an "outside" examiner on the work learnt during the last three months, and have been answered by the children without revision and entirely unaided.

Now I expect you are wondering if we work entirely without the help of books, for I have never mentioned them! Of course we do not. The teacher's part is to prepare his lesson with all the thoroughness possible. If you want me to suggest any books, I can very heartily recommend you Dr. Paterson Smyth's Bible for the Young Series. I believe the Church of Ireland Sunday School books are splendid; I have only one myself and it happens to be by Paterson Smyth, and is certainly a living book and therefore a tremendous help.

H. E. Wix


I have been asked to give some account of the second P.N.E.U. meeting, held for Sunday School Teachers in Canterbury early last November, as some others may be interested in the subject. In the first paper I tried to give a short account of how the P.N.E.U. method could be applied to Sunday Schools and a few of the people present had borrowed books and had tried the method "on their own," as it were, and they came to this second meeting full of interest and with a keen desire to continue on more definite lines. They had found even their slight attempts not unsuccessful; one teacher told us that even the little ones of five were all agog with interest and narrated short passages wonderfully well, even catching the "Bible style." This will, of course, be no news to us who belong to the Union [PNEU], but it was just what was needed to give courage to some of the waverers there.

The difficulty in speaking to the meeting was rather great, as some people were there who had not come in the summer and to whom the letters P.N.E.U. were sealed mysteries. Anyone who has tried to answer in five minutes or less the question: "What is the P.N.E.U." will sympathise!

Next I tried to give a simple account of how to prepare a Lesson, using Dr. Paterson Smyth's "Genesis" (Bible for the Young Series). I took Lesson IV. on "The Flood."

To begin with, it is most important to allow ample time for the preparation; a lesson well given is, as we all know, practically synonymous with a lesson well prepared. Various people will doubtless have different methods of preparation; I can only describe how I do it, without wishing in any way to suggest that it is the only way. Begin by reading the Lecture to the Teacher which prefaces Lesson IV., noting specially those parts of it which may be suitable for the age of the class. Then read the Bible portion set, i.e., Gen. vi., 9, to end and vii., 6, to end using the commentary and noticing any words which will need explanation in class (e.g., shittim wood, cubit). Then read the Lesson itself, with the Bible at hand to refer to.

The whole Lesson, as given in Paterson Smyth, will be probably too long to be taken with equal detail throughout, and so one must now decide on which part to lay the most emphasis. Then there is a very good "picture" of the whole scene described in the Lesson—an open field on a sunny warm day, a busy throng of workmen hammering, sawing, etc., Noah and his son supervising and perhaps a scattering of jeering passers by. Having got the story part quite clear, the spiritual side of the lesson must next be pondered over. This is undoubtedly the most difficult part of the preparation, and the part which needs most time and concentration, for we must know it so well as to be able to stand aside at the lesson itself while the children do the thinking, ourselves inconspicuously helping.

The main thing to be aimed at is, that the children should learn a new idea about God; it is unwise always to draw only a personal lesson from the day's reading. In this case they can learn God's intense hatred of sin; that nothing was too terrible for Him to do in order to overcome sin. Older classes will remember sayings of our Lord showing His loathing for evil; they may realise that He suffered even death in order that the enemy Sin should be destroyed.

Then, as the last step in the preparation, put away the Lesson Book and go carefully through the whole of it again, giving it in imagination to the Class. (Excellent practice in narration for the teacher!) Go through each step of the Lesson: the connecting questions on last week's work; the finding of places, and explanation of words; the descriptive setting of the story (avoiding much talk and detail); the serious beautiful reading of the Bible; the brisk narration; the discussion and new God-knowledge, and then perhaps there might be time to read to the elder ones the extract from the Chaldean account of the Flood, given in the early pages of the Lesson book, letting them discover in what striking way it differs from the Genesis account. It is at this point in the Lesson, that is, when it is finished, that any good pictures may be shown to the class; to my mind it is best to keep them as special treats.

Sometimes the portion of the Bible to be read is more difficult and very hard to remember for narration. In such a case the preparation should include some thought on the "framework," as it were, of the chapter, so as to be able to point out to the class the main lines of argument. In time older girls and boys will be able to trace out the main thread for themselves, but at first they do need help, though only in the more difficult passages, as, for instance, in some of the prophets or in S. Peter's or S. Paul's sermons in Acts.

After the talk there was a splendid discussion and two or three schools have since started work. The Rev. R. B. Pyper, to whose initiative and energy the whole movement is due, then discussed with us the possibility of drawing up a syllabus of work, recommending books and setting subjects and Bible periods for study in the Sunday School. This syllabus is gradually taking shape and those schools which joined last Advent are now using Dr. Paterson Smyth's Genesis as the Lesson book and Pilgrim's Progress as the reading book. These are both being used throughout the school, but as a rule, two reading books will be set, one for children under ten years and and one for those of ten and over. After Trinity Sunday the Lesson book will be Dr. Paterson Smyth's S. Matthew, and the reading books, Mackay of the Great Lake for the younger ones and Livingstone the Pathfinder for the elder ones. We hope to include in the syllabus (besides, of course, the Bible lessons) books on missionary work, two or three of Neale's splendid Church History stories, a book of Florentine painters, another on Church architecture, another on the story of the Bible, etc., etc.

It is to be hoped, too, that time will allow of poetry being read. Unfortunately no collection of entirely suitable poems seems to exist, but many teachers will have stores of their own favorites. It seems important to be widely catholic in one's choice, not limiting oneself to purely sacred poems.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio