The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
"We Narrate and Then We Know"

by E.K. Manders. C.M.T.
Volume 2, no. 4, new series, PNEU, July 1967, pgs. 170-172

This was the answer given by a small girl to an enquiry from an admiring relative as to how she managed to remember a story from the beginning to the end of the term with no revision.

'I am enrolling my child in the PNEU,' says Mrs. Smith to Mrs. Jones. 'Ah yes,' says Mrs. Jones. 'PNEU, that's narration, isn't it?' Of course, narration is by no means the whole of PNEU, but it is quite an important part, and therefore a discussion on it may be of interest to our members.

To begin with, there is nothing mysterious or magical about narration. We all do it. When we have had a pleasant outing or listened to a beautiful concert or seen an exciting play, our first impulse is to tell our friends about it, and how frustrating it is if, when we get home the friends are out or watching a television programme which must not be interrupted. We tell them about it later on, but our account will not have the same vividness and spontaneity as it would have had if we had told it when it was fresh in our minds. This is an important point to remember when we come to consider the method of a narration lesson.

The supreme narrators, as Charlotte Mason knew, are the children: she called narration 'the child's art.' There is a delightful passage in Home education in which she describes Bobbie coming home after seeing a dog-fight and telling what he has seen 'with splendid vigour and in the true epic vein.' Because she was a great educationalist she realised how this gift could be used in education. At a time when most teaching was of the question and answer type, very frustrating if one doesn't know the answersshe allowed her pupils to tell what they knew freely in their own way, and so narration was born.

This method can only be successfully employed with books of real literary value. When we are selecting new books for the programmes, one of the questions we always ask is 'Will it narrate?' Books of the short sentence type, books which talk down to the children or which are full of 'padding' are quite useless. To get the best results, we need books like Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy and Greece or The Pilgrim's Progress or the Authorised Version of the Bible.

'Not the Bible for small children!' cry the disciples of Dr. Goldman. 'Everyone knows that the Bible isn't a child's book. They haven't the spiritual capacity to understand it.' I wish some of these learned folk could hear our six-year-olds narrating Bible stories, often adding little touches of their own which show that they have grasped the meaning. It was a six-year-old girl who ended her account of St. Peter walking on the water with the words: 'He looked at the waves instead of looking at Jesus and so he began to sink.'

Here are some 'do's and don'ts' which may be helpful in planning a narration lesson.

Do always prepare the passage carefully beforehand, thus making sure that all the explanations and use of background material precede the reading and narration. The teacher should never have to stop in the middle of a paragraph to explain the meaning of a word. Make sure, before you start, that the meanings are known, and write all difficult proper names on the blackboard, leaving them there throughout the lesson. Similarly any map work which may be needed should be done before the reading starts.

Do regulate the length of the passage to be read before narration to the age of the children and the nature of the book. If you are reading a fairy story, you will find that the children will be able to remember a page or even two, if a single incident is described. With a more closely packed book, one or two paragraphs will be sufficient. Older children will, of course, be able to tackle longer passages before narrating, but here too, the same principles should be applied, that the length varies with the nature of the book.

Do let the narration follow directly after the reading. Otherwise, the children will be in the same difficulty as we were in when our friends were watching the television and couldn't listen to our adventures.

Don't interrupt, even if the narrator makes a mistake or mispronounces a word. I once asked a small boy what happened if you interrupted people. I hoped he would say: 'They forget what they were going to say next'; instead, he said: 'You get put in the corner.'

Don't ever read a passage more than once, no matter how badly it has been narrated. It is permissible to ask, e.g., 'Don't you remember the bit about the horses?' If the children say 'No' the proper response is: 'What a pity! Now you will never know that bit. You must listen better next time.' The children will miss something, but they will have learnt a lesson in concentration.

Do always correct any mistakes after the narration, or better, get the other children to correct them.

Don't ask questions beyond the initial one at the beginning of the lesson, 'Where did we leave off last time?' This is the only kind of revision needed.

Don't press a child who has given a short narration to tell more. It sometimes happens that a very shy child makes a great effort and narrates one sentence. 'Good,' says the zealous teacher, 'And what happened next?' Whereupon the child retreats into his shell. The comment should be: 'That's right. Can someone else go on?' The shy child feels that he has made his contribution, and will have gained in confidence.

So far we have been dealing mainly with schools. Sometimes we come up against difficulties in home schoolrooms where children refuse to narrate because 'Mummie knows it already.' One resourceful mother got over this difficulty by saying: 'Yes, I know it, but Teddy doesn't; tell him.' Whereupon the little girl happily narrated to her teddy-bear.

When children have got beyond the teddy-bear stage, it is a good idea to explain to them the reason why you ask them to narrate. It is not to tell you what you know already or even to find out what they know, but to help them to remember. You might even try an experiment. Read them two paragraphs, asking them to narrate one as well as they can but not the other. A little later on you could see which one they remember best.

Sometimes 'Mummie' might like to take a hand at narrating herself. She could even make a 'deliberate mistake' and see how the children react.

Another possibility, and this applies to schools and home schoolrooms, is to vary the method of narration. If a child draws a picture or makes a model of the story he has heard, and then tells you about it, he is narrating without knowing it.

I should like to leave you with a picture of a class of enthusiastic bright-eyed children, bouncing excitedly up and down in their eagerness to be the first to tell. Such children will never be at a loss later on when they have to speak in a school or college debate, or open a bazaar, or even make a speech in Parliament!