A Charlotte Mason Education, Best Practices, Living Books, Narration, Paradigm Shift
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What Should Children Narrate? by Carroll Smith

In the last several blogs we have discussed some key points about narration.  1)  It has been used since time began.  For centuries people have narrated stories of events in their lives (history) to the next generation.  In fact, one author told us that the various forms of literature genres in use now were formed many years ago before books were so prevalent.  2)  Oral language is basic to life and is the precursor for reading and writing and narration develops oral language.  3)  Narration is the act of knowing.  In other words, our mind (the spiritual component of the physical brain) is not an empty sac to be filled, but rather a living organism that feeds on ideas.  It grows by its intake of spiritual food (ideas), not by being force-fed with facts, lists, etc.  As Husband and Mason have reminded us, the mind answers questions put to the mind by the mind itself not by questions that come from without.  That is, there is only self-education.  4)  Elsie Kitching reminded us that children are told there is only one reading and one narration.  The ability to attend is dissipated by knowing that there is another chance.  5) Eleanor Frost gave us ideas about the process of narrating.  It is truly the act of knowing. 6) Finally, I suggested in the last blog post that matterialism (see below) has pushed narration out of favor because we no longer read for “meaning” but for “processing.”  For many educators today education is “filling the sac” for purposes of meeting a standard proven by the passing of a test.

This act of knowing is natural when children read literary style books that merge with their own curiosity (desire for knowledge) providing a win-win situation. I said at the end of the last post that this blog post would be about ways to narrate, but I think before that, I need to say something about the type of books that children can narrate.  Let me begin with a personal story.

At the beginning of grade six my daughter entered a Mason school that used nature study and an upper grades science textbook for science. Reading and narrating this “good” science textbook were promoted as rigorous.  But the textbook was so hard my daughter could not read and understand it, so in the evenings my wife had to read it with her and explain it to her so that my daughter could then understand and narrate its content.  The textbook did not appear to be a living book in the literary style which is a persistent requirement by Mason throughout her writings.  So when a child is required to narrate an “unnarratable” book, what Mason calls a dry, dessicated text, here’s what I saw develop in my daughter who was bright, quick, had a curious mind and a strong work ethic and up to that point in her education, had enjoyed school and loved reading–she began making excuses to stay home, saying she didn’t like school, and one day even tried to lock herself in her room to stay home.   She is now in her middle twenties and still remembers that painful time.

Some believe that when children can’t narrate it is because they are not paying attention, need stronger training in habits, and they need parents who will be harder on them.  For Mason, however, these are not at all the reasons a child cannot narrate a book.  Listen to what Mason (1954) says, “I do not know better how to describe the sort of books that children’s mind will consent to deal with than by saying that they must be literary in character.  A child of seven or eight will narrate a difficult passage from The Pilgrim’s Progress, say, with extraordinary zest and insight; but I doubt if he or his elders would retain anything from that excellent work, Dr. Smile’s Self Help!  The completeness with which hundreds of children reject the wrong book is a curious and instructive experience, not less so than the avidity and joy with which they drain the right book to the dregs; children’s requirements in the matter seem to be quantity, quality, and variety:  but the question of books is one of much delicacy and difficulty.  After the experience of over a quarter of a century in selecting the lesson books proper to children of all ages, we still make mistakes, and the next examination paper discovers the error!  Children cannot answer questions set on the wrong book; and the difficulty of selection is increased by the fact that what they like in books is no more a guide than what they like in food” (p. 248).  Let’s discuss this quote.

First, the book must be literary.  Literary comes from the same base word as literature.  In other words, books must be well written, terse (as Mason says), but yet vivid and providing vitality.  The literary form usually means the various genres of literature.  Along this line Mason reminds us that children should get their facts clothed in the language of a novel.  This includes science.

Second, when a child pushes back from a book, the adult should not always assume the problem is with the child, but should consider the book–maybe it is not suitable or suitable to the child at this point.   Of course, this may not always be the situation in a fallen world.  Some children may resist narrating any kind of book.  However, bringing together the literary form, the curiosity (or desire for knowledge) of the child and a parent/teacher to facilitate the process, one is much more likely to have success.

Elsie Kitching (1923) says, “Miss Mason would take a book out of the school if it was not doing good work for the children” (p. 71).  In the quote above Mason remarks that, “The completeness with which hundreds of children reject the wrong books is a curious and instructive experience.”  Children let us know through various means when a book is not appropriate.  Some of those ways may be in resisting to go to school or beginning to hate school when they have loved it for years.  Children give us clues.  They don’t always understand that they are giving clues when they push back, but they are.  We should listen as Mason did and “take a book out of the school if it was not doing good work for the children.”

Fourth, Mason warns us that there is a double-edged sword when listening to children about books.  To begin with children’s choice of books is no better than their choice of food sometimes.  In other words, they may choose books that are not breathing with ideas, but rather that are candy and sweets.  Yet, trying to make a child read a difficult book gets resistance.  When these two sword edges are out of the way and the teacher/parent has chosen a living book, then the children, drink the book dry and sometimes keep going back until “they drain the right book to the dregs.”

Mason’s conclusion is that children need quantity, quality and variety.  The curriculum then must be full of a rich banquet of living books (quantity) and the word living assumes quality and banquet also assumes variety.  I recently heard a professor being interviewed.  I wish I could remember the news report so I could cite it.  Her point was that research is showing that concentrating on “access” is more important for children that concentrating on “outcomes.”  Isn’t it interesting that Mason always talks about the banquet, the feast — that is, what children should have access to.

