First Stones in the Foundation
Early school in this curriculum includes Pre-Preparatory, Preparatory and Year One students and these years are foundational years. Narration, like reading and writing, is an ever-evolving skill that further develops as children grow. There are many key components to this development, but the groundwork begun in the early years is certainly one of them, playing a central role in the narrator a child becomes.
Early habits and attitudes, both in children and in parents, are the first stones to be placed in this foundation. Parents and teachers, the forefront of this entire endeavor, need to examine their own attitude and goals in order to best begin the habits and methods needed for narrating. It must be understood that reading aloud quality literature, listening and engaging children in conversations, respecting children as individuals and teaching the habit of attention all contribute significantly to how well children narrate later.
Listening to quality literature, poetry, music and nursery rhymes will build good narrators in that all of these develop the ear to the rhythm of words, the structure of sentences and the imagery created by description and verse. Reading aloud instills in children the knowledge that words, written and spoken, have meaning. These words strung together are a form of communication and that they must learn to decode these words so that they can participate in this literary conversation. Follow these moments of reading loud with lots of discussion. This should not be a formal, regimented type of discussion, but a free-flowing, informal, family discussion about what was just read. Invite and support all thoughts and ideas from everyone listening. In “Lessons before School”, Somervell writes: “…boys who read and remembered were very often boys who had been read to aloud a good deal at home, and I have no doubt, had been accustomed to talk over the stories read to them” (Somervell pp. 295-302). This article writes about the importance of what takes place before children begin formal lessons. Additionally, Mrs. E. L. Franklin tells us in her Parents’ Review article that “Verbal accuracy and power of narration as well as the power of imagining may be much nourished in these early years. Story telling is always a delight to children, and I believe that we should, from the beginning, give them a knowledge of true literature” (Franklin pp. 890-898). The stories and verse awaken the imagination of children and spark a desire to reflect on them and then, in turn, reproduce them in their own way.
Along with reading aloud, regular conversations with small children will go a long way towards teaching them that their words and ideas matter. Children are more likely to want to share what they think and know if they feel that others are actually listening to them. This is a crucial step in showing children that narration is a beautiful extension of who they are, what they have to say and how they communicate. It trains them to recognize that they can gather their inner reactions and thoughts together, arrange them in a logical order and communicate them in a way to which others can respond. Narration is more than just retelling a story or a moment-it is children understanding that they play a role in how this world is viewed and that they can communicate this. This knowledge then changes how they view themselves! Children who narrate well later already understand this and have confidence in sharing. This helps reduce the likelihood that they will see narration as something they “have to do” or as something that is of no real consequence.
Parents who listen to their children teach them that what they say and think has value. It also shows them respect and goes back to the fundamental principle that “Children are born persons”. Respecting children gives children the confidence to want to share, since the atmosphere of respect is filled with support and encouragement and not criticism and annoyance. “Probably the most fundamental principle, and even in this age of child worship, the most neglected, is respect for the children. A respect which will forbid our neglecting their environment, or giving them anything but what is really good and true, both as regards the people and the things which surround them. We know that the little child does notice, does see and does hear, and we are careful that our respect for his powers in these directions shall act as a safe guard” (Franklin pp. 890-898).
Equally as important as reading aloud, conversations and respect is the building of each child’s ability to pay attention. This is reinforced with the training made clear in Charlotte Mason’s books that a reading should only occur once. This teaches children to listen carefully, since they will only have one opportunity to hear it. This focused concentration is also trained when children explore nature. Their happy explorations increase their desire to share what they’ve discovered. They will want to pay attention so that they can tell about it. “The habit of attention is, perhaps, almost the very best equipment with which a child can start his schooldays, and probably no means of forming this is so generally successful as that of letting the children learn to be good listeners. If they are encouraged to relate what they have heard, their powers of narration will be strengthened, and gradually they will reconstruct the ideas received and will tell stories, the apparent originality and beautiful imagination of which will surprise the heavier adult mind” (Franklin pp. 890-898).
