Do oral narrations make you cry? Here’s help. Follow these proven steps to painless oral narrations, from a homeschooling mom of 20 years.
She leaned conspiratorially across the picnic table. The warm breeze licked our arms as we corralled the discarded remains of half-eaten kid lunches, crumbled crackers, and a few random grapes.
“I would love to get Emma and Lexi together to read some Tales.” The words flowed in a rush. “I think it would help Emma with her narrations. She has such a hard time with them! I’m pretty sure she understands the material, but when I ask for a narration, she says she doesn’t know. And if I make the passage I’m reading shorter like people suggest, she just tries to repeat it word for word. Maybe if she did it with a friend, she would understand.”
She had fallen victim to one of the classic blunders.
The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is this:
The old “shorten the passage advice.”
You know the one:
If your child struggles with narration, the passage is too long. Shorten it to a page. If he still struggles, shorten it to a paragraph. Then a sentence.
I’m just going to say it: this advice is wrong.
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If your child struggles with oral narrations, he needs your help to develop this skill, not to drill down to repeat one phrase at a time.
“If you try to tempt them by shortening the passage read, they will think that you want verbal memory — exact reproduction — and you will get it. But there has been no assimilation of knowledge. That way there can be nothing but disappointment.”H. W. Household
We think of oral narrations as a single skill to learn, but it’s actually an amalgam of at least three separate skills.
If your child is struggling, the best thing to do is to break it down into its components and practice each one separately.
Three components of oral narrations
What are the three skills in oral narration?
- Recall details
Recall is the most important, because without it you won’t get either of the other two. It’s simply being able to recall what you heard or read.
A key factor here is an engaging book or experience. If your husband calls to tell you all about the new engine he wants to build for his dream sports car even though you and he both know the dream is 20 years from being reality, and you don’t understand cars other than
- Step 1: turn the key
- Step 2: magic fairies under the hood make the engine come to life
chances are you won’t remember many details from that conversation.
The same thing happens with our kids. If the material we ask them to engage with isn’t engaging, then no matter how good a memory our child has, he won’t be able to give you much.
If you’re using a living book though and your child still can’t give you much, that’s ok! This is where we start from.
Encouraging success in oral narrations
You know that imaginary toolbox we have? The one that stores all the best techniques we’ve accumulated over the years? Let’s dig deep in the dirty depths and drag out some grease-covered tools (grab a shop towel; we don’t want you ruining your fancy new top).
Open the toolbox, the one with the rubbed corners that creaks as you open it, the one with the lopsided hearts a toddler’s hand drew in red Sharpie (oh, the memories), and pull out three tools:
First, celebrate every success, no matter how miniscule they seem
If you ask your child to tell you what he remembers from the passage, and he only gives you the last word you said, celebrate that!
That’s a win! It’s the first baby step of a marathon, and we all have to start somewhere. Don’t compare it to his “best” day (don’t we all have good and bad days?). High five him, do a silly happy dance (it’s okay to embarrass him and get the side-eye), give a solemn presentation on the nature of the cosmos if that’s his thing.
Whatever it takes.
The next tool is to model, model, model.
We can’t expect our children to do something we can’t do, and sometimes — often — they aren’t really sure what we’re asking for.
Remember to keep your modelling attainable, though. If your daughter can only give you a single word that she remembers, don’t model a 10 minute narration complete with details about the dress the girl in the story wore.
Model something reachable. Model one baby step further than where they’re at.
If she can’t recall anything and won’t even attempt one word, then model one word.
Kid: (mumbling) “I don’t remember anything.”
Mom: You know what I remember? I remember a bird.
You want her to think, “Oh, I can do that!”
If she gives you the last word you read, celebrate that and model an object mentioned before the last word.
It could be from the same sentence, or it could be the key character in that passage.
But just model a word or a phrase.
Kid: “I remember a bird.”
You: “And I remember there was a king.”
Ask “do you remember anything else?” If your child says no, that’s all I can remember, then stop right there. Celebrate that you both remembered one tiny thing, and end the lesson.
We’re building this foundation one pebble at a time.
Each lesson that can be narrated should be, even if you’re getting a single word with each narration.
It will grow.
And the last tool in our handy-dandy toolbox?
EASILY REMEMBER THE STEPS TO GREAT NARRATIONS WITH THIS HANDY CHECKLIST — GRAB IT FROM THE RESOURCE LIBRARY!
Draw your oral narrations. (stay with me)
“But,” I can hear you say, “my kid hates to draw!”
No, dear. Not your child.
And before you protest that you can’t draw, we’re not talking art gallery-worthy paintings here.
We’re talking stick figures… or even more basic.
When I draw narrations, I literally draw a circle with a line coming straight down off it for a person. I don’t even draw arms and legs.
This isn’t drawing practice, this is a tool for memory recall.
To reduce cognitive load — the amount of working memory resources we’re using — we need to separate recalling from holding that information in our head. Get it out on paper or chalkboard or a whiteboard.
I use a chalkboard from Ikea every day.
When your child gives you that one word narration, draw it.
A bird? Make an oval with a beak and two lines coming down for legs.
Combine this with modeling, switching back and forth between the two of you, and before long your child will remember more.
Here’s a recent example:
We read The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, and previously I’d only been getting one word from my daughter.
This had gone on for weeks, but I’d been faithful with the chalkboard for a while.
After I asked her what she remembered from the story, she said “there was a rabbit”.
I drew a snowman-like rabbit with long ears.
“I remember there was a man,” I said as I drew a stick figure man. The one with a circle and a line.
And then out of the blue, success!
