I am a Charlotte Mason fan. If you know anything about her, you know how much she stresses reading from "living" books and relying on narration.

What are living books?

We've discussed living books in previous posts. These are nonfiction books written with passion from an expert in his or her field. These are also fiction books written with passion that capture a child's heart. My favorite way to teach history is through such living books, but that's a different subject. Living books are not text books. They are never pedantic, never boring, never condescending.

Narration is key in helping a child both learn to read and love to read. Some reluctant readers have solved the decoding issue, but the words mean nothing. They can rattle off the sentence, but not tell you what it meant. They have no connection with the words on the page. Beginning narration at an early age can help avoid this, but it's never too late to begin.

Why narration?

At its foundation what narration does is teach a child to observe and relate to his world. What are you seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, thinking? It's noticing the shades of green at the park. It's stopping to hear the creek babble. It's paying attention to the taste of an orange, a lemon, a grape. And it's noticing the words in the book. Rhyming words, silly words, words that paint pictures and evoke emotions.

Beginning narration with elementary-age children

Our challenge, as it relates to the reluctant reader, is to introduce this method of looking at the world, and what he is reading. I recommend beginning by looking at great works of art or listening to classical music or taking a nature walk. As you look and listen and move, talk about what you see, hear, feel. Let me rephrase that. Ask your child to tell you what he sees and hears and feels. Don't give up if at first his observations are limited.

Definitely don't give up if he struggles to "notice" anything. Be calm. Show no frustration. Take all the time needed. Don't give in to the temptation to tell everything you are experiencing, but do gently prod. For example, on a nature walk, you might begin the conversation by saying something like, "Look at all those shades of green. How many shades can you see?" Then talk about how the green of the grass is different from the oak leaf, which is different from the maple which is different from the needles on the hemlock.

Reading and narration

Read aloud to your children. Stop after a paragraph or so and ask them to tell you what they heard. If there is no response, ask leading questions, but grow in the direction of them telling you what they heard without the specific question.

If after several sessions, your child isn't able to narrate back what you read, then plan ahead. Decide what question you will ask before you read a selection. Tell him what that question will be and ask him to be listening for the answer. Give him permission to interrupt you when he hears the answer. This is a tool to improve his listening and observation skills. When he can do this well, go back to reading then pausing to ask him to narrate back what he heard.

Much later, sometimes a significant amount of time later, your child will read silently, then come independently to tell you the exciting thing he just read. For now, we take it step by step.


Gracious Father, we bow before you, our all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving creator. We ask your protection on our families. We depend on you for success in our home schools. Please keep us from discouragement. Show us what is wise as we teach your children. Thank you for walking along with us. We come to you because of Jesus. Amen.