Formal narration does not to begin until age six. Children under the age of six might narrate, but the expectation for it should not exist. Any type of narration at this level should be thought of as informal and this can be seen in several different ways. “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” (Mason, Home Education 231).
Children often wish to share their exciting news of the day with another family member or relative. Their news will reflect the joy that often only small children can find in everyday life. As adults we begin to take such small wonders for granted, but for young children they are often still very new. Perhaps they want to tell about seeing a wild flower blooming along a familiar trail, a ladybug landing nearby, a dog racing around the yard to avoid a bath, etc. Encourage children to share and tell about these events as often as they wish. This is a “type” of narration in that they are describing something they saw or recalling something that happened. These sharing moments are the first steps in narration, but they should not be named as that and they should always come forth naturally.
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. A creative fiat calls it forth. ‘Let him narrate’; and the child narrates, fluently, copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity or tautology, so soon as he can speak with ease. This amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education. Bobbie will come home with a heroic narrative of a fight he has seen between ‘Duke’ and a dog in the street. It is wonderful! He has seen everything, and he tells everything with splendid vigor in the true epic vein; but so ingrained is our contempt for children that we see nothing in this but Bobbie’s foolish childish way! Whereas here, if we have eyes to see and grace to build, is the ground-plan of his education. (Mason, Home Education 231)
Narration can also be found in the way that children reenact a favorite scene from an adventure story to which they were listening. This story or poem sparks their imagination and they might bring these scenes to life with plush animals, dramatic play, toys, etc. Sometimes these reenactments do not occur on exactly the same day on which the story was first told. Children may digest these thoughts and ideas and then reveal what they’ve absorbed another time though play. Observe these reenactments from a quiet distance unless children specifically call for an audience. Just as they may wish to reenact a scene using toys to represent characters, they may also wish to reenact scenes with themselves as the characters. Access to play silks, hats, dress-up clothes, play dishes and other pretend play props and items will make this not only more enjoyable but will offer inspiration, too. “Therefore it is well that children should, at any rate, have the outlet of narration, that they should tell the things they know in full detail; and, when the humor takes them, ‘play’ the persons, act the scenes that interest them in their reading” (Mason, Formation of Character pp. 305-306).
This same type of reenactment can be expressed creatively as well. Give your children as much free access to Play-Doh, modeling clay, blocks, LEGO® bricks and other tools to build or sculpt. Children can then express scenes, characters, animals, events and objects from stories, poems, songs and nature through the creation of models.
Overall, the theme to be noted is that children can express or extend from what they’ve learned or heard through conversation, play and creation. These should be encouraged and if observed can be seen as early “narrations”.
Informal narration is always voluntary, although daily parent-child conversations can encourage children to share their thoughts and ideas. This can be done by simply asking questions and being interested in what they say. While having these conversations, it’s important for parents and teachers to model good listening skills, as this teaches children that when they speak then we are listening. We show this by not interrupting them or looking away when they are speaking. Children, too, need to be held accountable to these same interpersonal skills. “Children should be allowed to talk and ask questions; no narration should be expected. Children will volunteer their own small experiences about the matters that are brought up, will bring things from home, will repeat what they have heard Daddy or Mummy say about the events of the day and indeed provide a large part of the carrying on. But care is necessary. Children must be trained not to interrupt each other or the teacher, to talk quietly, to ask questions one at a time” (Kitching 13).
In the Parents’ Review, Helen Wix writes:
Very young children, in the nursery class, are not expected to narrate, but often they insist on doing so because of this instinct to ‘tell all about it’ to somebody. How many of us can refrain from telling that good story we heard yesterday? And anything that must be remembered, do we not repeat it even if it is only ‘First turning to the left and third to the right?’ Narration is extraordinarily satisfying to the narrator… (pp. 61-63)
How Not to Handle Beginning Narrations
Negative reactions and attitudes by parents and teachers in response to children sharing will not work in your favor when narrating becomes formal. The early approaches described earlier will go a long way towards setting good habits in place. It is so much harder to redo them later.