My daughter said, “Uh… he had a hat.”
Remember what I said about celebrating all successes, no matter how small? Yep, we did a high five, enormous grins, the works.
But I didn’t give a lecture on the nature of the cosmos.
It’s not my child’s thing.
Now, a year later, we still draw everything, but I get much more than a single word out of narrations.
Practice this. Keep practicing. It might take months and that’s ok.
Second Oral Narration Component: VERBALIZING
You can either start this shortly after getting comfortable with “one word”, or you can wait until your child is at ease recalling a few more. It will depend on your assessment of your child.
Once you’ve drawn — or your child has, if she’s taken it over —everything you’re going to get for that passage, model how to use the drawings as memory markers to talk about the story.
You don’t have to do it in the order you drew them, and don’t start sequencing yet. Remember… One. Step. At a time.
Point to the first figure and say, “So we had a bird.” Point to the next figure and say, “and there was a man with a hat.”
After your child has seen you do this for several days, begin asking him to use the drawings to tell you about the passage.
This is important: Don’t ask for anything that’s not drawn until your child is confidently verbalizing what’s on the chalkboard.
Do some of this in partnership as well. “There was a bird, and… what was this?”
Once this is easy, elaborate one small section. Don’t try to expand on every figure right off the bat. Keep it simple and attainable.
“And this is the dragon! Oh, I remember the queen jumped on his back and flew over the castle!”
Depending on time restraints, you can draw a stick figure with a crown on the dragon’s back, and a castle.
Gradually hand it over until your child is the one verbalizing all the figures.
Then you can start modeling multi-word phrases to recall. Instead of “I remember a bird” say “I remember there was a one-eyed bird with blue feathers”.
Remember to keep it attainable, and model only one baby step ahead of where they are.
I have one more secret for getting more out of my kid.
Using the secret power of AND to get more out of oral narrations
Now, this isn’t for when your child struggles to remember one thing. It’s not even for when your child has started giving you two things he remembers.
It’s for when your child has been giving you consistent multi-word phrases but seems stuck at one or two of them.
When that seems easy but at a plateau, pull out the AND card.
Child: I remember there was a dragon and he flew over the castle!
(yep, that’s it! And see if the magic happens)
Child: And the king was scared.
Child: And the queen threw her jewels down.
Child: And…. that’s all I remember.
If you pull out AND and your child says, “I don’t remember anything else”, that’s ok too. You pull out one more thing you remember, celebrate this lesson’s success, and put the AND back in your pocket to pull it out next week.
Once your child can consistently and easily give you many things from the passage, then slowly add in sequencing.
This doesn’t mean you have to wait until they can do it without drawing the narration. This step is easiest to take when everything that was said has been drawn in some way.
Those stick figure drawings will serve as a reminder so your child doesn’t have to hold everything in his head at the same time as trying to sequence it.
Again, you’ll start small.
After you and your student have drawn everything, go back through and have your child name each object and elaborate where he can. “This is the rabbit, and this is the man with the hat, and oh yeah he had a garden (draws quick square for garden), and this is the rabbit’s coat and this is the cat.”
Then take this into sequencing by asking, “which one happened in the beginning of the passage?”
If this is hard for your child, then stay at this one step for as long as he needs to. It may be days, weeks, or months, and any of those is fine. Remember we meet our child where she’s at, not where we think she should be, and this is an important foundation.
Your child doesn’t need to tell you the very first thing, just something towards the beginning. Remember to model, too. You choose something from the beginning. Maybe you circle it in bright green chalk.
Then stop, celebrate, and end the lesson.
When that’s easy (do you see a pattern here? We never move on until each skill is mastered and easy. Not just familiar, but easy) add ‘what happened at the end of the passage?’
Beginning and end are usually easiest because they’re like bookends. The middle is more nebulous.
Keep doing the beginning, but add the end. Circle the bits that happened towards the end with a different color chalk so it’s easier to visualize.
Once the end bits are easy, the middle is a tiny step. It’s whatever is left.
When this last step is easy, you’ll add one more piece of the puzzle: bringing everything together.
Putting it all together
After sequencing, you’ll put everything together:
- Recall and draw the story
to tell the whole thing in sequence using the drawing as a guide.
First recall and draw the story, then verbalize the pieces, then sequence them.
Add the last piece: “Now that we know what happened in the beginning, the middle, and the end, let’s put them all together.”
(Point to the green beginning pieces) “First the book fell out of the tree at Merlin’s feet. The book was from the fairies and had words in it that Merlin used to build an enormous round table.” (point to the orange middle pieces) “Then Merlin used the words in the book to get the table inside the castle. The king was surprised.” (point to the blue-circled end figures) “The knights gathered all around the table and swore an oath to the king.”
And now you’re finished!
Before long, your child will be doing all the steps at the same time.
How long should we allow a child to use drawings? This is one area I deviate from Charlotte Mason. She felt that using drawings should be a short-term solution. But she was also referring to “typical” children.
I look at drawings as a tool rather than as a crutch. If your student has learning struggles, let him use the drawings as long as he needs to, even into and through high school.
Some of these steps might take a few days until your child can do them easily, while others might take months.
But it will come.
A few weeks later, my phone pinged with a text notification. My friend had sent an update:
“After we talked about narration, I started doing longer history readings and let Emma use a whiteboard for narration. Here’s today’s, which she did in sequence! Depicting Cochise and one of his men discussing a plan to ambush a Tubac silver mine by sneaking through the mountains, hiding in the horse corral at night, and driving out the pack animals when it’s locked at dawn.
Thanks for your help :)”
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