This post is part of a series. Please to visit the series index for more thoughts on the writings of Charlotte Mason.
There's a lot of chatter on Ambleside Online about narration right now, it being the first of the year; there's a lot of people trying it out for the first time, and it's unfamiliar and easy to feel uncertain, because narration is different from anything most people have done prior to homeschooling. It's also under discussion in the Twenty Principles group right now, which works out well: lots of people reading good things at the same time as people are questioning; I get to be in both camps, and both learn and share.
One of the moms, with a daughter doing Year One, was looking for someone who was willing to make a video for them, so they could see someone else doing it. I asked Dragon(6) if he would be willing to help out, and he was pretty excited about the idea of helping another family with their homeschool. So we did. I didn't do anything special - just set up a camera to catch our normal thing. Including the usual bouncing around and wiggles - this is an active boy.
The foundation for narration is laid in selecting excellent literature for our homes; princesses and race cars and other formulaic books are mental junk food -twaddle- and we owe our children more than that in their education.
To introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first. A child's intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find."
-Charlotte Mason vol 6 p 51
There are lots of resources to help with choosing best books to use as we educate our children (and in the process improve our own education). Ambleside Online has some of the best that I've seen in the book lists they recommend for each year. They have a great selection of beautiful, challenging books, and the more I use them, the happier I am with them. Another place that I like to look when I need an idea for what to read is the 1000 Good Books list. Every single book we've tried from the list has been a good one, and I love the idea behind their books, that before we read the 100 or so truly great books from Western Civilization, we should have read 1000 good books. There are a number of reasons for for this: it assists the reader to develop the educational maturity to handle the difficult works that are the great books; it exposes the reader to a multitude of ideas; the good books on the list have been specifically selected to showcase the Good, the Beautiful, and the True and will assist our efforts in teaching by example through the stories' examples of upright people and heroic actions.
The points to be borne in mind are, that he should have no book that is not a child's classic; and that, given the right book, it must not be diluted with talk or broken up with questions, but given to the boy in fit proportions as wholesome meat for his mind, in the full trust that a child's mind is able to deal with its proper food.
-Charlotte Mason vol 3 p 232
So you have your literature; now what? Basically, what happens is you read to the child, or when they're able, they read it, and then they tell back to you what was read. It sounds simple, but don't dismiss it out of hand: narration is work, and can take serious mental effort, especially at first. This type of narration is the backbone of what we do for our content areas, and if the word "narration" sounds odd, you can think of it as oral composition - we are asking the kids to communicate back to use the things that they learned from the passage that they are narrating. They are learning to pay close attention, to locate something good or true or beautiful in the text, to connect with what the author is saying, and then to communicate that with others. And Miss Mason recommends teaching them to do all that after a single reading.
This, of telling again, sounds very simple but it is really a magical creative process by means of which the narrator sees what he has conceived, so definite and so impressive is the act of narrating that which has been read only once. I dwell on the single reading because, let me repeat, it is impossible to fix attention on that which we have heard before and know we shall hear again.
-Charlotte Mason, vol 6 p
Brandy, of Afterthoughts Blog, said it really well: "Knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced." And that's exactly what narrating asks of the student -adult students, too: written narrations, following reading and taking notes on a passage really help clarify my thoughts and understand, which is part of why I love blogging: it's narration, and as such helps me think more clearly and assimilate more completely that which I have been reading. When you only allow a single reading before the narration, then you are not only training the compositional faculty, you are also helping the child develop a habit of attention and focus that will serve them well throughout their life: we are teaching perceptiveness and clarity of thought.
Additionally, this is a very efficient way of teaching, which both subtly teaches the child to appreciate efficiency, and also makes maximum use of the few precious days and years we have to educate our children. Going back over a passage again and again is, for the child who can take it in in a single reading -and I am firmly convinced that, lacking any special disability or trauma, this is possible for all or nearly all children- so to go over repeatedly what could be done just once is a colossal waste of precious instruction time and a terrible disservice to our students. It denies them time for learning other things, and, worse, encourages lax mental habits.
The mind is trained to do all of this work, the very first time. What a blessing to help our children develop these habits — habits many of us wish we had — when they are young and it comes more naturally.-Brandy, Afterthoughts Blog
It sounds so simple: read the text, then explain it to someone. But it really is remarkable how effective it is. As the kids get older and their writing skills begin to catch up to their mental skills, you start having them write down their narrations and it grows up very naturally into essay writing, because all along they've been practicing the composition elements, and absorbing the rhythm and style of the great authors through extensive exposure to authors who are masters at their craft.