When Narration Isn’t Working

There are many reasons why narration might be bumpy in your home or classroom learning. Here are some suggestions from my personal experience and Charlotte to help you determine what, if anything, needs to be done. You might also look at other articles on this site for ideas and help –… Are Variations on the Standard Narration Allowed? and Narration Options – for inspiration.

First, remember, some days are just ‘one of those days.’
If it is not consistent occurrence, read no further, keep working on lessons and narration as you are, lesson by lesson, day by day, year by year.

-What to Do.
1. Nothing.
2. No-thing!
3. Nothing!

If drooping attention and scant narration is becoming consistent over the course of a few days, then possibly some of the following thoughts and ideas will help steer the ship where it should go.

Although narration is simple, it requires a lot of work – mental work.

…”that part of education which demands a conscious mental effort, from the scholar, the mental effort of telling again that which has been read or heard.” – Volume 6 p.159

…”because it is the effort of recalling and reproducing that is fatiguing”…– Volume 1 p.49

There is a lot more surrounding the next quote, but I pulled out this piece because I think it validates the work it takes to tell back something – at least for those who have not had the opportunity to work on their power of attention.

…”this is the more surprising because we all know how difficult it is to repeat a passage which we have heard a thousand times; the single attentive reading does away with this difficulty”… – Volume 6 p.165

-What to Do.
1. Change what you can control.
Examine the physical components of your student. Are they lacking in energy for any of these reasons?
-Is your student rested?
-Are they properly fed?
-Are you doing this at a time when they are naturally tired (like after a big meal? or a time which has been a nap time for them?)
-Are lessons being done when their energy is the greatest- typically at the beginning of the day, rather than the end, but this is not always the case.
-Are they under personal or family stress? You may not be able to change this. Be sympathetic and gentle.

It takes time to build up attention ability, so do not expect more than the student has had time and practice to build up.

“Children in lB require a quantity of matter to be read to them, graduated, not according to their powers which are always present, but they require a little time to employ their power of fixed attention and that other power which they possess of fluent narration. So probably young children should be allowed to narrate paragraph by paragraph,”… – Volume 6 p.191

-What to Do.
1. Build up gradually.
Cut back on the amount of material they are being asked to narrate. Cut back so that they can be successful and gain confidence.
Ask them to narrate one or two sentences for a while.
When that can be done, try three.
Build up gradually, the process may go slowly or quickly depending on the student.

“The teacher must be content to proceed very slowly, securing the ground under her feet as she goes.” – Volume 1 p.204

By too hard, I mean the words and vocabulary. Too many long names, too many metaphors or analogies, sentence structure that is consistently complicated. Some of all this is good, but too much is too much. It is very tiresome and impossible to remember so much foreign material in order to narrate. Often the child sees the hopelessness of narrating a book that is sailing over their head. They tune out and won’t try.

“One thing at any rate we know with certainty, that no teaching, no information becomes knowledge to any of us until the individual mind has acted upon it, translated it, transformed, absorbed it, to reappear, like our bodily food, in forms of vitality.”– Volume 6 p.241

-What to Do.
1. Use a different book.
If the student is frustrated due to the book being too hard, this book could be replaced with something else. It could be tried again  in a year, or two, or three if you think at a later time it is worth taking up again.

2. Be Willing to Change.
The students will tell us if a book is worthy by their ability to narrate it. Charlotte used examinations and her student’s responses to help her determine if a book was good or not. So, remember, even the most experienced teacher at spotting a Living Book didn’t always know. Sometimes it is trial and error. It may alter the plans, and that is OK.

3. Limit or Introduce the New Material.
In the amount of reading material the student is going to narrate, strive for having about 1-2 new things, such as new vocabulary, unfamiliar people, unfamiliar places, or complex sentence structure. New things, even things they don’t know or understand is fine, eventually those pieces will fill in. If the reading has more than this, that will become overwhelming and the student won’t be able to paint a picture because they are missing too many pieces. If the reading for the day has too many new things, prepare some lesson notes that will introduce these things to the student before reading the text. But, even then, there is only so much the student can be introduced to at one time. Use discretion, do not overwhelm the student’s with a horde of new material in an introduction.

