Narration and the Very Young
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).
Consider encouraging conversations at dinner or other family time moments, where children can share events of the day or stories they’ve heard to family members who were not present when they took place. Children might even enjoy calling a grandparent or other family member to share some interesting news or a description of a natural wonder. They might even want to share about an interesting book, poem or story just heard. Because technology is so readily available, consider letting children record a natural wonder they’re observing, describing it as they record. Even those delightful reenactments described earlier might be recorded as the children describe the story behind it. These could be sent to a loved one or shared later with family members who were not present at the time.
Alternatively, allow your children to dictate their narrations to you. Ask your children “Would you like me to write down what you thought of ___?” If they agree, then write their descriptions or retellings down just as they say them. Ms. Mason tells us that children can often have more to say then we might think they have. “Children of six can tell to amazing purpose. The grown-up who writes the tale to their ‘telling’ will cover many pages before getting to the end of ‘Hans and Gretel’ or ‘The Little Match Girl’ or a Bible story. The facts are sure to be accurate and the expression surprisingly vigorous, striking and unhesitating” (Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education 190). These narrations can sometimes be read back to the child who might then feel it necessary to supply some missing information. Feel free to insert these as neatly as possible. On special occasions, you might wish to copy the narration neatly on story paper (paper which has a blank top half and a lined bottom half). You child could then illustrate their narration. These narrations could also be dictated in the form of a letter to a loved one or friend. Feel free to be as creative as you wish.
It is also acceptable to have your child begin the narration and let you finish it. This method allows the child to get started but takes off the pressure of having to complete it. This is an excellent way for a full narration to be modeled to children.
All of the methods described for informal narrations can be applied to formal narrations. Children can still dramatize, paint, sculpt and build favorite scenes or characters from stories heard, real-life events witnessed and natural history discovered. “History readings afford admirable material for narration, and children enjoy narrating what they have read or heard. They love, too, to make illustrations. Children who had been reading Julius Caesar (and also, Plutarch’s Life), were asked to make a picture of their favorite scene, and the results showed the extraordinary power of visualizing which the little people possess. Of course that which they visualize, or imagine clearly, they know; it is a life possession” (Mason, Home Education 292).
Provide guidance when needed, but for this level, please do not overdo it. For example, after reading “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” you might say to your child, “Tell me about this story.” If your child simply responds with “A rabbit went to a garden. His mother was mad.” You can help your child expand on these sentences by asking questions. For example, ask “Why did Peter Rabbit go into Mr. McGregor’s garden?” (Notice that you’ve inserted the name of the rabbit and the name of the garden in your question.) You could also ask “Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?”, “Should Peter have gone into the garden?” or “Why was his mother mad?” This type of expansion work should only apply to older children or highly engaged children. The two simple sentences given at first are more than appropriate for younger children and the need to expand on these is not necessary in the beginning. Apply these new expectations only to children who are really ready for it.
For children who simply shrug their shoulders or say “I don’t know”, then consider these questions:
What was the most exciting part of this story? What was the funniest part of this story? What part did you not like?
A silly or grumpy child might like a silly approach. For example, tell your child that you thought the story was about ____. Be sure to fill in the blank with something wildly unrelated to the story. For example, if the story was about a robin, then you might say “monkey” or “blanket”. This may entice the child into correcting you with something more accurate.
Would you prefer to draw a picture about this story? Or make a model of something from this story? Or act out your favorite part of this story?
Also, be patient. If your child seems uninterested in a particular story, then let it be. Perhaps this particular one didn’t catch his/her interest the same way that another one might. Sometimes children who appear uninterested will later show their knowledge of a story or event in imaginative or dramatic play. You may not realize what an impact the story or event had until then. Maybe this child seemed uninterested in the story about the robins and their nest, but two days later spontaneously shares something from the story through a discussion with a sibling or through a question they might ask.
Be careful not to have written expectations which are beyond your student. If your student is not writing fluently, then be sure to allow him/her to dictate his words or to simply tell about it orally.
