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Elsie Kitching and Repeated Narrations by Dr. Carroll Smith

 The question of repeated narrations and repeated readings has come up numerous times over the years since I have been studying Mason.  I want to address this topic in this blog post and I begin with Elsie Kitching’s comment in a 1928 Parents’ Review.  When researching the work of an educational philosopher and giant such as Mason, many researchers (and I am one of those) are very careful when quoting or supporting a concept the theorist promoted, in this case narration, by using individuals who wrote after the philosopher’s life time.  My choice has always been to use only Mason herself and articles that she allowed to be published during her life time.  In this case since Elsie Kitching was Mason’s lifetime friend and companion, I belief it is safe to use Kitching’s work for this discussion of repeated readings and narrations.  Here is what Kitching (1928) said, 
I heard a lesson given some months ago by a junior student of
the College, who was just beginning her work in the Practising
School here, and she allowed four children to narrate the same
passage, and each narration was worse than the first, and the
lesson was a failure. A child cannot be expected to give full
attention to one subject more than once in one lesson. If he
gives his full attention once, that piece of work is done once and
for all. But if he knows that there is the least chance of another
effort being required, he will not pay full attention the first time. . .
The one reading and the one narration is essential if a child is to
acquire the habit of attention. (p. 59-60)
Kitching said early in this same article that the attention of the group was
not enough. Our effort must be that every child’s attention is given fully to any
one lesson. There are two important points to remember from this.  Each child has to do their own learning and in giving full attention each time strengthens the child’s habit of attention.  There are several points that are key to these assertions.
First, children should only be required to narrate books that engage them.  Hence, Mason’s requirement that living books be used in her curriculum.  Living books are written in the literary style.  In other words a book of this type has a literary quality to it.  It is not just straight prose or writing, but it is a book that uses well-chosen language that engages the mind and is usually written by an expert that has a gift for communication.  Mason clearly made the point that we do not concentrate on the idea of habit, but we concentrate on the meat (literary style) that produces the habit.  The point is:  don’t give children just any book and expect them to narrate with attention.  Children cannot do this and they certainly cannot develop the habit of attention by reading textbooks and other poorly written books.  It doesn’t work that way.  
Second, and closely related to what I just said, do not give children twaddle.  We tend sometimes not to get the balance correct.  In our effort to make sure we are not using books too difficult, we can tend towards using twaddle.  Remember it is the literary style that is the meat for producing attention not twaddle.  
Many current writers who engage on the topic of brain research and what it means for teaching and learning provide us with the third point.  Jensen (1998) and Sylwester (1997) discuss in their work how teachers must give more consideration to the length of a class since the human mind is only able to attend for a short period of time.  We all know that Mason knew this years ago and this point is her main reason for short lessons.  Short lessons help avoid the need for repeated readings and narrations.  In other words only provide the amount of meat (literary style) that a child can handle.  For example, a child just beginning to narrate might begin by narrating what they do in the morning from the time they get up to the time they arrive at the breakfast table or arrive at school.  This type of narration can provide scaffolding for children who have never narrated.  It gives them the idea of narrating using something that is familiar to them.  From this a teacher should begin with short readings and build those readings up to longer ones as the child increases in their ability to attend and concentrate. 
The fourth point is crucial.  One reads according to the child’s developed attention.  That is, if a child has been narrating a while and can engage with a literary style text for fifteen minutes and then narrate, the teacher needs to be aware of the child’s attending ability.  The teacher needs to end the reading and have the child finished narrating at the peak of attention not when it is waning.  One of the brilliant ideas from Mason is just this.  Always change to another reading selection or active lesson while children are at their peak of attention.  In other words, the teacher should ride the wave that peaks during each lesson.  This is what prevents fatigue and the need to reread and renarrate.  Kitching says, “For the mind re-asserts itself again the moment it makes a fresh start upon a fresh subject, when the child again pays the one attention, and gives the one good narration, but it must always be a fresh start that calls forth the full powers.” 
