When my kids were young, I tried narration in my homeschool.

But instead of working how it was supposed to, it made my oldest daughter freeze with panic. She actually started hating books she had previously loved. Read-aloud time became fraught. And the quality of her education suffered for it.

In today’s episode, I’m diving deep into the Charlotte Mason (CM) idea of narration, and offering an idea for what to do if narration simply isn’t a good fit for your family.

In this episode, you’ll hear:

  • What’s the goal of narration anyway?
  • What my family does instead of narration (and we like it so! much! better!)
  • A reminder of what we’re going for (spoiler alert: narration isn’t the only way to get it)

Click the play button below:

Listener Guide

Use the time stamps below to skip to any part of the podcast:

4:23What is narration, exactly?
7:08Just find another tool 🔨
10:15The students should do the thinking
15:17What’s the goal?
16:47Open-ended questions and conversation
26:14Low-quality answers
30:34Re-reading is GREAT reading
34:01Don’t let a tool override your instincts
36:07Let the kids speak

Books from this episode:

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
The Screwtape Letters
Once Upon a Time Saints
How to Think
Fountains of Silence
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 2)

Links from this episode:

What is narration, anyway?

If you’ve been in homeschooling circles for long, you’ve probably heard about narration.

Narration is a method most widely associated with 19th century British educator Charlotte Mason. Homeschoolers use Miss Mason’s methods a lot, and I’ve gained a lot of wisdom from learning her philosophy of education.

Narration is a basic tenet of CM education, and according to CM (Charlotte Mason) methodology, it’s this:

Asking a child to tell back what they just read (or what was read to them). 

Now, if narration works well for you, keep on keepin’ on. You probably don’t need the rest of this post. After all, I would never tell you to fix something that isn’t broken in your homeschool.

But if your experience with narration has not been all sunshiney?

🙋🏼‍♀️

If your kids seem to enjoy listening to read-alouds less when they know you’re going to ask for a narration?

🙋🏼‍♀️

Or if you notice the quality of their listening has actually decreased?

🙋🏼‍♀️

Yes, well. This post is for you. (You can listen to this post instead of read it by using the player at the top, by the way!)

What’s the goal of narration?

On a broad, 30,000 foot level, the goal of narration is to help students synthesize what they’ve read. 

Directions for doing narration often look something like this:

  • Read aloud a passage to your child (or have them read it themselves)
  • Read the passage only once; do not read it again [gasp! more on this below]
  • Ask your child to tell back what they read/heard in their own words

Usually we’re instructed not to direct the student in their response through hints or prompts. We’re also often told that the child must do this after a single reading, as re-reading a passage is thought to diminish their habit of attention.

Oh my. I have so many opinions.

What I really want you to know is this:

Narration is not the only way.

As homeschoolers we can get a little dogmatic about our methods, and we often forget that the methods exist to make our jobs easier and more effective.

This is good news, because it means we can choose a different method if something isn’t a good fit for us. 

Our methods and our curriculum are simply tools. They help us build the more beautiful thing: the education in the heart and mind of our child.

But the merit is not in the tool or the method itself.

If narration isn’t helping you because your child is different than the child Charlotte Mason was thinking about when she began teaching teachers to use narration…well…

Surprise! Your child is different.

And you’ll do the best job of educating your kids when you treat them as the individuals they are, not as though they should fit perfectly into any method’s mold.

Let’s try it real quick…

Think of something you read recently. It can be a chapter of a book or perhaps an article you read online… got something in mind? 

Now, without re-reading the passage, tell that chapter/article back in your own words.

Harder than it seems, right?

What I want you to pay attention to, though, is what happened in your body. Anxiety? Panic? Did you freeze? Did your brain dump literally everything from that chapter or article the second I asked you to retell it?

It’s worth considering…

This is not how adult readers read and discuss books.

I’m an avid reader and I have many, many friends who are avid readers. We discuss books all the time. But I never ask my friends to tell me back what happened in their book, using their own words.

I mean, when your sister calls and tells you about the book she couldn’t put down, you probably don’t ask her to tell you the story back, right?

When your husband mentions an article he read in the paper, you don’t ask him to tell the article in his own words.

Real voracious adult readers do something else. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

An Alternative to Narration

I mentioned that the purpose of narration is to synthesize what you’ve read, but there’s actually more to it than that. 

Proponents of narration also use it to:

  • train the habit of attention
  • help students make connections about the ideas they’re encountering
  • as a precursor to written composition (narration = oral composition)

All of these are worthy goals, and we likely all want those things in our kids’ education.

Is there a lower-pressure way to do this?

Those habits we mentioned earlier: training the habit of attention, making connections, synthesizing information, composing words and ideas … all of those skills are indeed worth nurturing.

