Thursday, February 28, 2013

Is Your Child Struggling with Written Narration?

Sometimes, I take care of a couple of boys for the day because their mother, a single mom, works full time outside the home. She home schools them in the evenings and on weekends. I consider their mother to be one of those unsung heroes on this earth. Although her sacrifices go unnoticed here, she’s a star in heaven. 

I know that she has been reading aloud rich classic literature to her children for many years. Her  son, Justin who is in 6th grade, has been reading his schoolbooks for several years but has only been narrating for about a year. On the day that he was visiting our home, he brought his schoolwork and began working on his assigned readings. Everything was going fine until he told me that he was supposed to write a narration. I hate writing narrations! It’s like climbing a sheer cliff! Tears welled up in his eyes. His brother explained to me that Justin has always hated writing narrations and it usually took him over an hour to complete one. I had expected this resistance because his mother had warned me that I probably wouldn’t be able to get a narration out of him. 

In order to find out the reasons behind his frustration, I began to ask him questions. After pinpointing the problem, we sorted it out and twenty minutes later, he wrote a beautiful narration.  As he prepared to go outside for a break, he said to me with enthusiasm, “If I could write narrations like this, I wouldn’t mind it so much!”

So what were the problems and how did we solve them?

Problem 1
I learned that Justin had read thirty-five pages from one book that day. Reading and narrating from that many pages is too much to expect from a child. Charlotte Mason kept the readings for younger children brief. Upper level students who have several years of narration under their belt may be called upon to do this, but no one else. Justin instinctively knew this was too much. He was overwhelmed. I would be, too.

Solution 1
In order to solve Justin’s dilemma, I asked him to recall one small part of his reading that he really enjoyed. Then I asked him to tell me about that part, and that part ONLY. I could tell that the ice was breaking. His face showed that he thought this task just might be possible to accomplish. Now, I realize that there are times when children double up their readings to catch up on a lost week. We do this sometimes too. But this should be the exception to the rule. Shorter readings are ideal.

Problem 2
Justin understood that he had to SUMMARIZE thirty-five pages. This requires sifting through huge amounts of material and determining the main points while leaving out all the juicy, exciting details. Such a task is not only overwhelming for children, but extremely BORING. Essentially, he was being asked to write an ESSAY. It's difficult enough for a child to have to write his thoughts down. Adding the task of summarizing can shut down some children. Crafting an essay involves higher level skills that are best suited for older children. Some children in the elementary years are capable of doing this, but I’ve never met one that enjoys it, especially if asked to do it on a continual basis. Charlotte Mason expected high school-aged students to begin learning this skill, not young children. Technically, essays are not even narrations, but a form of academic writing that is used in college level classes. This skill can be learned in a short amount of time. But it is best learned when children have become proficient writers and only AFTER they have learned to enjoy writing. And yes, I firmly believe that EVERY child can learn to enjoy writing (or typing), if the proper foundational steps have been put in place using Miss Mason’s suggestions religiously.

Solution 2
When I asked Justin to tell me about a particular part of the story he had just read, I reminded him that I hadn’t read the story, so would he please make it interesting. Don’t just tell me what happened because that is boring. Tell it to me like the author did. If you remember something interesting he said, try to do the same. Use fun words. Justin warmed up to this idea and did a fine job giving me a detailed narration. Why? Because in his thinking, this was doable and could even be fun. In fact, when he finished he was surprised that it was acceptable to me. He expected it to be harder.

Next, I told Justin that I wanted him to write down on paper what he just told me. I placed a timer beside him and set it for twenty minutes. If he worked hard and didn’t waste any time, he could stop when the bell rang even if he hadn’t finished writing down all he wanted to say. I assured him that since he had already told me out loud his entire narration, it didn’t matter if he couldn’t finish writing all of it down. The most important things he needed to remember were to be accurate and interesting. I don’t want to read a boring narration, Justin. And I’m sure you don’t want to write a boring one either. Have fun while you are writing. Again, he lighted up at the thought of these new guidelines. Maybe I can do this.

Twenty minutes later, Justin had written a FULL page. I honestly wasn’t expecting that much. I had browsed through his notebook and noticed that he generally wrote about half of a page. I asked him to go over it very slowly with his pencil and see if he forgot to capitalize or punctuate anything. Take your time. Then, I asked him to read his narration out loud to me. He hesitatingly began. I didn't interrupt.

Folks, it was simply beautiful. He uncorked the rich words that had been bottled up in his mind after several years of listening to great literature, and they began to run all over the paper. All he needed was the proper coaxing to start the flow. He had added little descriptive details that were not to be found in his previous narrations-and clearly, he was greatly enjoying it.

If your children are having troubles with the skill of written narration, it is just possible that their passions are being stifled by unrealistic expectations. Remember to shorten the reading, keep the writing brief, and let the child RELIVE THE TALE by saving the skill of summarizing for later years.

one step at a time...


  1. Thanks for taking the time to share this great example!

    1. Clara, are you planning to link to this article on your blog? I think it would be a great read for a lot of your followers.

      Sue M.

    2. Sue, I'll have to do that. :-)

  2. Lindafay,

    I have a feeling my kids will be very happy you wrote this article. :)

    Thanks, this was extremely helpful.


  3. Anonymous1.3.13

    This is fabulous!! So many great hints in this post. My boys will be very happy with it also. ;0)

  4. Anonymous1.3.13

    This article will save us many tears in our home :-) Thank you!


  5. Great article! This will be a big help for my reluctant narrators.

  6. Can you please come to my house for a day? ;) That is a great article, thank you!

  7. Heather3.3.13

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience; this is so helpful!

  8. We discussed the topic of the three paragraph essay late into the night at our last meeting so this post is very timely. In today's academic environment I think it is hard to know how much is too much and how much is too little in the area of composition. To rely solely on written narrations seems so... not enough. Your comment

    "This skill can be learned in a short amount of time. But it is best learned when children have become proficient writers and only AFTER they have learned to enjoy writing."

    is right on. I'm curious to know what you recommend for older children who have been narrating from the beginning. At what age do you suggest doing anything more and what do you recommend they do?

  9. I love your practical tips to guide your child's thinking. My youngest is often overwhelmed by 2 things - how to start and what to include in her narration. Thanks for such clear thoughts to help us!

  10. Thanks so much for stopping by to comment, Ladies.


    I really can't answer that question well as a brief comment. I haven't had the time yet, but have been planning to write a post about the steps I use in teaching writing the CM way, especially as children reach the upper years. It's coming soon...

  11. This is very encouraging. Thank you!

  12. Thank you for reminding us all some vital points about how Mason taught written narration. Altering a few principles here and there (long readings and requiring written narration after an abbreviated journey through oral narration, copywork, and studied dictation) can lead to problems.

  13. Anonymous22.3.13

    I have pondered on this more and the hints have helped out my boys and they are doing great. Maybe you could do a similar post for high school age. Often I am not sure what my expectations should be for that level.

  14. I am looking over your curriculum site and followed here to this blog. We are starting written narration this year and I will be referring back to this. THANK YOU so much for putting all the time and thought into your website. I visited years ago when you were blogging only, I think, and you have really done amazing work with the site since then. THANK YOU ~Cori