Helpful Habits for Writing Well #3: Narration

I’ve been sharing four helpful tools I have found that cover a lot of ground in teaching kids to write. Since our family is larger than the average size, these have been very helpful to me in minimizing the number of lessons while still developing the many sub-categories of writing: spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, handwriting, writing style, etc. In my last post, I covered habit #2: copywork.

  1. Reading- Reading quality literature of many genres.
  2. Copywork- Copying the best pieces from great authors.
  3. Narration- Reading or hearing a short story, verse, concept, or idea and expressing it back to someone in your own (first oral, then written) words.
  4. Notebooking– Journaling as a regular habit for life.

Habit #3: Narration

If the idea of narration is new to you, here is a simple description. Narration is hearing or reading a selection of a text and telling it back to another person in your own words. That’s it.

It seems too easy, doesn’t it? I mean, how much can a person really learn from doing something that basic? Shouldn’t there be more involved? Is this really teaching them valuable writing skills?

Does this sound too easy to be “real work”? Before you write this off as too simple of a habit to develop good writers, I challenge you to try it yourself. Read a short selection or chapter from a book and then tell it back in a one page narration. Put this post aside and try it. I have done this myself. Narrating a text myself is what convinced me that retelling something in your own words challenges many parts of your brain. It’s not as easy as you think.

Beginning Narration: Oral

I start this with our kids as soon as they are old enough to form sentences. After reading a short storybook, I ask them to tell me about it. This is informal. They usually don’t even realize that they are “narrating”. I just ask them to tell me about the story. In their eagerness to talk about everything, they readily like to tell their version of the story.

For younger kids, give shorter sections to narrate. It can be hard for them to wait until the end of a book to retell the story. They may need shorter chunks. Read a page or two and ask them to tell what is happening.

This does not only have to be done in response to a reading. Ask them to retell in many ways. Tell about their day in sequential order over the dinner table. Explain the steps involved in a project. Describe a scene or the view from your front door.

As children enter Kindergarten and progress through elementary grades, you can encourage them to develop their oral narrations. For example, some kids want to tell every single detail step by step and need help in seeing the the most important parts and keeping it brief. Others will need encouragement to be more descriptive.

Progressing Narration: Written

After children have been giving quality oral narrations for a period of time and once they are able to write sentences and paragraphs fluently, they can begin written narrations. This often happens beginning in the upper elementary years (3rd or 4th grade), depending on the particular child.

One thing I have done in the past to help my kids transition from oral to written narration is this. I have them orally narrate a story and I type it out word for word as they are speaking. I include everything they say, the “ums” and “likes”. When they are done, I have them read it aloud to me. This helps them not only to see what their narration looks like in written form, but also to hear how it sounds.

As they progress in written narrations, this is a wonderful opportunity to assess their written expression with them. How does the paragraph flow? Are ideas expressed in complete sentences? Are there run-on sentences? Does the writing reflect the main ideas of what was read? If someone had not read the piece the child is narrating about, would they get the same conclusions from what they have written? Are the beginning and ending sentences appropriate? Consider syntax. Are there a variety of sentence structures including simple and complex patterns or do the sentences appear repetitive?

I would discourage assessing their work every time they write a narration. Let them grow a natural habit without the pressure of assessment, building confidence as they perform the skill over and over. Then, after 4-5 narrations, review their work together discussing what is done well and how they can improve.

I aim to have my older kids do one narration a day. Realistically, this does not happen. It is more like 2-3 times per week. Currently, we are reading key sections from Abraham Lincoln’s World by Genevieve Foster.

Image result for abraham lincoln's world genevieve foster

The effectiveness of narration is best observed when done over a long period of time. At the beginning of the year, each of our kids gets a new narration notebook in which to keep all their writings successively. I like to look back through their narration notebooks as they move through the year to see how they are improving. (It’s also motivating to the kids!) Even comparing their work from one or two years prior to see their progress is a great motivator!

The regular habit of narration produces quality writers. Looking for a way to help your child improve their writing skills? Give narration a try. Do it for a year and track their progress over time. You might be surprised at how something so simple can be so effective!

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