Narration and Charlotte Mason

Narration is the way Charlotte Mason used living books and made them part of her school room lessons. Instead of using textbooks, or memorisation of facts, she coupled narration and living books. This gave her a teaching tool that far surpassed a workbook or textbook.

homeschool narration

When you use narration and Charlotte Mason’s method for your homeschool you’ll find that it is a little scary. This is because you feel like you’re not covering all of the subjects that they might cover in a textbook. You also haven’t got all the activities that can be associated with covering a set syllabus. However, if you can just put those fears aside you will actually find narration is a powerful method that demonstrates real learning and requires your child to think about what they are hearing and reading.

Narration is a skill that you develop over time. When we use it with our little six years old it might not seem like much, but as the skill develops you can really see that children learn a great deal from their read alouds when they add in narration.

Narration is the simple telling back of what has been read. Narrations can be oral or written. Narration helps the child think through the passage they are narrating and then they record what they got from it. It is a memory, comprehension and concentration skill.

Tell Me What You Already Know – Oral Narration

The principle of oral narrations is that a child will tell back what they have read (or you have read to them). They will put in the facts that they thought were important.

Why Can’t I Just Give Them A Worksheet?

A six year old can tell you a whole lot more during an oral narration than they can if they had to write it and ask you to spell every word.

How To Do Narrations?
“The teacher does not talk much and is careful never to interrupt a child who is called upon to ‘tell.’ The first efforts may be stumbling but presently the children get into their ‘stride’ and ‘tell’ a passage at length with surprising fluency. The teacher probably allows other children to correct any faults in the telling when it is over. The teacher’s own really difficult part is to keep up sympathetic interest by look and occasional word, by remarks upon a passage that has been narrated, by occasionally showing pictures, and so on. But she will bear in mind that the child of six has begun the serious business of his education, that it does not matter much whether he understands this word or that, but that it matters a great deal that he should learn to deal directly with books.” Narration and Charlotte Mason’s Advice:

Recent research continues to support the value of narration. According to the Dr Michal Ichet from Ariel University in Israel said children will retain up to 15% more of the content that they have read to them if it is repeated.

My Tips For Oral Narrations

I must confess I don’t do narration as strictly as Charlotte Mason required. I added in some Michelle Morrow modifications that brought success in narrations.

  • You do not need to do narrations for all of your reading, choose the books that you will use.
  • Read aloud a small passage (a paragraph) and have your child tell back what you just read in your own words. Do this immediately after the reading. As your child develops this skill you can increase the amount of material that is read. Comprehension of the text is was what I looked for.
  • Getting a descent narration was sometimes like getting blood from a stone, but with a little prompting I got my child talking about what they remembered. If they didn’t remember anything (which did happen to me more than I’d like to admit) you need to take them back through what they have read. This is a bit boring for them (and you) but hopefully they will have concentrated more on the second round. Sometimes my kids were so good at remembering details it took longer to hear the narration than it did for me to read the passage.
  • I let my kids play Lego, or do hair, or draw pictures whilst reading aloud but I expected them to concentrate. If they didn’t listen then they couldn’t fiddle.
  • Sometimes we just had conversations about what they were reading and I didn’t make it a “narration lesson”.
  • I would get them to draw pictures to illustrate what we had read about.

Use oral narration with your children until they are about 10 years old. Of course you can continue with this after 10 but now you can also introduce written narrations.

Oral narration gives children something to write about and it is great preparation for written narrations.

Questions on Oral Narration For Younger Children

Recently on our My Homeschool Forum the topic of oral narrations came up.

My son is 6 years old and coming to the end of Grade 1. I know you had said in the workshop on narration that it can be hard work in the beginning as the child gets used to it. When narration was first introduced in the Grade 1 course he could only give me two or three sentences from a book/chapter and I was happy with this as he did struggle a little.

My questions are as follows:

  • He quite often will mix up the order of how the story/chapter played out ie he remembers what was most recently read to him (end of the story) and tells me that first. Is this okay or is chronological order important?
  • When narrating back to me, some of the details will be incorrect – sometimes way off the mark (but not just making things up). Do I correct these details or leave it alone as it is his interpretation? I want him to make sure he understood the story correctly but on the other hand I don’t want to tell him he’s wrong when it’s his version of it.
  • Is it a good thing to ask him questions about the story to get his memory going or should I not be prompting him at all? This also kind of includes letting him look at the pictures again in the book, is this ok?
  • Are there specific details I should be looking for in his narrations?

