What is Narration?

August 23, 2012

Narration is the backbone of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and a major tenet of the Build Your Library curriculum. At its core, narration is simply telling back what you read or heard. It is a way to sharpen listening skills. Narration takes the place of reading comprehension and tests, you no longer need a list of questions to see if your child was listening or comprehending what they read.

Narration needn’t be complicated or difficult. Simply telling back what they read or heard or watched is a natural thing to do. Your child has probably been narrating to you for as long as they have been able to speak. However, Charlotte Mason didn’t begin formal narration until the age of 6, when children are typically ready for academics.

How Does it Work?

Narration is simple. Read a short story, or a brief excerpt from a longer story, and then ask the child to tell back what they heard. A few short sentences is enough for you to gauge if they were listening and if they were able to comprehend the story.  That’s it. No fancy workbooks, no boring comprehension questions, no busy-work.

For a child who is new to the idea of narration, the first few times they might need some assistance. You could ask them about a specific part of the story or write a list of keywords from the reading on a whiteboard to help them stay focused.  It is important to remind them to use their own words. Narration is not the same as memorizing the story. They need to learn to take something and make it their own.

If your child can only tell back one or two sentences worth of material, as long as they were on topic, that’s fine. The more you practice narrating, the more detailed they will get. But that doesn’t mean you should have them narrate every single thing they read or listen to. That’s a way to make your child despise reading. I recommend having them narrate one reading per day. You can focus only on the book they are reading, or have them narrate something different each day. Perhaps a rotation, like:

  • Monday – History
  • Tuesday – Independent Reading
  • Wednesday – Science
  • Thursday – Read Aloud
  • Friday – Their Choice

Narration Builds Writing Skills

Narration is also the beginning of composition. When you read a book, or watch a movie, your instinct is to talk to someone about it. You might even write a review or take part in a book club. This is a form of narration. Children have a need to talk about things,  so narrating comes naturally to them. Between the ages of 6-10, narrations can and should be mostly oral. Around the age of 10, or when their writing skills are strong enough that they can write a paragraph on their own,  they should start writing their narrations down.

In the beginning it will be very brief, where they can talk for 15 minutes straight about a book they just read, and when asked to write they may reduce it to 3 sentences. Just like when you first started narrating, your child will need some time to adjust to this new skill.

As they become more comfortable with writing down their thoughts, they will expand their written narrations. Over time they will be able to easily progress to writing essays. It’s important to continue oral narrations at this age, as it will give them opportunities to organize their thoughts without the stress of also having to write them down.

Narration Cards: Keeping it Fun and Exciting

Not all children think and learn in the same way, and it’s important to change things up a bit to keep them interesting. Not every book needs narrating, and if you always ask them to just tell back what they heard with every reading they will quickly become bored with the act of narration. This is why I created Narration Cards.

When my children were young, I would brainstorm lists of ideas and write them on index cards. My children LOVED this, as it kept things different. There were silly ideas, like making a puppet show about their favorite scene, and prompts to give them different ways of looking at what we were reading. It made narrating fun and kept them on their toes. You can even have your child add a card or two with their own narration activity ideas.

When I wrote Build Your Library curriculum, I knew I needed to include  Narration Cards. The cards included in Levels 1 – 3 are written to be at a 6-8 age level, the cards in Levels 4 – 5  are written to be for an 8-10 age level, the cards in Levels 6 – 8 are at a 10+ age level. Each set becomes incrementally more difficult, adding more writing activities to the set.  In all, there are 3 levels of narration cards, and one set of high school level Composition Cards which give your teen a variety of essay topics that can work with any book.

Not only do the Narration Cards give you different ways to practice narration, they also give your child the ability to choose. If you just assign a particular task, like telling back what they heard or writing a summary, for every narration assignment they will become bored. But by having the chance to make a choice, pull a card out of the jar with a fun and engaging activity, now they get to take the reins for a minute. I frequently allow my children to pick two cards and decide which one they would prefer to do.

As you use narration in your child’s education, you will find that their listening skills become sharper. You’ll see they are able to concentrate and give more focus to their studies, and when done on a regular basis, it will improve their writing skills. Such a simple idea that will reap huge rewards.


Emily Cook is the author and creator of the secular homeschool curriculum Build Your Library, a literature-based K-12 program infused with the teachings of Charlotte Mason. She writes full year lesson plans as well as shorter topical unit studies. Emily has been homeschooling her four children in Southern NH for 17 years. She is passionate about reading aloud to children of all ages and loves to share her love of literature with others. She and her family also makes incredibly dorky videos about homeschooling, books and more on Youtube at ARRRGH! Schooling. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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Have you been looking for a literature based homeschool curriculum that is secular? How about a way to incorporate narration, copywork, dictation and memory work into your child’s education? Or art study that ties into history?

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