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Oral Narration For Beginners: How We Started With 3 Kids

This is our first full year doing oral narration in our homeschool with a 1st grader, 3rd grader, and 4th grader. We began once we started using Ambleside Online. Narration is a staple part of language arts in a Charlotte Mason homeschool, along with copywork, but it can be so confusing to know where to begin! When I was investigating “how” to do this, I was confused with all the terminology and didn’t have a grasp on the method. Some families drew pictures, while others wrote things down in notebooks. There were terms like “oral narration” and “written narration” to figure out, and what did this look like to use in real life with 3 kids?

In this post I’ll walk you through what oral narration is, why it’s useful, and what it’s been like to jump in with 3 different ages! It’s been incredible to watch my kids learn to do this and slowly improve. My hope is to simplify this practice for you and give you REAL feedback on using it in our homeschool.

I’ll also be sharing more on what my 10 year old is beginning…written narration!

Year 1 books from Ambleside Online with text that says, "How to begin narration with different ages"

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Know and Tell by Karen Glass: A must read if you’re new to narration

I just want to say that the holy grail of narration help for me came from Karen Glass, a veteran homeschool Ambleside Online mama. She wrote Know and Tell, and if you ask any narration question in the Ambleside Online Facebook group, you’ll see a million “read Know and Tell” comments because it’s just so so practical.

I’ve read through my book twice this year.

Know and Tell by Karen Glass, a book on oral and written narration for Charlotte Mason homeschoolers.

I also took an online class from Karen Glass on written narration since I knew we had a 10 year old and would be dipping into that towards the end of the year. It was fantastic!

Ok, let’s dig into narration.

What is oral narration?

Oral narration (also called oral composition) is telling back what you know.

Little kids do this a lot, they’ll retell you something that happened, or tell you about a movie they watched. They’re gathering their thoughts and presenting them in some orderly fashion that makes sense to them.

In practicality my kids will read (or listen to) a scheduled reading and tell back what they read in a book or heard read to them. I’ll dive into what that looks like in a bit.

Why do oral narration?

In order to commit to oral narration and require it of my kids, I had to understand “why” it would benefit them.

  1. It forces the habit of attention. You can’t tell back what you don’t know, so narration gets them listening and really working on comprehending the stories. Our biggest enemies here are distraction from siblings and background noises, so those have been daily hurdles to overcome.
  2. They have to determine what’s important to retell. This works on memory, sequencing events, and will be unique to each child. More advanced forms of narration will develop later, such as describing a character or comparing two things from the reading.
  3. It helps with retention. Not everything goes to long term memory, but this goes a long way in helping with that.
  4. It’s an assessment tool to see if a child grasped the material. Instead of getting a percentage right or wrong on a multiple choice quiz, you’ll have a narration. This gives you a very good look at their short term retention. Even parents who don’t “pre-read” material (ME) will be able to tell if the child read it.

I love this post by Karen Glass sharing her view on the point of narration.

Downsides of oral narration

Narration can be mentally exhausting for kids, and it certainly adds time to the day. If they have 3 school readings, then there’s also 3 narrations that day. If you have 2 kids doing 3 readings, that would be 6 readings and 6 narrations. I have 3 kids in different levels so on average I’m getting about 8-9 narrations per day!

I wouldn’t do it if I thought it was busywork. But it does suck some of the joy out of reading for my kids, to be honest. I asked my 9 year old if she preferred narrating books or just reading/listening to them without narration. She said not narrating is more enjoyable because she doesn’t have to concentrate so hard! I then asked her if she remembers more detail from books she narrates and she said yes.

When we need an easy day, we omit oral narrations from some of the readings. The sheer number of books using Ambleside Online (especially beginning year 4) gets to be A LOT. We’ve had to cut back by eliminating one book per term, and sliding some others off the schedule to instead be a family read aloud that we don’t narrate.

My oldest will often ask why he has to narrate to me if I already know what happened. I tell him it’s because narrating his readings helps HIM to listen, recall, sequence events, and helps with memory.

How to do oral narration

First, read the passage to your child. Older kids may be able to read everything them themselves.

Wether they can narrate 1 paragraph, 1 page, or 1 chapter will vary depending on if they’re brand new to it, and their age/ability which I’ll share in a moment.

Read it only one time. Charlotte Mason’s wisdom on this makes perfect sense. When my kids know I won’t reread a whole page, they listen better! In order to require this though, I’ve learned I have to set them up for success by decreasing background noise so they can focus. Sometime’s we’ll go to a separate room, outside, or they’ll listen to an audio recording with headphones to block out noise.