Try not to coach or lead to a specific “answer”. Narration is not about the production of some pre-formed answer. In fact, it is wholly the opposite. We cannot expect a specific answer, because we should not know the answer, since it is the child’s connection that is being shared and not ours. Of course, there are some elements that logically should be included in a narration as children develop, but these will not be expected or outlined for early school children at all and will often fall into place naturally over time anyway. “A narration should be original as it comes from the child––that is, his own mind should have acted upon the matter it has received” (Mason, Home Education 289).
Try not to interrupt or allow interruptions. This proves to be difficult sometimes, but it is really important that children feel “heard” when they are speaking. Multiple distractions will interrupt their attempts to organize their thoughts and relay them in spoken words. They might forget what they’ve already said or what they wanted to say next. This disrupts brain training in organizing thoughts together -an important skill needed. If needed, consider taking the child who is speaking over to the side a bit or insist that other family members remain quiet. This sounds fierce, but it cannot be stressed enough how important is for every human being to feel as if what they think, feel and say has value.
Keep expectations focused on encouraging children to share what they want to share about something. Narrations are meant to be flexible, particularly in the young. If your child does not wish to describe something he/she saw while exploring outside, then certainly let that description slide. You can also offer other ways for your child to share what was observed. For example, you might then say “If you don’t want to tell me about it, then would you like to draw it?” or you could direct your child in another way. Perhaps say “Would you like to tell me about something else?” If life is busy and messy at the moment, then simply say “Oh, that’s too bad. It sounds like you saw something wonderful and I would have loved to have heard about it. Maybe you can tell me about it another time.” And then let it go.
In “The Method of Narration”, Stanley Boardman writes:
Having got the right atmosphere, there are perhaps two dangers against which we must guard in narration. The first is a relic of the past. When we see a child groping his way along, struggling with the eternal question, “What comes next?” we feel we must help in some manner. We feel we must interpolate a question, we feel we must tell him—once again we are tempted to do the work ourselves. Perhaps there may be occasions when a word in season might be of help, as in the case when a child has come across an unfamiliar name, but in the main I think we ought not to interfere in the child’s narration. A discussion afterwards will possibly clear up any difficulties. This is the place for the “oral” work. The second danger I see comes when we are over anxious. Knowing the value of narration we become very anxious that the child shall narrate well, and it has occurred to me that in some subtle way this anxiety is communicated to the child. I may be wrong. But I do feel that an anxious teacher makes an anxious and disturbed child, and an anxious and disturbed child is not himself, is not behind his own actions. I said we were not to help the child, but perhaps there are one or two ways we might do so. This is one. Let us help by keeping pure and unspotted our faith in the child’s ability to perform a natural act. (pp. 469-475)
Formal narrations do not begin until at least age six. For the purposes of this curriculum, they will not look very much different from the informal narrations just described. Year One is the only year of the early years in which narrations will be just slightly more expected. Absolutely, give your child more time if you feel they need it. Formal narrations can begin in Year Two just as well, especially if informal narrations are still being encouraged and supported.
Give children multiple ways to express themselves. Narrations should vary and should not be in the form of oral retellings only, although this is the primary method for these ages. If they don’t feel like sharing, then let them express their thoughts through art, drama and other methods. Helen E. Wix shares some variations to narration in her Parents’ Review article “Some Thoughts on Narration”. She writes “But is narration, even at this age, always merely ‘telling back’” (Wix pp. 61-63)?
It must be, we know, the child’s answer to “What comes next?” It can be acted, with good speaking parts and plenty of criticism from actors and onlookers; nothing may be added or left out. Map drawing can be an excellent narration, or, maybe, clay modeling will supply the means to answer that question, or paper and poster paints, or chalks, even a paper model with scissors and paste pot. Always, however, there should be talk as well, the answer expressed in words; that is, the picture painted, the clay model, etc., will be described and fully described, because, with few exceptions, only words are really satisfying. (Wix pp. 61-63)
We also find suggestions from Charlotte Mason, who writes “For children under nine, the question of composition resolves itself into that of narration, varied by some such simple exercise as to write a part and narrate a part, or write the whole account of a walk they have taken, a lesson they have studied, or of some simple matter that they know” (Mason, Home Education 247).