This, it seems to me is supported by O’Keefe and Nadel’s (1978) research reported in their book, The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map which states that novelty promotes engagement in humans.  We are naturally curious (which Mason has told us) and this curiosity is continuously fed by new content (novelty).  Hence, the large number of subjects, in literary style, with appropriate length of the lesson, riding the wave of attention.  So, you can see that narration is not as simple as we might think.  Mason’s pedagogy is accurate, but it is not easy to follow sometimes.
The fifth point is that children are never allowed to interrupt other children as they narrate.  First, it disrupts the train of thought of the narrator.  Second, it is rude and rudeness is never appropriate.  Third, for one child to be allowed to interrupt a child who is narrating, the child interrupting and the adult who allows it, they both have made a statement to the child narrating about how much they value him or her.  Part of the value of a Mason education is its ability to teach us how to value, respect and care for others.  Teachers may interrupt to pass the narration to another student, but it is always done with gentleness and respect.  I always made sure that students knew that they might be interrupted by me to pass the narration to another student, but they would never be interrupted by another student.
In a classroom setting how does the teacher keep everyone’s attention while one student narrates.  I have observed that children can assume the position of “Well, so and so has been called on to narrate so I don’t have to pay attention any more.  I am off the hook!”  Smart teachers can cure this problem using several strategies.  1)  Before the first day of school is over (and I mean school-based education or home-based education) students need to know that if you call on one student to narrate, you might stop that student (and if it happens to be in the middle of a sentence) the next student you call on is expected to finish the sentence or pick up where the first student left off.  In others words they must be keenly aware of what is being narrated.  2)  Pair students.  Have one begin the narration.  After a minute or so, call switch and the other student must start where the first student left off.  3) Require students to write a narration several times a week.  4) If you have the technology available have each child narrate into a phone, iPad, computer and email it to you and their parents. 5)  Each child can draw a picture.  In other words narrations should be designed so that every child is completing the “act of knowing.”  Teachers can always save the very last part of a narration for that non verbal or new student who have to be scaffolded into longer and richer narrations.
Mason tells us that repeated readings or lessons and repeated narrations actually dissipate a child’s ability to attend rather than strengthening it.  We need to remember that there are many pedagogical factors coming together that makes her approach work and some of them are:  1) literary style books or living books, 2) short lessons, 3) each selection is read once, 4) each child must do the act of knowing by narrating once, 5) and there are others such as the integration of content where appropriate.  
The points that Kitching makes are that full attention must be given on the part of
each child. No lazy habits of mind are allowed.  No drifting. No daydreaming. The lesson is read once and narrated once. It could begin with one child, picked
up by another or two and ended yet by another. But the narration is from the
beginning of the content to the end and done so only once with no interruptions.
Children are never to be allowed to return to the same content again.
Next week we will pick up with a some examples of narrations provided by several Parents’ Review articles.  
Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA:
Kitching, Elsie. (1928). Concerning “Repeated Narration.” Parents’
Review, 39 (1), 58-62.
Mason, C. M. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education:  A liberal education for all. London:  J. M. Dent & Sons, LTD.
O’Keefe, J., & Nadel, L. (1978). The hippocampus as a cognitive map.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sylwester, R. (1997). On using knowledge: A conversation with
Bob Sylwester. Educational Leadership, 54 (6),16-19.
© 2013 by Carroll Smith


  1. I love this statement as it is very true:

    “novelty promotes engagement in humans. We are naturally curious (which Mason has told us) and this curiosity is continuously fed by new content (novelty). ”

    Thank for another good article on this subject of narration. I am learning much.

  2. Gretchen says

    I completely agree with what was stated in the above article. A confusing area that I have encountered is when my child has not paid attention to the reading and thus resulted in a poor narration. There are consequences for not paying attention, most of the time. What if it is information that they need to know for the next lesson or if it’s an important history lesson? How do I proceed then without re-reading or lecturing?

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