We often read from various books and articles that the main premise of a Charlotte Mason education is the idea that children will read from living books and then narrate them. But, often, the connection between the living books and the narration is neglected. We are told to use living books rather than textbooks and to have our children retell, or narrate, what was just read to them or what they've just read themselves.
What are living books?
If you are new to the ideas and methods of Charlotte Mason, then you may be wondering what a living book actually is. Here is a blog post where I try to explain this: Living Books: What Are They and Why Are They Important?
But, why do we narrate living books?
In "Characteristics of a PNEU School" by E. M. Till, this connection is made clear in the following excerpt:
"To Charlotte Mason knowledge was bound up with the living. 'It is not instruction, information, nor even a well-stored memory. It is a state out of which people may pass and into which they may return. Matthew Arnold said "Knowledge is information touched with emotion". Therefore, textbooks must be replaced by books into the writing of which the writer has put his heart as well as a highly-trained mind. We must try to use living books.' Thus the children form relationships with the minds of great men [and women] through the works they have left behind."
"Narration, or the collected re-telling of a passage immediately after the reading, helps the children to digest the meaning, or re-live the story, and by recreating it in their own language, they make it their own. Not only does this unconsciously increase their vocabulary, but it makes revision before examinations superfluous."
"Characteristics of a PNEU School" by E. M. Till (1965)
A living book differs from other books, because it draws the reader into its world. It is almost as if the author of the book has jumped out of his own book in order to share his knowledge with the reader. But, it's not just the knowledge that is shared-the author brings his passion and excitement with him. This is captivating to the reader, making the transfer of knowledge almost effortless. Readers form relationships not just with the author, not just with the book itself, but, most importantly, with the magic of learning. And it is these very relationships that are needed for narration. A narrating student is connecting what they've learned within their own mind. Every student will take something different from the same reading, since they as an individual will have separate thoughts and ideas. The power of narration is in the freedom students have to make the knowledge fit their own minds.
So, first, we make way for a learning connection to take place by providing our students with living books, and then we give them the room needed to make the connection their own in the form of narration. The former paves the way for the latter.
Narrating from textbooks or other types of non-living books do not lend themselves well to good narrations. This is why textbooks are primarily used, if at all, in the upper years, when students have established their foundational knowledge and have developed their minds well-enough to pull from multiple sources and angles for acquiring new knowledge.
Remember, narration is a form of composition or writing-its goal is in helping students organize their established knowledge with newly acquired knowledge. Since quality writing stems from quality thoughts and ideas, then it would follow that quality thoughts and ideas must be introduced. Living books provide these introductions and it is from here that students narrate and make them their own.
Charlotte Mason set up a premise for learning that is rarely emulated and is often misunderstood. As an educator who cares about all children and their minds, I wish that I could make this clearer and better known.