Narration: Path to Writing Fluency

In April I was honored to present at Houston Baptist University’s annual Writer’s Conference. This year the conference focused on teaching writing, and I enjoyed sharing from my exploration into the art of narration as a writing practice. Here are my presentation notes:

Overview: Narration, or retelling, is a gentle yet powerful way to develop both writing fluency and also reading comprehension. Consistent practice with narration builds habits of attention and observation, depth of understanding, and breadth of vocabulary and syntax as students imprint the writing of master authors through retelling. Teachers can incorporate oral and written narration in the classroom to help students benefit from their readings and verbalize their experiences.

What is Narration?

  • Narration is a natural and universal human activity.
  • Narration is retelling experiences, observations, interactions, facts, story.
  • Narration can be oral or written, even visual or kinetic.

“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. […] 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 vigour in the true epic vein; […] here, if we have eyes to see and grace to build, is the ground-plan of his education.”

—Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 231

Benefits of Narration in the Learning Process

  • Narration is simple and easy to implement.
    • It requires no special materials or costs.
    • It requires very little teacher preparation time.
    • It can be accomplished in short time slots during the school day.
    • It taps into natural capacity and appeals to students.
  • Narration is versatile.
    • It can be used across grade levels and subject areas.
    • It can be used with groups, pairs, and individual students.
    • It is accessible to students of all abilities & easy to adapt for individual needs.
    • It can be oral or written, verbal or nonverbal.
  • Narration is effective.
    • It develops foundational habits of attention, observation, and critical thinking.
    • It helps develop reading comprehension, recall, and depth of understanding.
    • It links writing to reading and allows students to imprint style and structure.
    • It does double duty as an ongoing informal assessment tool.

The Process of Narration

A basic lesson outline is as follows: (See Mason, Home Education, pp. 232–3.)

  1. Preparation for Input—Review context if applicable; possibly introduce key terms.
  2. Input—Read passage aloud to students or have students read silently. (Input can also be from non-print media, lecture/interaction, observation, and experience.)
  3. Narration—Have students retell what they have heard/read/observed.
  4. Follow-up—Discuss and reinforce topics or questions of interest from the passage.

“But, it will be said, reading […] and then narrating or writing what has been read or some part of it,—all this is mere memory work. The value of this criticism may be readily tested; will the critic read before turning off his light a leading article from a newspaper, say, or a chapter from Boswell or Jane Austen, or one of Lamb’s Essays; then will he put himself to sleep by narrating silently what he has read. He will not be satisfied with the result but he will find that in the act of narrating every power of his mind comes into play, that points and bearings which he had not observed are brought out; that the whole is visualized and brought into relief in an extraordinary way; in fact, that scene or argument has become a part of his personal experience; he knows, he has assimilated what he has read. This is not memory work.”

—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 16

Principles for Implementing Narration at Home & School

Several guiding principles and best practices to keep in mind: (See Glass ch. 3.)

  • Select only high-quality material with rich vocabulary and literary merit.
  • For greatest benefit, allow students to hear/read the passage only once before narrating.
  • Develop a student’s autonomous ability to guide their own narrations without external questions or prompts.
  • Do not interrupt, or allow other students to interrupt, a student’s narration.
  • Allow students to complete/correct a peer’s narration when it is their turn.
  • Correct, complete, question, or discuss narrations only after the students finish narrating.
  • Request a second narration of some passages at regular intervals.

“‘The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself’ […] This is what happens in the narrating of a passage read: each new consecutive incident or statement arrives because the mind asks itself,—‘What next?’”

—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pp. 16–17

Scope and Sequence for Narration & Composition

Narration skills develop through consistent practice over time:

  • Under 6 years old: Enjoy and encourage spontaneous oral narration. Don’t require it.
  • Grades 1–3: Require oral narration of read-aloud episodes once to several times/week.
  • Grades 4–6: Continue oral narration and add written narration 1 to 5 times/week.
  • Grades 7–9: Continue oral & daily written narration; develop writing fluency & composition skills. Fluently write 150 to 300 words/day; follow basic rules of mechanics.
  • Grades 10–12: Continue oral & written narration; study the craft of writing and refine composition skills through formal writing assignments, editing, and revision.

“Children should read books, not about books and about authors […] Their reading should be carefully ordered, for the most part in historical sequence; they should read to know, whether it be Robinson Crusoe or Huxley’s Physiography; their knowledge should be tested, not by questions, but by the oral (and occasionally the written) reproduction of a passage after one reading; all further processes that we concern ourselves about in teaching, the mind performs for itself; and lastly, this sort of reading should be the chief business in the class room.”

—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pp. 341–2

Resources

  • “AmblesideOnline Narration Discussion.” AO Narration, AmblesideOnline.org, 2017, www.amblesideonline.org/Narration.shtml/.
  • Breckenridge, Donna-Jean. “AmblesideOnline: Some Thoughts on Narration.” AmblesideOnline.org, 2017, www.amblesideonline.org/DJBNarration.shtml/.
  • Glass, Karen. Know and Tell: The Art of Narration. Karen Glass, 2018.
  • Hilgeman, Mariellyn. Now, Tell It to Me: Using Retelling for Literacy and Language Development. Purposeful Design Publications, 2008.
  • Mason, Charlotte. A Philosophy of Education: Curiosity—The Pathway to Creative Learning. Tyndale House, 1989 (1925).
  • Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, 1989 (1935).
  • “Topical CM Series: Narration.” AmblesideOnline.org, 2014, www.amblesideonline.org/CMM/topicalnarration.html/.