Some Practices are Principles—Part 4

Yesterday, we looked at principle #13, which gave us some insight into how to choose or build a curriculum consistent with Charlotte Mason’s principles. Today, we’re going to look at the next practice that Charlotte Mason considered a vital principle. We can’t really neglect this practice in a faithful “CM education.”

14. As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.

“Tell back”—we’re talking about narration here. Narration is a practice, but it is also so essential to the successful implementation of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, that she made it a principle.

There are multiple reasons why this is so, and scattered throughout her books, Charlotte Mason has explained them to us.

Remember that education is the science of relations? Well, narration is a relationship-building exercise. That is its very reason for existence—to create an emotional tie between a learner and knowledge.

The citizen, in whose bringing-up P.N.E.U. has had a part, has had many of his innumerable emotions stirred by his “lovely books,” “glorious books,” and the emotion of the moment has translated the facts of history, travel, science, the themes of poetry or tragedy, into vital knowledge. That is the raison d’etre of narrating; the reader recovers as it were what he has read and looks at it, and in this looking his emotion becomes fired. (Charlotte Mason, In Memoriam, p. 11-12)

Another pragmatic, but infinitely valuable effect of using narration is that it demands and builds the habit of attention. Children who narrate regularly (consistency is vital in order for narration to do all that it might) develop the ability to focus and concentrate—a mental power which will serve them well in many things, for all their lives.

To return to our method of employing attention; it is not a casual matter, a convenient, almost miraculous way of covering the ground, of getting children to know certainly and lastingly a surprising amount; all this is to the good, but it is something more, a root principle vital to education.(Philosophy of Education, p. 74)

Narration is the foundation for requiring children to make use of all their mental powers. No need to invent contrived “thinking skills” activities. You don’t have to teach children to think; instead—narration requires them to do so. When children narrate, they are engaging in the “act of knowing.” Charlotte Mason compared narration to the act of digestion—the process by which a child assimilated knowledge and made it a part of himself.

‘In all labour there is profit,’ at any rate in some labour; and the labour of thought is what his book must induce in the child. He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher….The simplest way of dealing with a paragraph or a chapter is to require the child to narrate its contents after a single attentive reading…(School Education, p. 179)

And that isn’t all, either! Narration is the foundation of teaching writing in Charlotte Mason’s methods. It builds a child’s vocabulary; it teaches him to order his thoughts; it accustoms him to writing on all manner of topics. You can find a bit more about how it works here. If you have had the privilege of watching a child grow from a half-articulate six-year-old narrator into a young adult who can express himself (or herself) fluently in writing, you have been blessed.

Among these is the art of composition, that art of ‘telling’ which culminates in a Scott or a Homer and begins with the toddling persons of two and three who talk a great deal to each other and are surely engaged in ‘telling’ though no grown-up, not even a mother, can understand.(Philosophy of Education, p. 190)

And we haven’t even discussed the fact that narration can take many forms. Simply “telling back” is fine, but there are a multitude of ways to add variety and interest to the practice.

The victory procession in Aristides, for instance, can be accounted for by a list of words naming the several persons and things in sequence. A rough sketch would do the same. In each case the boy has had to “turn-over” in his mind all details of the paragraphs read. Another useful exercise is to ask the children to write down six or more questions on the subject matter dealt with, the questions not to require simply “Yes” or “No” as answer….In Geography, sketch maps by the scholars of the bird’s-eye-view type are interesting and useful. Here too a boy has to sift very carefully what he has read, before expressing himself on paper.
(“Some Notes on Narration” by G.F. Husband)

It’s no wonder, is it, that Charlotte Mason decided narration was a practice valuable enough to become a principle? Whatever else you do or adapt while being faithful to Charlotte Mason’s methods, please don’t give up narration, and please give yourself the best chance of reaping a harvest by using it consistently. The regular use of narration—both oral and written—is one of the most powerful tools Charlotte Mason has given us.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 5

(Pictures are used with permission and are found on Instagram in the community @charlottemasonirl [Charlotte Mason In Real Life]. I’m sure they’d love to have you join in.)

This blog series is now available as a short digital book in the “Encore” series for Kindle. The original material from the series, plus bonus content, is collected in one place where you can easily refer to it. Read the Kindle version of Some Practices are Principles or purchase an epub version to read on a platform of your choice.