He has already come so far and he actually surprised me this week with how much he was able to ‘tell back’ so I am definitely seeing progress. I suppose I just want to make sure we’re doing it all correctly right from the beginning!

Three Stages To Narration

Jo Lloyd, our Year One course creator answered the question so beautifully that I asked permission to reproduce it here.

First up, remember that there are three key stages to narration:

1. Set the scene for them: Introduce the lesson by looking at what you’ve covered in the last lesson (looking at your last Notebook entry is great for this) and give them a little bit of context about what you are going to read to them.  This will take less than a couple of minutes but is so valuable and essential for keeping those lessons short.

2. Do the reading and then take their narration – Yup, this is one step, and you simply write what they are saying if you are recording their oral narration in their notebook.

3. You contribute something to “cement” their understanding of their reading. This might be a discussion, adding in what you found intriguing; or showing them a diagram; asking them a question; watching a video… lots of possibilities here.

Ok, so, thinking about those 3 steps in relation to your questions:


Yes, it is important that they understand it in order, but it is quite common (especially for children this age) to work backwards. (Actually, a lot of us adults do it too.) Younger children will often go backwards from the last bit you’ve read so I wouldn’t be worrying, except if they consistently can’t work back to the very beginning of the text. If that’s happening you may want to reduce the amount you are reading at a time.

Correcting Inaccuracies

This one is tricky but think first principles, starting with, don’t interrupt them when they are narrating. Let them go and listen to where they are veering off the text. If it is an occasional misunderstanding, I’d just listen and clarify it when you are in the third step: sometimes a few guiding questions or saying something that corrects their understanding in a factual way can help them to clear things up they’ve misunderstood. I’d also just keep a little note of when he is veering off and see if you can find any patterns: could it be tiredness, is it in a particular subject, or when a novel compared to a picture book?  I’m not talking massive, copious notes here, just quietly observing.

Prompting and Memory Work

If you are introducing the lesson and not reading too much at a time they shouldn’t need any prompts or looking at the book, but use your discretion here. I’d wait until they’ve narrated and then share something you’ve enjoyed – you could even point to a picture and comment how much you liked it in particular and why – and then have more of a discussion, rather than asking him questions here. This third part of the narration is really helping them to connect what they’ve read to what they already know, so chat about it with them and ask questions to guide them.

As For Specific Details

When they are this age, I’d just be focused on how they are responding to the range of texts they are reading, watching and observing and seeing their delight in that. Remember, they can narrate everything from the book you’ve got for a school subject to what happened during their play with a friend.  Narration is just their natural way of sharing that with you so I’d just be looking for how much detail they offer, and how animated they may become over certain topics. Narration is a real gift to a homeschooling mama because they give us a glimpse into what our little people are thinking and working through. The details are in their word choices and turns of phrase, when they tell us something that we didn’t even realise they knew, and when they are silent on something. Narration is hard work as they work through what’s important and how it connects to what they already know.

Time To Think

One last thing I’ll note too is downtime. Charlotte had their afternoons dedicated to “afternoon pursuits” to give their brains time to work things through and that’s why she alternated lessons too. Going for a long walk or doing some painting can be the “brain space” your child can need to work something out. While that means that you don’t get to see that when you do their narration straight after reading, that is why we have that first step of introducing the lesson: because the next week you come to Science or Geography they may just have worked something out while doing a completely different topic or activity.


My Homeschool Narrations

Our My Homeschool programs use narration as a tool in all grades. We’ve carefully worked out the chapters into narratable portions and scheduled them into your weekly planner.

My Homeschool Programs

Find out about our My Homeschool Curriculum.

Written Narrations

Written narrations and Charlotte Mason’s method begin when a child is around 10. It is the same as oral narrations except they write what they remember. Here is an Australian history narration my daughter did when she was 11.

Narration is an English writing lesson with quality subject content. The child has something to write about  – an excellent kill two birds with one stone tool. Charlotte Mason believed that living books used for narration exposed children to excellent writing models and authors which they could learn from. Children are not stressed about trying to be creative because they already have the subject to write about so they can focus on the mechanics of writing well.

Some people believe you should do a narration from memory and one reading. However I’ve met many Charlotte Mason home educators who don’t do it that way.  I allow my child to use their reading books to write their narration if they need to check on something. One of my friends helps them find keywords before they write their narration.

