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Narration Beats Tests

By Karen Andreola
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #4, 1993.

Karen Andreola explains how it works.
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Karen Andreola

Portions of this article and its sidebars are taken from the works of Charlotte Mason, British education reformer and founder of the Parents' National Education Union, and H. Clay Trumbull, a founder of the American Sunday School movement. Both authors lived and wrote in the nineteenth century.

A pair of sisters stand side by side at the bathroom sink peacefully brushing their teeth. Their four-year-old brother bounds into the room,. Using much force he lifts the heavy stepping stool and squeezes it between them. Standing on his soapbox, now eye-level with his sisters, he states, "I want to brush my teeth."

One annoyed sister, mouth full of foaming toothpaste, replies, "Can't you wait your turn?"

Her brother eloquently argues, "Haven't you ever heard the story of the little boy who couldn't get any water to brush his teeth so da-seeds grew in his mouth?"

"No, what seeds?" chuckles the sister, rinsing her mouth.

"Don't you know about da-seeds?"

"I think he is referring to gum disease," I say, coming to his rescue, wondering when he heard us talking about this topic.

The girls leave the room with clean teeth and I decide to fight "da-seeds" in my own mouth and keep a little boy company at the same time.

As you can see from this true story, children learn to express themselves with an ever-increasing vocabulary long before we treat them to pages of "vocabulary-building" busy work. My son's little speech was a peek into that "art of telling" which is in every child's mind, waiting to be discovered.

As a parent you probably know how much young children delight in "telling." When they are very young we encourage them to walk and talk. Sadly, when school begins they are told to sit down and be quiet. Their instinct of curiosity motivates them to know. Their wonderful new knowledge motivates them to tell. But all too often this ability and desire to tell is "schooled out" of children.

One of the reasons Charlotte Mason's work is enjoying a renaissance among modern home educators is that she worked with children's desire to tell what they know. Unlike other educators of her day, Miss Mason believed strongly that this amazing gift with which children are born should not lie fallow in their education. Recognizing that "narration" -- telling others what you have just learned -- is the best and most natural way for a young child to organize and demonstrate the knowledge he gains from books, she incorporated this natural gift into her school lessons and correspondence courses.

This is the method of learning we have chosen for our children. But how does it work?

First, Miss Mason required her teachers to read aloud to the children. Instead of "dumbed-down" basal readers, which Miss Mason fearlessly labeled "twaddle," she fed the children's minds with the best age-appropriate literature she could find. This was all important, both in retaining a child's interest and in giving his mind solid food for thought. As many of us have found, all children respond naturally to a good story! Then, since knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, she felt children should tell back, after a single reading, what they had just heard. This she called "narration."

Information or KNOWLEDGE?

Today's children are exposed to much information and come away with little knowledge. Why? Because they have never thought the writer's ideas through and made them their own. Charlotte Mason observed that what the child digs for becomes his own possession. Narration develops the power of self-expression and forces the child to use his own mind and form his own judgment.

Today, this simple and delightful way of learning is too often replaced with the convenient use of workbooks. In so many schools -- and some home schools! -- children are captive to pages of multiple choice, true and false, fill-in-the-blank, and lists of questions. But why should we work so hard and weary our children trying to remember fragments of information? Take that information and make it into a story! Then have your children relate the story back to you. Help them learn the "plot" -- the reasons -- behind science, history, and the other disciplines. In this knowledge they will find delight.

"Living Books"

Children respond to what Charlotte Mason called "living ideas" found in "living books," as opposed to textbook-committee pabulum.

Textbooks present history, for example, as a series of disconnected wars and political coups. Why did people live the way they did or fight for those causes? In most cases, the textbook writers are clueless.

A child who reads the good history -- or even the good literature -- of those times will understand far better than the textbook writers how people thought and the noble aims that moved them. Even the noble language of these books helps form his thinking.

So we who believe in narration must search for books that nourish a child on living ideas, and that accustom his ear and tongue to good English.

Beautiful Thoughts

A child who has developed and attained the power of narrating from living books tells his version of the story using attractive vocabulary as it appeals to him. He does not merely parrot information. He absorbs into himself the beautiful thought from the book, making it his own and then gives it forth again with just that little touch that comes from his own mind. Isn't it interesting how the Word of God includes four gospel accounts, each narrated from a special point of view?

NARRATION Fixes Information in a Child's Mind

Miss Mason found that if you use narration consistently, review is unnecessary. Narration is not merely an effort of memory, yet it increases the mind's ability to remember. A child gathers from the whole passage what he has assimilated and he will be able to remember his own assimilation (train of thought) months later, with no review from the teacher.


Certainly we should drill children on the simple facts they need to memorize -- arithmetic facts, important historic dates, Bible verses. Short daily drills will not overshadow the children's school day. However, narration should be our main learning tool. When narration from real books is practiced not as "a nice thing to do from time to time," but as a fundamental way to acquire knowledge, your children will be happy and fulfilled with their school lessons. True personal knowledge is satisfying and children will hold onto their favorite ideas for a lifetime, not just for a test.

