Reluctant Narrators

January 9, 2007 @ 3:46 pm | Filed under:

Jennifer asked:

Here’s our problem. I ask "Can you tell me about what we just read?"
She answers, "No, I don’t remember anything." but when I ask her
questions, she CAN answer everything. When are they supposed to do this
without prompting?

"How do I handle a reluctant narrator?" is a common question in Charlotte Mason circles. For me, the answer involves two strands of discussion. I’ll tackle the more practical strand (the "how") first, and tomorrow I want to talk about the "why."

See, coming at homeschooling the way I did, via the writings of unschoolers—John Holt, Sandra Dodd, and others—any time I decide to require a schoolish task of my children, I have to give a lot of thought to the question, "Do I think this is important enough to make them do it even if they don’t want to?"

But we’ll tackle that question tomorrow. Um, you know, if all goes according to plan. Which it never does. Beanie has a 102 degree fever today, so there’s no telling what tomorrow will hold. Let’s just say I’ll tackle that question next.

Today, let’s tackle Jennifer’s question. I do have a bit of experience with a reluctant narrator. I don’t think Rose would object to my telling you that she was none too keen on the idea when I reintroduced it recently. Now, she was narrating enthusiastically a year ago, but this year, not so much.

I treat it the way I treat anything my children aren’t super-keen on doing but which I believe is important. Brushing teeth, say, or tidying their room. I expect compliance.  There are consequences for non-compliance.

Now, the last thing I want is for narration—or anything related to learning—to involve a power struggle. My whole platform about education is that it should be a joy. I emphatically do not want to find myself in the position of sternly insisting upon a narration. When I found myself in exactly that position with young Rose, I had to step back and look at what was behind her reluctance. (Answer: We’ve just uprooted our whole lives. She’s always had a hard time adjusting to change. Not only did we leave her beloved friends behind, but also our whole lifestyle was radically altered. Daddy works in an office now. Big changes all around. New people for this introvert to get used to. New activities, new house, new rhythm.)

Okay, so I’ve rooted out the reasons. None of it, you note, has anything to do with the actual process of narration. I mention this because my course of action was directed by the needs I perceived at the root of the conflict. In this specific case, I believed that Rose very much needed the comfort of some structure and expectation. She needed also to understand that although the walls are different here, the boundaries are the same.

So while under other circumstances I might have set aside my CM plans for a long "breathing-out" or "low-tide" period, in this specific case, for this particular child, I deemed it best to persevere through her reluctance. Since the rocky period only lasted a few days, I think I made the right call.

Once it’s established that "we are going to do this; your participation is expected"—and I think a bright, light, cheerful attitude is extremely important here—then comes the nitty-gritty of doing it.

Start small. Read a sentence, and ask the child to tell it back to you. Sometimes the child will say she can’t even do that, not one whole sentence. So break it down further: a phrase, a clause. Now she’s just parroting, sure, but this is a baby step on the way to real narration. Have her narrate a phrase at a time for two or three sentences, slowly lengthening the phrases. Think of yourself as a labor coach, rooting her on.

Spend no more than, say, five minutes on the exercise the first day. She might be surprised when you shut the book and announce, "All right, time to go for our walk!" right in the middle of the paragraph. That’s great. If she asks to keep going, use your own judgment about what would suit her best. A little teasing anticipation? Or continued immediate success?

From phrases work up to sentences, to paragraphs, to passages. This may take several days, but will probably NOT take weeks. I think that a firm, cheerful sense of expectation combined with a patient, steady approach will bear fruit in a very short time.

Something that worked for my Rose (but I don’t think this would work for every single kid): Once, when she said she couldn’t remember ANYTHING, Beanie (two years her junior) piped up, "I do!" and proceeded to chatter off the whole passage in perfect detail, oooh did that get Rose’s goat. Her narrations got noticeably better after that.

A shy child might prefer to be alone with mom for narration. Another child might feel too on the spot for that and be more open to it with her siblings around.

I try to follow Charlotte Mason’s advice about not asking questions—not detailed ones, at least. For example, I wouldn’t ask, "What happened when the woodsman killed the king’s pet wolf?"  But I might say, "Tell me the story of St. Brigid and the wolf."

Most often, though, I simply read something and then say, "Tell it back to me!"

It took some nurturing, but Rose is past the hurdle now and narrating in articulate and vivid detail. That’s not to say we won’t hit the stumbling block of reluctance again. Tomorrow, as I’ve said, is anyone’s guess.

But I know (and she knows, which is more important) that she can do it. She knows I think this is worth doing, or we wouldn’t be doing it. Most days, just knowing that is enough, because the heart of our homeschool is relationship. I strive for a sense of camaraderie and fun. I let her know I’m on her side, and that she is capable of anything.

I keep these CM lessons short and finite, and we spend the rest of our day keeping house, playing games, making things, and having adventures. Narration is one thread of the fabric of our family life, as is cuddling, singing, baking, praying, and going for long drives. 

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5 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Jennifer says:

    Wonderful post. This has been difficult for us.

  2. Cheryl says:

    This is a very helpful post. I’ve been thinking about your question – is this important enough to make them do it if they don’t want to – and I’m wondering if you require any math curriculum. Do you?

  3. Jane Ramsey says:

    This is a wonderful approach. My oldest is only 4.5, so we haven’t started narrating yet. But I’ve been thinking about how to do it–I’m expected some reluctance on his part–and I really appreciate your

  4. Kirsten says:

    This is a very interesting post, as I’ve been thinking about the narration issue recently. Now we don’t use CM, but are firmly rooted in Waldorf, and my dd is in First Grade. It has taken her a long time to narrate stories back to me, and she still can’t do a whole fairy tale without help. But just today I noticed that I can now get her started, and then she’ll happily narrate large sections of the story back to me. In our case, the key was to model narration for a long time, pausing at times to invite her to contribute, and acknowledging even the shortest word. I’m finding that anytime I ask her to narrate something I get the “dunno” answer, it seems like I have to open that door for her so she can walk through it.

    I liked how you laid out your reasoning behind how you decide whether or not to push it – it’s a fine balance, isn’t it.

  5. Mrs. Happy Housewife says:

    I get a lot of “Mom, it’s illogical to tell you the whole story when you already know it.” or “But we just read the story, why do I need to say it all again?”. Both come from my daughter, 11yo. She’s very matter-of-fact and logical and hates anything that appears to waste time. We just went through this yesterday with her reading of “The Iliad” Book I. It took a bit of effort to force the issue but then she came out with a wonderful, long, detailed narration and I was happy. I don’t ask for a narration for every reading; I keep it random. If one of the kids can’t give a proper narration, they have to read the selection again. They know how to narrate; they’ve had Charlotte Mason in their lives since they were 4 and 1, so I never accept “I don’t know.”