But what if they don’t remember anything after one time through? Isn’t it wasted? Not entirely. This is common for year 1 kids. Likely something stuck, and also they’ll hear me narrate for them with a reminder to pay better attention next time.

Ask for a narration. I usually say, “Ok, go ahead and narrate.” If they’re having trouble I’ll ask an open ended question like, “Tell me more about …” Or, “What happened after…” If it’s lacking detail I’ll say, “Anything else?”

Don’t interrupt. This is pretty important because you don’t want to ruin the mental processing! I try not to say anything during a narration unless they’re stuck. I also don’t correct anything during a narration. If it’s important or just false, I’ll mention it afterwards.

That’s it!

I’m trying to teach my kids not to interrupt or talk to me during a sibling’s narration. It’s just tempting for them to try and correct details or add things right in the middle of someone’s narration (since often siblings are overhearing the readings too!)

Model it to your kids the first few times

When we first started narration, my kids were new to the term “narrate”. I had to tell them what it was we’d be doing and why. And for the first week, I narrated for them a (lot) as an example. That was the easiest way to explain what I was asking them to do.

It also gave me respect for the mental load I was asking of them because narration is tiring!

From time to time, when a child isn’t paying great attention (and therefor can’t narrate much), I’ll say, “I”ll narrate this one for you. You need to pay closer attention next time.”

I don’t reread it because I don’t have time, and it also warns them that they need to do better.

Oral narration with younger kids

Most Ambleside moms agree it can take a whole year for a younger child to learn how to narrate well. Thats’s our story with my year 1 student. I’m amazed how my 6 year old has come so far! He could barely narrate and sometimes cried under pressure at first. We couldn’t read more than a VERY short paragraph initially!

Less than a year later (now age 7) his ability to pay attention has increased, and his narrations have improved so much! I can finish a few paragraphs before he asks to narrate instead of just 1!

It’s expected and normal to hear, “I don’t remember anything” with a 6 or 7 year old just starting. Man that’s frustrating to hear, but know it’s normal.

Side note, I’m personally not a fan of stopping every 1-2 sentences as I’ve seen recommended by some for new narrators who “can’t remember” a short paragraph. It’s just to dang choppy and disruptive! You’ll never get through a reading this way, and I feel like they’s just not enough to “tell back” in their own words without practically repeating the sentence. My personal feeling on this is to ‘do their best’ to remember something from one short paragraph, or possibly wait to narrate for a month and try again when they’re more developed.

One thing that really confused me at first was knowing if my new narrator had “more narrations” to do if we broke up a reading. For example, my big kids could read and narrate after 1 page but my year 1 would have to narrate after each paragraph or get overwhelmed.

So technically, he had more narrations than scheduled reads initially due to breaking it into smaller chunks. It was frustrating and took more time. But it gave him the practice he needed to tell back what he heard. AND, he is learning that he can narrate less often if he can remember more.

When it’s taking TOO much time to break a reading into so many tiny narrations, I’ll sometimes let him do a couple narrations from one reading and then I’ll say, “Good job. Now just listen without narration as I finish the story.” Some may disagree with this, but it’s helped keep us both from being frustrated by the pace.

Oral narration with older kids

My 8 and 10 year olds picked up narration much faster. That makes sense to me, as they are used to reading longer books and have better comprehension skills than a 1st grader!

Karen Glass covers this in her book Know And Tell, and also shares that even older kids (say 11, 12, 13, 14) can still begin oral narration if they are new to the Charlotte Mason method. The big difference is that in just a few months they’ll catch up to the same oral narration skills as kids their age who’ve been narrating since they were in 1st grade.

If you do begin with a child age 10 or older, she recommended holding off on written narrations until they’ve had a chance to practice 100% oral narrations for at least a few months.

One difference with my older kids is that they are able to wait and narrate when I’m available, vs my year 1 who needs to narrate right away. This is super helpful when I’m busy with another child! Some parents will even have their big kids narrate into a voice recorder of some kind so the child can narrate right away even if mom can’t listen that moment.

Not all books are easy to narrate

One thing we’ve found is that some books are harder to narrate, even within “living books”.

Charlotte Mason believed that children should have living books, (books written by passionate authors who help the reader feel like they’re experiencing what’s being written about).

We’re reading a lot of living books since using Ambleside Online, but some are harder to narrate than others! My year 1 and year 3 have had a hard time narrating the Holling Clancy Holling books Paddle To The Sea and Pagoo because they have a LOT of details, without a lot happening each time.

My year 4 has struggled to narrate chapters of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson in part because the thick accent in which the people speak, and the new-to-us vocabulary. (Hard for me to read too!) He’s also struggled to narrate Madam How and Lady Why because of how strangely written and detailed it is.