Sixth, if you have chosen the wrong books, then don’t expect your children to do well on their term examinations.  Poor term examinations should be a cause for reflecting on our choice of books.  Are they developmentally appropriate?  Are they age appropriate?  Is it truly the literary style?  Who is reading the book:  parent/teacher or child?  Sometimes a book can be appropriate even if it is difficult as long as it is read by the teacher/parent.

We see that Mason is correct–the problem of choosing the correct book is one of “delicacy and difficulty.”  It isn’t an easy matter.  Teachers/parents have to make choices and sometimes they make the wrong choice and have to choose again.  If you have a child resisting narrating, consider that the book may not be a book that narrates well.  Try another one.

That leads me to a few comments about getting children to narrate.  There is much, much more that could be said about getting children to narrate, but here are a few ideas.  If you have a child who is transitioning from another educational paradigm and resists narrating, begin very slowly.  In fact, you might begin by having that child tell or write a description of what they do in the morning before breakfast providing the description in the correct sequence.  Or, ask the child to tell you a story from some event in his/her life–it could be a personal event for the child, a family event such as “What was your favourite ‘thing’ that happened during our July 4 holiday?”  Choose to have your child tell back something that is age appropriate and situation appropriate for your child.  But choose something you know they will be successful at.  This is called scaffolding.  Children must begin with something they can do in order to take the next step with your assistance (by choosing something appropriate for them) into something a bit more difficult.  But remember, I cannot give you a fool-proof method of teaching your children to narrate.  This is something that develops for your child over time.

People resist change.  Children are people.  Don’t use the word narrate if they are resistant.  Simply say “Tell me what you and your brother did today at Johnny’s birthday pool party.”  Begin the habit of narration with stories and events that will make it easy for them to tell.  Don’t ask how was the party or you will get the usual “fine.”  Say something like, “I know with all of you guys there, something funny happened today at the pool party.  I am in need of a good story.  Tell me something funny that happened.”  If they are excited about an event and want to retell it, encourage that process even when you are tired.  Practice doing this off-and-on during the summer.  In the fall when you want a child to narrate use the same language you used during the summer.  For example, What was your favourite “thing” about this chapter.  Move from this type of language and narrating into asking for a more full and detailed question for older children and for younger children simply ask them to tell their favourite part.  So make the change appear as though it isn’t a change because sometimes people resist change.  

Let’s restate what I have said.  Children narrate literary style books.  When children cannot narrate a book, change the book not the child!  Children make it hard on us who must choose because sometimes they only want candy, but they really will drain a good book dry when they get into one.  Children need quantity, quality and variety, that is, access to a banquet.  Don’t expect children to do well on their term examinations if they cannot narrate the book.  Finally, for those children who are not familiar with narrating, begin the process slowly using language that is familiar to them and by asking them to retell something interesting and familiar to them.

There is much more to be said about this top.  I have only address one small section and that is the literary style.  There is art, music, nature and much much more which will have to be addressed another time.

I end with this quote from In Memoriam:  Charlotte M. Mason written by Mrs. H. E. Wix (1923) who was a student at the House of Education, “So we evidently may require–at least from our older pupils–something more than narration. But, we must never forget that without narration the mind will starve (emphasis mine); whatever disciplinary exercises we use, they should be in addition to and never instead of narration. Physical exercises of the mind are admirable, but will not take the place of food. On the other hand, a well fed mind does need a certain amount of disciplinary exercise at times, and the children lose something when they do not have it” (p. 152).


Matterialism – I spell the word materialism with double t to indicate that I am not talking about people who like to have a lot of possessions, but rather I am talking about a belief system that says that all of life is only matter.  There is no consciousness or “self.”


Mason, C. M. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education:  A liberal education for all. London:  J. M. Dent & Sons, LTD.

Kitching, E. (1923) The day’s work.  In In memoriam:  Charlotte M. Mason. (Pp. 66-72).  London:  Parents’ National Educational Union.

Wix, H. E. (1923).  Miss Mason’s ideal:  Its breadth and balance. In In memoriam:  Charlotte M. Mason. (Pp. 143-152). London:  Parents’ National Educational Union.

© 2013 by Carroll Smith


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. This statement encapsulates what have wrestled with as I have been implementing narration in my home school.

    “When children cannot narrate a book, change the book not the child! Children make it hard on us who must choose because sometimes they only want candy,”

    I love how Marion Berry woos her students into the love of the great books/ideas by massaging this balance between a real feast and candy in her book I Buy a School. I long to know how she did it. It seems she has discovered the gift of teaching whereby she wins over her students with banquets instead of hard nosed discipline.

    Your ideas for how to transition into narration have all worked well for us.

    I am really enjoying your series and can’t wait to read more. Thank you.

  2. Caralee says

    I am new to the Charlotte Mason method, but not to homeschooling (going on 8 years). We are using her philosophy for the first time this year with our children in grades 8, 6, and 1.

    You shared, “…In other words, books must be well written, terse (as Mason says), but yet vivid and providing vitality. The literary form usually means the various genres of literature. Along this line Mason reminds us that children should get their facts clothed in the language of a novel. This includes science.”

    What does this mean? Should all the books for all subjects be in the form of some type of literature like stories or tales? Does the genres of literature not extend beyond a novel type of book like news type writing, dramas, poetry, fiction, non-fiction…? I don’t think I am completely understanding. Can one not read a science book written by a good writer who knows the topic but is not in the form of a novel? Please clarify this for me.

    Where do you recommend I find books on various topics that are “well written…but yet vivid and providing vitality?”

    Thankyou so much. Enjoying the series

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