Here I would suggest that the potent cause of the early loss of this graphic use of words is to be found in the fact that the child is too early made to write his own little stories, his letters, or his Nature diary. Hampered by his inability to write well and quickly, his flow of language and power of word painting leave him. I would advocate that even when schooldays have begun, he should be encouraged to narrate instead of write his compositions, the substance of his history lessons, etc. The habit of this viva voce reproduction would also help him in gaining the power of lucid expression which is becoming more and more necessary. (Franklin pp. 890-898)
Take advantage of outdoor time and nature experiences. Have your children run off to explore and let them come back to tell you about what they’ve discovered. Send them off on “special exploration missions”. For example, tell your children to run off and see what new living thing they can find that they’ve never seen before. When they come back, have each one tell about their new discovery. Or have then run off to look for a something specific such as “something which has a round shape to it”. Give children a lot of room to fit inside this category, since the idea is to allow them to describe it in such a way as to show how it fits. One child might describe the roundness of a wild mushroom, one the roundness of a bumble bee and the other the roundness of a cloud in the sky. Charlotte Mason illustrates this when she writes: “By-and-by the others come back to their mother, and, while wits are fresh and eyes are keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition––Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge, or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson” (Mason, Home Education 46). Mrs. Franklin adds to this in her article “The Home Training of Children” when she writes “We can also greatly strengthen the children’s power of narration (and we know how great this is, both in the childhood of the race and of the man), by encouraging them to describe what they have seen in those hours when Nature has been their chief teacher” (Franklin pp. 890-898).
A Child’s Narration is Always Their Own
Kitching wrote in her Charlotte Mason pamphlet “Children Up to School Age and Beyond” that the role of a parent in their children’s education is to make the knowledge accessible and then to step back and let children take it in and make it their own. In this beautiful quote, she writes: “In School Education, we read of ‘Masterly Inactivity’ and the necessary qualities it calls forth on the part of parents; like peace, it is not absence of action but has constructive and abiding power. It waits upon the knowledge, the self-revealing knowledge, of a child” (Kitching 7). We are not being inactive, we are being patient.
Mr. Boardman in “The Method of Narration” expands on this idea with the following:
Edmond Holmes tells us that “any adult who exacts from the child blind faith and literal obedience, and having secured these proceeds to tell the child in the fullest detail what he is to do, to say, to think (or pretend to think), to feel (or pretend to feel), is devitalizing his whole personality. Unless the child himself, his soul, his self, his ego, call it what you please, is behind his own actions, they are not really his.” I believe with Miss Mason that narration is an art inherent in the child. I am sure that a child likes to narrate because he feels that here at least is something of his own, because he feels he is behind it himself. It is a natural act, but like all other natural acts, it atrophies, and atrophies quickly, in an unnatural atmosphere. I believe that if the teacher dominates the child, narration will suffer. So will the child. (Boardman pp. 469-475)
He also writes: “It is far easier to force children to be passive recipients of certain predigested scraps of information, it is a much more difficult matter to allow the child to be active in the matter and to get him to do his best. It requires a great faith and trust—the harder the case the greater the faith and trust” (Boardman pp. 469-475).
Boardman, Stanley. “The Method of Narration” Parents’ Review, 1927, pp. 469-475
Franklin, E. L. “The Home Training of Children” Parents’ Review, Vol. 19, 1908, pp. 890-898
Kitching, E. “Children Up to School Age and Beyond”, pp. 7 & 13
Mason, Charlotte. Home Education pp. 46, 154, 231, 247, 289 & 292
___. School Education p. 7
___. Formation of Character pp. 305-306
___. Towards a Philosophy of Education pp. 190
Somervell, R. “Lessons Before School” Parents’ Review, Vol. 7, 1896, pp. 295-302
Wix, Helen E. “Some Thoughts on Narration” Parents’ Review, Vol. 68, 1957, pp. 61-63