I think all of the AO books offer a great story and are worth reading, yet not all are equally easy to narrate.

Oral narration, written narration, composition

I think it’s really helpful to see the big picture of where oral narration is headed! Charlotte Mason had children begin with oral narration around age 6, and eventually added written narrations around age 10. The last stage of writing is composition, which Karen Glass says kids are ready for usually between ages 12-14 after they’ve had experience with oral narration and written narration.

This is where they learn the craft of good writing, beyond just writing narrations, and Ambleside Online schedules in books on good writing for this reason. Karen Glass recommends “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.

This is Ambleside Online’s language arts page, to give you an idea of where oral narration is going as the kids get older.

Which books we do and don’t narrate

I follow Ambleside Online’s recommendation to narrate scheduled school readings, and NOT to narrate free reads. However, I don’t narrate ALL our scheduled readings from AO because it’s felt like too many (mainly for my year 4). I think the happy place for narrations for us is about 3 per day for my year 4. More than that has felt like A LOT.

The free reads are from the AO list on the back of the 12 week schedules. I require 30 min/day of silent reading from a free read book but it’s a mental break, a treat of sorts to not narrate. They’re mostly fictional too, so it’s ok to just enjoy those.

The general idea here: If it’s a book you want your child to remember better, narrate it. If not, just enjoy reading it.

The first couple weeks of starting oral narration the kids began to ask if they had to narrate every single time I opened a book…family read alouds….poetry….picture books, etc. They clearly enjoy listening more without narration.

What they were really asking is if they had to tune in and focus super hard or not! I’d just specify each time, “You don’t have to narrate.” or “You do have to narrate this one, it’s a school book.”

Things we DON’T narrate:

  • poetry
  • bible (though AO recommends they do for the scheduled bible reads and I may change this in the future)
  • free reads from silent reading
  • family read alouds
  • any extra picture books

Things we DO narrate:

  • most scheduled readings from their AO books
  • Lamb’s Shakespeare read as a family (I’ll just choose one person each time at random)

Note: Sometimes, with Ambleside Online scheduled reads, I’ll take a book off the individual child’s schedule and read to the whole family. We don’t narrate these. It really lightens the load for the kids, for myself with 3 levels, and just makes for a more enjoyable school day for us. We did this with the biography Michael Angelo from year 3, Little Pilgrims Progress, Parables From Nature, Burgess Bird Book, Year 1 & 3 Trial and Triumph, and Robin Hood. Since Robin Hood is a scheduled literature piece for year 2 of AO, I’ll likely pick something else to replace it. But I didn’t want my older 2 kids to miss out on it!

Jumping from oral narration to written narration: How it’s gone for us

My son spent his 4th grade year practicing just oral narration from our Ambleside Online reads. I waited till the last term of year 4 for him to try written narration. Stay tuned for a whole post on that!

The short story here is that:

  • We set a 15 minute timer for him to write as much as he can.
  • One written narration/week replaces 1 oral narration of his choice (we’ll work towards 2/week next year)
  • I told him I wouldn’t correct any spelling or grammar, and it’s just for him to learn to put thoughts on paper.
  • The amount he can write (after 5 narrations and 5 weeks) is a very tiny fraction of what he’d normally narrate orally. This is normal, and expecting that helped my sanity!
  • I can already see how written narrations will develop more independence in the school day (less for me to listen to)
  • It hasn’t overwhelmed him, so yay!

Reflections on narration

As I sometimes get annoyed that this new thing is added to our school day, I reflect on if it’s worth it. I think back to the first 4 years of our homeschool where we didn’t narrate at all, and think of *most* homeschool families I know that are not utilizing Charlotte’s methods and still learning.

Overall, I feel it’s a pretty genius idea. It reminds me of my college days, where I only truly knew something well if I could teach the concept to my classmate.

While I struggle with remembering details, narration demands you remember some. Maybe it’s who you read about and what they did, or maybe it’s which century it happened, or which part of the world the story is happening. It forces you to recall what matters to you, and I can 100% see how that helps with listening skills and retention. They’re naturally thinking, “What happened first? Then what? What happened last?”

Oral narration is kind of a lost skill, but one that has been used since the creation of man I’m sure…retelling stories from generation to generation. I think I underestimate the ability of our mind to do this!

It’s also a long term game, but it has short term benefits too. If we ever decide to drop Charlotte Mason’s methods, for whatever reason, oral and written narration will still have been a powerful tool in my children’s education. Even if required just once a day, it’s sharpening their skills to retell and remember and order their thoughts out loud.