New school year, new narrator?

I started to write this out as a response to a comment on Facebook, to yet another mom of a new narrator who is discouraged that her child isn’t narrating with fluency and ease after a few weeks. Then I decided that it might be some encouragement to others in this season as well, so I’m parking it here for easier access and sharing. It’s off the cuff, but I hope it helps.

Narration is a long game, and it’s founded on a basic human activity—telling. Mature or natural narrators “tell back” with ease, but sometimes you need to scaffold your children into it. With a new narrator, you shouldn’t have more than two or three narrations per day, probably. There are lots of strategies for bridging the gap to just plain narration. Try a few, use the ones that work for your child, and remember that you really have three to four years to build oral narration fluency before beginning written narrations.

  1. Make sure you’ve modeled narration. Your younger children will be used to hearing narration and will find it smoother later, but your first narrator has to pave the way. So you model it—you narrate. After once or twice, narrate the beginning, and ask them if they can pick it up and narrate the rest.
  2. If you are getting one sentence—accept that sentence. If you want to, you can say, “Let me think if I can add something to that,”—and narrate a bit more. I would caution you not to narrate so thoroughly and in so much detail that your child views it as an overwhelming task.
  3. Ask for narration of just a part of the material, or let your request for a narration include a hint about what you expect to hear: “Can you tell me what happened when Ben Franklin went to work in his brother’s shop?” That brings the request to narrate into focus. Or ask for part by prompting, “which part did you find most interesting?”
  4. Bridge your way to oral narration with props. For young children, this can be very helpful. Use blocks, clay, crayons and paper, dolls, stuffed animals, or whatever interests your child. Let your child illustrate something from the reading and then (this is important) tell you about it. Let the action be illustrated with dolls or stuffed animals as props (I have seen a crew of stuffed friends tagged with the roles of Shakespeare characters).
  5. Persevere and have your child narrate in some way. Pause and reflect on how things are coming along only every 2-3 months. Remember—this is so important—that no individual narration is of any great consequence. It’s a foundational mental process that taps into a whole host of good intellectual skills and it will develop with use and practice. If your child has an off day and can’t narrate or gives you a poor narration, ignore it and keep going. On the day your child gives you a beautiful, thorough narration—and I promise that will happen if you don’t give up—make sure you say, “that was a very good narration,” because that gives them the key to what you are looking for, and lets them know that they can, in fact, narrate.

And I say one more time—narration is a long game. Keep your eyes on the goal, and don’t worry about the wobbles along the way. Don’t give up on narration–no matter how much your kids dislike it (mine did, too)—because it will repay your efforts and theirs in a hundred ways. And when I tell you it is a long game, it’s because I know it first-hand.

Not long ago, I asked my son—27 years old, Bible college grad, US Marine, husband—to write something for me about narration. This is part of what he said:

Growing up homeschooled I always hated all forms of narration. Written narrations were frustrating because I always felt like I was simply trying to rewrite the book that I just read, but shorter and in my own words. It seemed stupid to me. Oral narrations were just as awkward, and similarly I felt like I was just parroting back what I had read. I honestly didn’t see what I could be learning from it, and I probably expressed as much to my mother at one point in time or another. But regardless of my feelings I had to do them, and so I did. Its only recently, years later, that I have realized how important those narrations might actually have been to my development. I didn’t realize that I was actually learning and practicing important life skills by doing these seemingly meaningless narrations.

Don’t get discouraged. Don’t give up. Your kids might not thank you now, or anytime during the process, but they are going to appreciate it when find that their ability to synthesize material and restate it clearly gives them an advantage in many ways.  Make them narrate—help them as much as you need to at the beginning. It is worth the effort.

5 thoughts on “New school year, new narrator?

  1. wow, thanks. Another good one…. Helped me see a few things I was missing too. You say once or twice in the beginning, for having them narrate. So, let’s say we are reading a Columbus book and I stop and have him narrate after a few sentences…. and then again…. is that it for that book? Or would i continue reading and just not have him narrate on the rest that I read?

    1. I wouldn’t consider narrating several times from the same book as more than one narration. My thinking is that 6yo’s probably aren’t narrating from more than 2-3 books per day, even if those narrations take place in smaller portions. So, if you stop for narration 3 times as you read through one book, I’m still thinking of that as one narration–just done in smaller parts. Hope that makes sense! You’ll be able to build up from a few sentences to a few paragraphs within a couple of months, probably (so much depends on the child).

  2. Hi Karen,

    I appreciate your thoughts on this so much. I have a new Y2 only child who did fairly well with Y1 readings but has started to almost refuse to narrate most of the Y2 readings (she seems to do okay with Understood Betsy and did okay with the first Our Island Story chapter). She is a compliant child who generally tries to do whatever we ask of her and she said that she just doesn’t understand. So we know that there’s something going on where there’s either a misunderstanding in what she thinks we want from her when we ask for a narration or she truly doesn’t understand what she hears. It has been so frustrating. I brought the Aesop’s Fables back out and she narrates them very easily. I brought the die back out so we could alternate narrations (she takes even and I take odd numbers) and she still has a tough time when it comes to her turn and can’t give any even one-word narration. I’m going to keep on scaffolding the readings with explaining terms and helping her know the characters and places and trying to break them up into small portions. I even thought about stopping Y2 and going back over some of Y1, but have decided that maybe slowing down Y2 would be better. She is 7.5, so she’s not too young. I see that this has put up a barrier in our relationship and I absolutely hate that. I am so frustrated because she is not liking her lessons anymore. Did you ever have issues with your kids not narrating at all?

    Thanks again for your encouragement.

    1. Sorry I don’t have time for an extended reply. I would keep trying, taking steps as small as you need to. Some children are a little slower at processing, so you might try asking later, or the next day, about a reading, and see if you get a little more. None of my kids liked narrating, but they got used to it. I wouldn’t go back–just take your time and remember that you have several years to build oral fluency. Consistency will pay off in the end.

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