Near the end of his life, Alma sat down with his son Helaman and gave him some final instructions. As he entrusted his son with the sacred records, Alma explained that the job was pretty straightforward: the Brass Plates and other Nephite records needed to stay bright. Well-cared for brass is shiny; I’ve got a couple things made from brass, and if I don’t polish them regularly, then they corrode and lose their brightness. That’s what the conversation suggests to me, anyway: it’s a simple job: keep the plates shiny so they aren’t dimmed by time and corrosion, which would obscure the writing on them. That’s the context of the well known verse:
Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.
Just like keeping the plates shiny and bright was a small simple thing, accomplished through consistent repetition of simple steps, so some of the greatest tools in education are small and simple things that are easy to overlook. Narration is a great example of this kind of easily overlooked, easily underestimated educational tool.
Read the passage. Tell it back in your own words.
It sounds too simple for that to be all there is to it, doesn’t it? We’ve been using narration as our main “mode” of education since about 2010, and I can say with confidence that, like rubbing metal plates to shine them, it’s one of those small and simple things that accomplishes surprisingly great things, particularly with regular repetition.
Let’s look at what Miss Mason said about reading and narrating.
“In every case the reading should be consecutive from a well-chosen book.”
-Charlotte Mason, volume 1 page 232-3
This calls to mind the idea that all things ought to be done in wisdom and order, with diligence. It also speaks to the need to learn from, not just any book, but the very best available. This isn’t haphazard, grab anything; Miss Mason expected her teachers to have a plan for what they would teach, and stick to it over a period of time.
Before the reading for the day begins, the teacher should talk a little (and get the children to talk) about the last lesson, with a few words about what is to be read, in order that the children may be animated by expectation; but she should beware of explanation and, especially, of forestalling the narrative. Then, she may read two or three pages, enough to include an episode; after that, let her call upon the children to narrate,––in turns, if there be several of them. …This sort of narration lesson should not occupy more than a quarter of an hour.
-Charlotte Mason, volume 1 page 233
Early on in our homeschool journey, someone wise told me that I should put things away before the kids are really ready to do so. This has been really good advice when it comes to our readings. Reading in relatively small sections (we typically do a chapter from most books) and then letting it set for days or even a week or two sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I’ve found that instead, it keeps interest high: my kids protest when I close the books and they are excited to find out what comes next when we get that story back out next week. Asking them to tell me what happened last time trains them to hold onto the same idea over a lengthy period of time; it’s hard at first, but as with any other skill, it gets easier with practice. And the ability to hold an idea for days or weeks and then pick it back up and continue the thought is an extremely useful ability! That part of the exercise is typically just a few sentences. Then we read the passage. Some of my kids have needed a little more support early on, but all three of them have grown into narrating, that is, telling back in their own words whole chapters of text from classic children’s literature in a single reading.
They not only narrate with spirit and accuracy, but succeed in catching the style of their author. It is not wise to tease them with corrections; they may begin with an endless chain of ‘ands,’ but they soon leave this off, and their narrations become good enough in style and composition to be put in a ‘print book’!
-Charlotte Mason, volume 1 page 233
Kids are typically excellent mimics, and one of the beauties of this system is that it puts things in their way that are worthy of imitation: by choosing the highest quality literature, we give them the opportunity to “steep” in words crafted by masters of the English language, and this deep exposure over a long time leaves its imprint on the spirit of the student: the begin to borrow the phrases, rhythms, and themes of the masters they are learning from. But the process is organic, happening inside the student, and not something that is imposed externally by the teacher:
Indeed, it is most interesting to hear children of seven or eight go through a long story without missing a detail, putting every event in its right order. These narrations are never a slavish reproduction of the original. A child’s individuality plays about what he enjoys, and the story comes from his lips, not precisely as the author tells it, but with a certain spirit and coloring which express the narrator. By the way, it is very important that children should be allowed to narrate in their own way, and should not be pulled up or helped with words and expressions from the text. 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. Narrations which are mere feats of memory are quite valueless.
-Charlotte Mason volume 1 page 289
The beauty of this system is that it calls upon the students to act, to exercise their minds and take hold of the information and make it their own, rather that expecting students to be passively acted upon by the teacher. This is true whether the teacher in question is a parent in the home, or a textbook author: we want real literature, and not predigested information that’s been boiled down, “predigested” and listed out in textbooks.
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
Narration, whether oral or written, is a type of composition: the student must sink their mental teeth into the material at hand, organize it, and give it back. 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. The thing that’s amazing isn’t that “just” reading and narrating is enough; the amazing thing is that this method is powerful enough to challenge adults, and yet it’s accessible to children as young as five or six years old to begin to learn.
Read the book. Narrate it back. Repeat.
It’s the simple things, done consistently, that bring about the greatest results.
DoriAnn Haskins is a wife and a mother of three. She has been studying and then using a Classical/Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling since about 2009, when her oldest started preschool. You can find her blogging at Baby Steps, where she primarily posts about homeschooling life, educational philosophy, and the Gospel.