But is narration the only way to nurture them?

After our early attempts at narration, I quit using it. It was a tool, I knew, and that tool was not helping me build what I wanted to build. It was just frustrating all of us.

Instead, we began using open-ended questions and conversation. And that has been revolutionary in our homeschool and in the way our family engages with and talks about books.

Open-Ended Questions and Conversation

An open-ended question is a question you ask about what was read that has no one specifically correct answer. 

For example: “Where did this story take place?” is not open-ended, because there is a right/wrong answer. Also, it doesn’t make our kids think too hard.

However: “Should the main character have done that?” or “What’s something you don’t want to forget from this chapter?” are open-ended questions. There are multiple possible answers. And the person who answers those questions has to synthesize what they’ve read and connect ideas in order to answer them.

They also don’t give us that panicky feeling that we had when asked to narrate.

I did a whole episode called What’s the Deal with Open-Ended Questions, and there’s actually a master class on how to discuss books with your kids even if you haven’t read them yet in RAR Premium. If this line of thinking is getting you excited, then be sure to check those out! 

Tips to Using Open-Ended Questions and Conversations in Your Homeschool

The key to using open-ended questions and conversation is simply to make it an extension of your family’s life. We can do this at the dinner table, in the car, while we’re folding laundry or sitting around the fire.

None of it feels like school, because in a home where we read often and we talk about what we read, this is just normal life.

Here are some tips that can help you use open-ended questions and conversation in your own home:

1. You go first!

Even better than asking an open ended question is just to offer up your own answer. We don’t want our open-ended questions to seem like a quiz. They aren’t a quiz! They’re simply a catalyst for a conversation.

Rather than asking them who was the most courageous character in a chapter, for example, I might just offer up, “I think the fawn was the most courageous person in that chapter. What do you think?”

That feels like the beginning of a conversation. And honestly, it feels a lot more like the conversations the avid adult readers I know are having about the books they read!

2. You don’t need a curriculum for this

We have a free guide with 5 questions you can ask a child of any age about any book (or that you can use as a prompt to be a discussion starter).

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It’s a truly fantastic tool—one that can replace any literature comprehension workbook you’re tempted to buy.

If your child can have a good conversation with you about the book, you know they’ve comprehended it. And you’re not doing the work for them—you’re making their brain make the connections—just in a very friendly, low-pressure way. 

Because remember our goal: we want our kids to read, think, make connections, and synthesize what they read. All of that happens (no panic needed) with an open-ended question.

3. Be okay with low-quality answers

Here’s some good news: the habit of asking questions matters far more than the quality of answers your child gives.

The answers, it turns out, aren’t where the juice is.

The juice is in the conversation itself.

This is what will empower our kids to be good, discerning readers throughout their lives. We want our kids to develop the habit of asking questions as they read. That habit alone will help them become discerning readers.

So if you get an answer from your child that just isn’t all that insightful, don’t worry. You’re putting in the time. Processes are happening beneath the surface that will make a big difference down the road.

4. Absolutely re-read (and then re-read again!)

One tenet of narration that bothers me most is the idea that a child should only hear a passage or read a passage once. 

Miss Mason’s idea here, I believe is that the single reading will train the child’s habit of attention better than if they know they can re-read the passage again.

Here’s the problem: I just don’t think that’s true.

C.S. Lewis himself said that any book worth reading would be read more than once, and we did a whole episode on the value of re-reading as the best kind of reading.

There is a lot of evidence that our best reading is often done in re-reading. So if you’re only letting your child read something once, you’re missing the best of it. 

But you can’t be right about everything, so we’ll let Charlotte Mason be wrong about this one. 😜

Use the Tools You Want to Use

That daughter I mentioned in the beginning—she’s a sophomore in college, majoring in English. Her college professors frequently mention what an excellent student she is. They applaud her thinking, and compliment her writing.

Would that have happened if we had continued to use narration?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I watched her zest for stories and reading decline sharply when I asked her to narrate. Whether she would have decided to pursue a lifelong career in reading and writing is unlikely, I think, if she had been constantly frustrated by those tasks during the formative years of her education.

There is nothing magical about narration. It’s just a tool. You can use it, or you can use another. You are free to choose whatever method and tool works best for your family.

No need to feel like a failure or like your kids are getting a sub-par education. No need to think of yourself as a Charlotte Mason dropout.

Charlotte Mason didn’t know your kids.

I don’t know your kids.

The people who wrote the curriculum you’re using—they don’t know your kids, either.

YOU know your kids. YOU are the expert.

Use whatever methods and tools work best for you. And then rejoice that you have the freedom to do so, all because you’ve chosen to homeschool your kids.

I’d call that a win.

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