Tips For Written Narrations

  • I usually only have one or two books that I require narrations. I choose books that are story like so they narrate well. For example I might require a narration from a chapter or page from a book. I use narration for history, science, geography and I also count narrations as an English lesson.
  • I do coach my kids if they are having difficulty. I sometimes make a few suggestions for how to make it more interesting. I correct most mistakes when I see them.  I also have used extra writing resources that give ideas for writing techniques
  • I set the length of the narration required. I might say I want at least five sentences for the narration . This helps with the child who is prone to, “The king died. The end!” narration but I found it also helped the child who was overwhelmed because they remembered everything that was written and got lost regurgitating the whole story – a narration became as long as the portion of text I read. Whilst it was very impressive that they could remember all that was written, it also put them off the next narration because they thought they always needed to do very long narrations. I believe it’s better to start small and expect more as they go.
  • I let them do some of their narrations in points if they want. 10 facts was often an easy way for them to record things they learnt.
  • I use notebooking and notebooking pages as prompts for their narration.
  • After my child has written their narration I get them to read it to me aloud. They often pick up mistakes that need correcting and do some self editing. This also gives me an opportunity to give some input into their writing.

Choosing Books For Narrations

You want to choose book that have a good narrative style – a story that they can follow. Fact books and ones that have lots of little segments that are related but not necessarily part of the story are not good for narrations.

That is why real book or living books are perfect for this. I use: the bible, fiction, history biographies and science readers for most of our narrations.

I think new homeschoolers are often astounded at how much history I put into my children’s home school curriculum. Mistakenly they assume I must be skimping on other important subjects in order to teach history because the primary school only 6-10% of your time needs to be spent on history. This equates to 1 to 2.5 hours per week. However since I use a literature based homeschooling history curriculum I can also use much of this suggested curriculum for teaching English as well.
“Why teach history like this? Isn’t history only a minor part of the curriculum?” they wonder.

Although what they don’t realise is that I’m really using historical content for teaching much of my English curriculum, some geography and occasionally science. Over the years I have found this has many benefits.

Here are some written narrations from Journey and Destination.

Example Written Narration

Here is a narration from a book my Miss 11 wasstudying as part our her history and English studies.

This narration was written after she finished reading the whole book which had taken a few days to read.

She did the whole written narration from memory in one go and she accessed the book to check dates and some names during the narration.

written narration example

Margaret Catchpole by Nance Donkin ©1974

by Miss 11

Margaret Catchpole arrived as a convict in Port Jackson on a transport ship called The Nile. The Governor came down to meet the ship and when he saw Margaret, he asked the Captain about and her. He said she was a good person, neat and clean, and an excellent cook. The Governor decided to assign her as a cook for Mr Palmer and his wife.

Margret enjoyed her new job although she was finding it hard to forget her dark past. Margaret tells the story of how she became a convict, to her mistress Mrs Palmer…

When she was young she had loved horses, she could ride without a saddle, she was the youngest of six children. When she thirty five she was bored. She wanted to go to London so she stole a horse. Margaret didn’t finish the story.

She earns her ticket of leave and moves out to the country. She has a little house near the Hawkesbury River. She loves country life and she is happy and content. She took many long walks, she can see the distant mountains and wonders what is over the other side; there were some Irish convicts that believed that over the other side was a straight road to China, Margaret laughed over this tale, she knew that when you are in prison you make up many dreams and fantasies. She becomes a well respected nurse and travels around the countryside caring for the sick.

A flood devastates the land, Margaret helps nurse the sick people and she also swims in the water to save people. She catches a bad cold, She feels better when she receives news from home.

Mrs Palmer asked her if she would like to come and live them again she refuses.

Margaret goes to the city. The price of cotton and leather is rising because of corrupt traders that triple the prices. Margaret sends letters to her friends in England to send her some sewing supplies so she can set up a shop. She hears word that a package has arrived for her in Sydney harbour. She walks for two days, picks up the crate and takes a carriage back home, the package is full of good things. She sets up a shop in the front room of her house. Every penny she can spare she saves for a trip back to England.

Governor Macquarie came to visit and he saw that most of the farmers were living near the river where it sometimes flooded. So he started five new towns on high land; they were called Windsor, Richmond Hills, Pitt Town, Castlereagh and Wilberforce. Some of the farmers moved there but most of them didn’t. The Governor was quiet annoyed at this, he also observed that some of the farmers where not taking very good care of themselves or their farms. The complaint was published in the local newspaper and read out in church. Most of the villages took note of this and started to improve their farms.

The town continued to thrive but Margaret’s health started to fail. She continued to help people when they were sick and eventually caught influenza herself. She died on the 13th of May 1819 at the age of 58. She was buried the next day in the Richmond Church graveyard.

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