Compare this important principle of education with that of the cramming of information for tests. What does cramming do for a child's mind? Have we allowed the goal of making the grade become the ideal?

Miss Mason has taught us that the love of knowledge and the desire to continue learning for a lifetime is a higher goal. It is a nobler ideal.


There is more to narration than meets the eye -- or shall we say meets the ear? We can see how narration invites the child's individual personality to become part of the learning process. What we may not see is how narration strengthens and challenges all the powers of mind. Attending, remembering, visualizing, comprehending, synthesizing (seeing the whole from the parts), and articulating are the result of placing our trust in this method. All a parent need to do is to set the table with a varied diet of true and noble ideas for the child to feast upon and his mind does for itself the sorting, arranging, correlating, selecting, rejecting, classifying, for which textbook committees and the writers of intricately detailed unit studies think they are responsible.


For the literary subjects narration is the best way to find out what a child knows. But what about other subjects? How will we live if we don't have multiple-choice tests resulting in statistics and percentages to point to? (Answer: how many children who pass such tests remember any of the material a few weeks later?)

Insecurity lurks to trap those of us who have put all our eggs in this one basket of evaluation. It is so simple and enjoyable that we may feel like we're cheating. As one Charlotte Mason fan wrote me recently, "Americans are into insurance. We want proof of excellence, measurements of progress, and guarantees of success . . . We test for IQ, readiness, learning disabilities, learning aptitude, creativity, achievement, development, brain hemisphere dominance, perception, and on and on and on. We have placed our hopes in what can be seen, measured, graphed, reported, and compared. We want visible signs of an infinitely complex, invisible reality. As educators we have listened to our fears and have sacrificed education to the god of security. Charlotte Mason can inspire us, but cannot give us what we must become ourselves -- people of faith."

Narration: How To Do It

Formal telling should be required of children only after the age of six. All kindergarten narrations should be spontaneous. Young students should begin by narrating paragraphs. Aesop's Fables are handy for developing the power of narration because they are short and non-twaddly. Drawing a picture of what has been read aloud is a legitimate form of narration, too. This also develops a child's imagination, a valuable part of his intellect. Older students do not mind breaking into the narration habit with Aesop's Fables. Children of all ages enjoy narrating fairy tales and Greek myths, and can easily tell the difference between these "made-up" stories and the Bible stories they will also be narrating.

By age eight, part or all of a short chapter can be narrated (about seven minutes' worth of a teacher's reading aloud).

At the age of nine or ten, children who have been used to the effort of narrating stories can easily go on to narrate whole chapters of history -- historical fiction, biography, myths and legends -- as well science and nature investigation, and Bible. As an alternative to telling, you can also give a child the opportunity to ask you questions from what he has read. His mind will work through the matter to pick out the main points as well as some subtle details which might stump you.

Charlotte Mason's method is the simplest and most natural method I've found to teach children composition. The wonderful "art of telling" carries over to a child's writing. Because narration was the primary way Charlotte's students gained knowledge from books, composition (first oral, later written) was an integral part of a variety of subjects -- not a separate subject. During the years of oral narration the mechanical skills of writing are progressing so that by the age of ten a child is ready to begin the effort of lengthy written narrations. You could call these "book reports" and "essays," if you prefer.

For evaluation in Miss Mason's schools and home schools, children were asked essay questions and their oral or written narrations determined what they knew. These examinations at the end of each term, were never proceeded with review. The children spoke or wrote with fluency because they knew what they had previously narrated even months before.

Our own children are familiar with workbook pages so that they are prepared to take our state's required year end test, but narration is basic in our home school. Each child narrates according to her own ability and each child loves her books. I hope my article has given you increased confidence to set this beneficial and enjoyable use of narration to motion' in your home school. What may seem awkward at first, with time and use, becomes a great accomplishment in your child's education. For, with the frequent use of narration your children will become learned and literate young scholars.

Sunday School Founder Champions Narration

Charlotte Mason wasn't the only one who believed narration to be the best method of learning, remembering, and evaluating. H. Clay Trumbull, a founder of the American Sunday School movement and author of many books, believed narration to be an invaluable method for teaching the Word of God in Sunday schools.

Trumbull quoted pages of what great men have said about narration in his book Teachers and Teaching (now unhappily out of print). One professor Trumbull quoted suggested that the mind of a child is best opened by way of his mouth. "You cannot fill a bottle with the cork in," he said. Counting every passive hearer as a corked bottle, he adds: "You may pour your stream of knowledge upon them till you drown them, and not get a drop of it into them because their mouths are shut."

Trumbull said that there is no mental getting and holding except through, or in conjunction with, some mental giving or doing. He looked back into the pages of history and discovered "telling" was greatly used by the ancients. Socrates, the great Greek teacher, always began his teaching by asking his students questions, in order to open their minds, and to secure their cooperation with him in the teaching process. He insisted that he who would be a learner must not merely be a listener and a recited, but must also be "one who searches out for himself." Trumbull urged this method be used in Sunday schools.

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