The Art of Narration – Identifying Obstacles

Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. – Vol 1 p 231

It seems you can’t make a child narrate.  No matter how desperately you might want to kick-start the art of narrating in your child, each one responds differently to auditory or visual input.  Listening skills and the habit of attention play a key role in developing the art of narrating.

Imagine you are a child and you have been asked to “tell back” for the first time.  Your mother has just read a paragraph from The Blue Fairy Book or Tales from Shakespeare and she asks you, “Ok, what was that about?”  You aren’t sure what she is asking.  You weren’t paying attention because there were so many words you didn’t know.  On top of that, you didn’t know she was going to ask you what it was about.  So, you shrug your shoulders and she has a scrunchy face that means she didn’t like your answer.

But your mother is kind, so she says, “Ok, let’s try again, and this time, listen as I read because afterwards I’m going to ask you to tell me what I read.”  She reads again.  She asks again.  This time, you were able to remember the first few words, and you had to try really hard to hang on to them while she kept reading.  Boy, was that hard; remember, remember, remember.  And…dump.  You tell her what you heard and she gives another scrunchy face.  What’s wrong now?

“No, no, honey, you don’t have to memorize the words.  Just tell me what it’s about.”  She reads again, but there are so many words you don’t know.  And she’s reading so long.  Now you feel sad that you’re going to disappoint her again.  So you make something up.  Didn’t work.  Now you are frustrated and a little mad.  Now she’s getting angry that you are mad.  Now you are in trouble and you just don’t like this moment in time, and, especially, you don’t like that book.

Yikes!  That’s the last thing we want as Charlotte Mason home educators.  So, what went wrong?  Several factors could play a part in this mom-fail moment.

1. It’s possible the child is too young.

Until he is six, let Bobbie narrate only when and what he has a mind to. He must not be called upon to tell anything. – Vol 1, p 231

Why is that a recommendation?  As you can see in the example, young children don’t have the vocabulary to express all the words they need for a proper narration.  They may know the gist of something but can’t articulate it with words.  They simply need time and need to be read to a lot.  Picture books are a great remedy for a child of any age to gain a large vocabulary.  They see the pictures and hear the story with the words in context.  Many times, a young child will ask for multiple readings of the same book.  Do it.  They are building their word bank, and it is profitable.

If they are under six, just read to them.  Allow them to talk about the book if they offer, and if they cannot articulate, respond as if you understand.

2. It’s possible the books are too wordy.

If you were to teach a child math who had never counted, you would not start with algebra.  You must start with the concrete things before the abstract can be useful.  Concrete things in math are counting fingers, apples, rubber bands.  When you count out loud, the child begins to associate the order of numbers; 1 goes before 2 (what does “before” mean, anyway?).

When you read out loud, the child begins to associate some words with other words.  For instance, when we describe two animals of the same kind, they can distinguish a difference.  We may point to the black dog or the brown dog.  They can also hear where we placed the describing words, “black” before “dog”.  Choose books that make learning simple and repeatable.  You may be tempted to think a book is too simple for your child.  The truth is, if they have never seen a book with animals, faces, places, and things, they might enjoy it.  If they are talking about the things in these books, they are developing the art of narrating.

Even better than a book would be seeing and feeling the actual things.  As you take your child different places, narrate to them.  “We’re going to the store.”  “Oh, do you see that big truck over there?”  An older child can be asked questions to get the ball rolling.  “What do you like about this store?”  “What’s the difference between this car and that truck?”

3. It’s possible the readings are too lengthy.

Aesop’s Fables are very simple.  Your child may already be familiar with the animals in the stories.  However, for a new narrator, you must think short narrations.  As an example of a short narration, you might say, “We’re going to read The Ants and the Grasshopper.  What do you think this story will be about?”  If they say, ants and grasshoppers, give them some verbal praise and then just read the story.  The more  short stories you read, the more they will become interested.  After a few stories, you could offer your own narration.  “I liked when the Lion let the Mouse go.”

For an older child, you may start with just a few sentences and ask what’s going on in the story so far.  If they find that difficult, read and give your own narration as examples for a while.  Or you could read and give a silly, nonsensical narration and see if they are able to give a correct retelling.

4.  It’s possible your child is not an auditory learner.

Listening to stories involves several skills: attention, proper hearing capabilities, vocabulary knowledge, and auditory to mental picture processing.

Auditory to mental picture processing.  When you read the words “hot air balloon”, what comes to mind?   Something hot?  Something to do with air?  Maybe just party balloons?  For some, hearing a word and turning it into a picture in the mind is difficult.  Trying to make sense of multiple words all put together is confusing and frustrating.   Just like math, though, auditory learning is a skill that can be developed; in some it comes naturally, and in others it takes a lot of hard work over a long period of time.

For a visual or kinesthetic student,  you might try storyboarding or using a medium for them to create the pictures so they don’t have to hold the ideas in their minds.   Holding all the mental pictures of the story in the mind and then regurgitating them is a skill to be developed over time.

5. It’s possible the content is uninteresting.

The books we read must be inspiring and interesting to the student.  Some children prefer Pollyanna over Robinson Crusoe or a photographic book to a cartoon picture book.  All children should learn to appreciate whatever is being read.  With that said, we all have our own tastes, and finding the genre that your child likes is the doorway to the kingdom of their imagination.  Try many different genres, and when you find one they particularly appreciate, stick with that for a time and then ease in other books.

6. It’s possible they just don’t understand what is being asked of them.

“What’s a narration?”  After five years of narrating better than even his mother, my son asks me this.  I had always just asked what he thought or to tell me back what I read.  He is one of my auditory learners.  Narrating comes naturally to most auditory learners, even if they don’t know what they’re doing.

My daughter, a visual learner, thought I was asking her to tell her word-for-word what I read.  This child, who spoke in sentences at 18 months old, could not narrate at age 6.  She had been read to all her life and had a substantial vocabulary.  Her older brother was great at narration, but she just didn’t understand what I was asking of her.  I was reading large sections at a time and expecting her to get it.  After many tears we had to try something different.

Since she was a visual learner, I thought we would try what I call storyboarding.  I gave her a white board and markers, and she drew the story in comic book form.  I shortened the readings to a few sentences at a time, and then WAITED for her to finish that drawing before continuing to read.  Once she had a few panels of the story drawn, I would ask her to show me what she had.  It was wonderful!

I explained to her that I wanted her to make pictures in her mind just like the pictures on her board.  We continued with storyboarding for a long time.  She eventually was able to drop the board and narrate without it.  She is fantastic at narration today, but it took pulling back and recognizing that my method was the problem, not her.

7.  It’s possible a deeper issue may be present.

“I don’t want to.”  Like I said at the beginning, you can’t make a child narrate.  You may have a stubborn child, possibly even one who does not respect your role as teacher.  In that case, any attempt to teach will result in a battle.  This is not a teaching issue, but a heart issue.

Your child may also have difficulty with hearing or auditory processing.  An easy response is, “I don’t want to.”  They most likely do not know why they can’t, they just know they can’t.

There may be more obstacles than I’ve listed here.  But please understand that YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW.  Now that you have been introduced to some of the possible problems with beginning narration, try a few of these techniques.

  1. Make sure they’re old enough.  Even a nine year old may not be ready.
  2. Start with simple narrating material.
  3. Give short readings.
  4. Try to identify how your child best learns – visual, kinesthetic, auditory.
  5. Pick inspiring materials.
  6. Try to explain what you are asking and give lots of examples.
  7. Check for underlying issues unrelated to school.

Narrating should not be a chore but a gift to your child.  If narrating is a problem, back off until you have identified the issue(s) and simply have fun reading!



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