Reading Comprehension, or What to Study and How to Study it

Dear Reader,

Do you do reading comprehension in your homeschool? Do you have a curriculum for it? In a Charlotte Mason Education, such things are not needed. Narration takes the place of reading comprehension. In narration, a child tells back what they have read as they see it. The key difference here is that the child decides what is important and chooses what to tell rather than having to anser preset questions in which the teacher (or textbook) decides what is important.

There is often a different in purpose as well. Through narration, the child processes the information and forms a relationship with it as they narrate. With reading comprehension, there may be a desire that the child learn the facts the teacher is asking about but it is also a kind of test to see if they have understood what they have read. Narration is not a test for the teacher’s benefit (so they can assign a grade) it is part of the learning process and is for the child’s benefit. Furthermore, Charlotte Mason would say that reading comprehension type questions are useless for really knowing what a child has learned. They may be able to parrot back facts but that does not mean that they have let the material sink deep into them. Here is how she puts it:

“The mind appears to have an outer court into which matter can be taken and again expelled without ever having entered the inner place where personality dwells. Here we have the secret of learning by rote, a purely mechanical exercise of which no satisfactory account has been given, but which leaves the patient, the pupil, unaffected.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 202)

You, like I, have probably experienced this sort of thing — cramming for  a test only to forget it all the next day when it is no longer needed.

One may, in a Charlotte Mason education, give some sort of question as an impetus to narration but these should be open-ended questions such as “Tell me all you know about this character.” At times I think such questions may help the student to ferret out information they didn’t even know they had. I am thinking of examples such as when one reads a fictional account of life in colonial America and then is asked “tell me how they lived then.” Rather than just recounting the story, the child must now think about what they have read and pull together different parts to create  a picture of colonial life that was not just clearly laid out for them. But we must also recognize that whenever we ask questions, we are focusing attention, to some greater or lesser degree, on what we think is important, perhaps to the detriment of what the student actually got out of it all. Charlotte does not speak well of such questioning:

“Questions, as Dr. Johnson told us, are an intrusion and  a bore . . . ‘The mind can know nothing except what it can express in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.’ Observe, not a question put by an outsider, but, put by the mind to itself.” (p. 202)

Indeed, our questions often betray a lack of confidence in the child. We are not trusting them to interact with the material on their own and to be able to get their own ideas out of it. Charlotte says,

“He believes that children cannot understand well-written books and that he must make of himself a bridge between the pupil and the real teacher, the man who has written the book.” (p. 204)

Charlotte often compares education to a meal. The teacher provides the food, but the student must eat it. They cannot be force-fed nor can we control what they will put in their mouths. There is no coercion. In this analogy, our questions areas if we are trying to chew their food for them:

“We must feed the mind as the body fitly and freely; and the less we meddle with the digestive processes in the one as in the other the more healthy the life we shall sustain.” (p. 203)

We return again here to the idea that narration is how the student learns; it is not just for our (the teacher’s) benefit. And since it is how they learn, how they digest the material if you will, we should be very wary of stepping in and telling them how to do it.

I once knew a child who until the age of 5 couldn’t chew solid food. There was an undiagnosed medical issue and his mom would have to puree his food or serve him very soft things, like well-cooked pasta, long past toddlerhood. This is a normal diet for a one-year-old but not for a five-year-old, and over time his facial muscles weakened from lack of use and his face began to have a slack look to it. Fortunately, they eventually got a diagnosis and the problem was able to fix itself, but what if we are doing this same sort of thing to our kids intellectually? We are keeping them from hearty meats that they are old enough to comprehend and thereby weakening their intellectual muscles. They are not growing and developing as they should.

But, you may say, I put books to my child and they are unable or unwilling to narrate. I have to ask them specific questions or all I get is shrugs and “I don’t know”s. If a child has been used to a traditional school diet or dry textbooks and boring questions, it may be, as in my analogy above, that their intellectual muscles need a little building up. Beginning narrations with simple, easy to tell stories is always a good idea, even if the child is older. We have found Aesop’s fables wonderful for as and also the book by Thornton Burgess along the lines of “The Tale of so-and-do the such-and-such” (not his longer books like The Bird Book or The Animal Book).

Once a child has gotten used to the idea of and the practice of narration, we must make sure that we are feeding them real books and not cardboard simulations. Textbooks and, in my opinion, most books of the Usborne and DK variety are not good food. Charlotte says of such things:

“Persons can ‘get up’ the driest of pulverized text-books and enough mathematics for some public examination; but these attainments do not appear to touch the region of mind.” (p. 201)

In other words, even if a student can tell what they said or answer questions about them, they do not nourish and are not suitable food.

And if we are using a book that we think is higher quality and should be suitable but the child cannot seem to narrate it, I think one of the first questions we should ask is still is it a living book? Is it a living book for them? A book may appear to us to be living and a good choice but the surest test is to give it to the child to read. If they can narrate it well, and do so with enthusiasm, it is a living book. Here is how Charlotte sums up the whole matter:

“Given a book of literary quality suitable to their age and children will know how to deal with it without elucidation. Of course they will not be able to answer questions because questions are an impertinence which we all resent, but they will tell you the whole thing with little touches of individual personality in the narrative.” (p. 204)

It is really a wonderful thing to see (or hear) when it all comes together and they do narrate with enthusiasm. A Charlotte Mason education is a process, one that often seems long, but when things begin to come together it is very rewarding.


One response to this post.

  1. […] “Given a book of literary quality suitable to their age and children will know how to deal with it without elucidation . . . they will tell you the whole thing with little touches of individual personality in the narrative.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 204; see this post) […]


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