Saying ‘picture book’ is a play on words. I do not mean what is typically thought of as a picture book. But this is a good description of what a book should be doing inside the mind of the reader. Rather than the pictures on the outside, the pictures should be forming on the inside.

“Children cannot tell what they have not seen with the mind’s eye, which we know as imagination, and they cannot see what is not told in their books with some vividness and some grasp of the subject.” – Volume 6 p.227

Sometimes we have drudged through a book and I wondered if it was Living, but years later my child would tell me something and I’d ask “Where did you learn that?” and, of course, it was one of those drudgery books.

If the book is a classic and other people over the years consider it a book of worth, then it is best to stick it out. If all of the student’s lesson books prove challenging to hold the student’s interest because they are not able to see the reading in their mind’s eye, they will probably become frustrated, and give up.

I would add here, that the longer a student has been exposed to reading books that paint word pictures, and the longer they have had opportunity to build attention, the more they are able to take on the type of books that do not paint obvious pictures and may be more informational. They are also able to keep up this work for a longer period of time and deal with a ‘dull’ book (text book or textual type book) because their attention has been exercised and built up.

-What to Do.
1. Cut back on tough books.
Cut back to one or two tough books per term. In doing this, some of their lesson books will be lighter, more easily narrated books and that will prove encouraging to the student and will be a bit of a break from continual hard work.

2. Read shorter passages.
Do not read lengthy passages or have them reading lengthy passages).
If they are having trouble, cut back on the amount you or they are reading and then narrating. For example if you are reading a page of a book and they can’t narrate it very well, read half a page. Cut back further until they can narrate. If they are new to narrating it may mean narrating a sentence or two. Slowly build up

It may take longer overall to finish the book. If that is a concern for the schedule, read a small portion of the book every day in a smaller time period, rather than reading it one or two times a week for a longer period of time.

“The points to be borne in mind are, that he should have no book which is not a child’s classic; and that, given the right book, it must not be diluted with talk or broken up with questions, but given to the boy in fit portions as wholesome meat for his mind, in the full trust that a child’s mind is able to deal with its proper food.” –Volume 1 p.232

“These tales, written in good and simple English, and with a certain charm of style, lend themselves admirable to narration.” – Volume 1 p.288-289

“I have already spoken of the sorts of old chronicles upon which children should be nourished; but these are often too diffuse to offer good matter for narration and it is well to have quite fitting short tales for this purpose.”– Volume 1 p.289

3. Maybe you just need a good picture book.
If things have gotten frustrating and discouraging (for all of you probably), take a break with a good picture book!

Your student may narrate the last thing you read-literally, leaving out the beginning of the passage.

-What to Do.
1. Ask some questions.
Just before they narrate, say “ok first what happened?” See how far that goes. Then you may need to say, “What happened after that?” “And then what?” Proceeding to the end.
If your student can’t do this, that is ok, let it go. Let them narrate as best as they can. But the next time there is a narration, ask the same questions. Keep asking the questions and eventually they will develop the attention to listen and remember the first part of the reading, the middle, as well as the end.
2. Cut back on the amount.
Maybe it is just too much material, and reading less will help them remember the beginning all the way to the end. Or maybe it is complicated, or has a lot of names and places, or is not painting a picture in their minds… these could all come into play if they are just remembering the end.

Young children who have had some attention and narration skills built, but are having a hard time keeping their attention on the task, might need some guidance or restructuring of the schedule.

-What to Do.
1.  A look of ‘rats’.
Give a look that says ‘bummer’ or small phrase “rats, you can’t remember?” NO GUILT! NO SHAME TONE OF VOICE! You want a tone that expresses, I was looking forward to what you had to say.

