In previous posts I have written about the importance of living ideas and living books to a RiverTree education. I have been remiss, however, in writing about one of the most distinguishing and important aspects of Charlotte Mason's method - narration. Miss Mason's method contained as a centerpiece of her instructional technique an element of genius. Under her method children read (or are read to) from an idea rich book, written in a literary style. Importantly, they read or hear the text only once. They are then asked to tell back what they read either orally, or in writing.
This simple, yet highly effective technique accomplishes several important things: First, by telling back what they have read the children make the knowledge their own. I am sure we have all had the experience of explaining an idea to a friend or colleague and in so doing coming to understand the idea better ourselves. It is the same with children. Yes, children will retain something if they only hear or read. But hearing or reading and combined with telling results in much higher levels of retention.
Second, narration causes the student to mentally engage the ideas. After hearing or reading a long passage, a narrating student naturally begins to interpret, analyze and summarize the material. He is not expected to merely absorb detached bits of knowledge, but rather to set his mind to work upon ideas, glean from a text the ideas that are most important and reset those ideas into prose of his own.
Third, narration helps a child develop the skill of attentive listening and reading. Children have an enormous capacity for attentiveness. Oftentimes, however, this natural ability is dulled by hours in front of a TV or by schools that persist in teaching by repetition and drill. When teachers insist that a single hearing is enough for understanding, children learn to attend to the first reading, especially when the books are worthy of attention. It does not take long before a habit of attention develops. What's more, this habit eliminates the pattern of children being introduced to material in class, but really learning it only when the time comes to prepare for an exam.
Fourth, narration helps a child become a better writer. A child in a Charlotte Mason school regularly composes ideas, either orally or in writing, after encountering the best thought of the best writers. Oftentimes the child will use the very words of the author with surprising precision. The regular use of narration in the presence of excellent literature is a highly effective tool for developing an ear for good prose.
Finally, the use of narration in the classroom helps to keep the focus on the child's learning. A teacher who uses narration as her primary assessment tool will naturally tend to have a learner centered classroom. Rather than pouring her efforts into writing and grading worksheets and tests, the teacher can remained focused on the proper subjects of her attention: the minds of her students.
This simple technique is one of the distinguishing characteristics of a Charlotte Mason education and I can personally attest that it works. Allow me to share two examples: First, just this morning my eldest daughter (six years old) read and narrated a book about the life cycle of a frog. Not only did she use the word "metamorphosis" correctly, but she also was able to tell me all about how tadpoles grow up and how they live. If I ask her next week or next month, she will still be able to tell me because the ideas now belong to her. Second, while the primary purpose of this blog is to introduce parents to RiverTree School, an important secondary purpose is as a personal narrative journal. Since starting this blog I have been reading through Charlotte Mason's books. Writing about them on this blog as I read has helped me to significantly sharpen my understanding of the method.