“If a child is not able to narrate what he has read once, let him not get the notion that he may, or that he must, read it again. A look of slight regret because there is a gap in his knowledge will convict him.” – Volume 1 p.229-230

2.  Short Lessons.
Lessons that are too long strain the student’s ability to pay attention.

“The power of reading with perfect attention will not be gained by the child who is allowed to moon over his lessons. For this reason, reading lessons must be short; ten minutes or a quarter of an hour of fixed attention is enough for children of the ages we have in view, and a lesson of this length will enable a child to cover two or three pages of his book. The same rule as to the length of a lesson applies to children whose lessons are read to them because they are not yet able to read for themselves.” – Volume 1 p.229-230

Narration is a skill and it takes time to develop. If the child has been educated in another system, it will take some time to back the old methods out and bring in the new.

-What to Do.
1.  Be patient.
2.  Make sure they are set up for success.
3.  Good story line books.

If all their books are heavy hitters, put some lighter, easier books into their schedule- ones that have a memorable story line that can be told back easily, such as Anne of Green Gables, Landmark or Signature history books, Frankenstein or any other classic, biography, or novel with a quickly surfacing, vivid story.
4.  Capitalize on their interests.
Have some books that are of interest to them personally. Do they like airplanes? Then find a book on the battles of World War II in the Pacific, because it will have airplanes involved. Do they like nature? Find a book on Audubon. Science? Find a story about a discovery or invention.

If they are not trying there is probably an attitude issue involved. This should be handled carefully. If they have experienced a different type of educational system, this new method with narration may seem silly, not serious enough, or dumb to them. Or maybe life is just hitting them. The teacher must be the determiner. You can’t take away their work, but you also can try to understand the underlying issue and deal with them gently.

-What to Do.
1.  Challenge.
Give them a challenge to see for themselves if they can narrate. It may be harder than they think.  Use a book in which they show interest.
2. Join them.
Try to narrate along with them to get the ball rolling- the teacher narrate some, and the student narrate some. Or the teacher begin and the student finish.
3.  Explain this IS their work.
Let them know this is their work to do. It is part of their assignment and is not an optional piece.
If they are new to CM, let them know narration is going to take the place of quizzes and tests. If that concerns the student, let them know there will be exams at the end of the term, but with this new method, just like our daily narrations, it will be in a narration type of form.
4. Try some other types.
Try some other types of narration for one or two subjects. Maybe a drawing, or maybe tell in a newspaper reporter style. Look at my post Variations on the Standard Narration for ideas. But do not let all the narrations be this way. The student needs to go through the process of hearing or reading, then visualizing, then forming what is in the mind into verbal communication that flows in a ‘first…, and then…, and then…’ type of pattern.

Charlotte tells us that one of the roles of teacher is to sympathize with the student- that is to understand what they are being asked to do. Students in a Charlotte Mason Education are being asked to use attention and narrate constantly throughout the day. Doing what they are doing, is sometimes a good way to better understand.

-What to Do.
1. Try narrating.
If you do not do much narration yourself, try it. You might find it more difficult than it seems, AND you might find it more rewarding than it seems.  Then try doing this with 4-6 different books, some of them with weighty words. And then add on a few other subjects. It is no doubt a full day, though it looks simple.

One of my favorite things to do when I speak about narration is to have mothers narrate something I read to them. But it is a little cruel for most moms who grew up in a typical school setting, because often the moms don’t have much to say. But it illustrates to them how difficult and truly complex this ‘simple’ act of narration is. If you weren’t brought up with it, it is difficult to do.

“Let the objector read an essay of Lamb’s, say, or of Matthew Arnold’s, Lycidas or the ‘raven’ scene in Barnaby Rudge and then put himself to sleep or wile away an anxious or a dull hour by telling to himself what he has read. The result will be disappointing; he will have forgotten this and that turn of thought, link in the chain of argument, but he will know the whole thing in a surprising way; the incidents, the figures, the delicate play of thought in the author will be brought out in his mind like the figures in the low relief which the sculptor produces from his block. He finds he has taken in ‘mind stuff’ which will come into use in a thousand ways perhaps as long as he lives.” – Volume 6 p.258-259

“What he wants of his teacher is moral and mental discipline, sympathy and direction;” – Volume3 p. 170

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