Monday, April 9, 2012

I get what you're saying, but...

After I share my conviction that children need narrative to effectively learn, it is inevitable that some moms respond to me with their difficulty in implementing story in their children's lives. Their concerns or objections vary in detail, but generally boil down to their child's own assertion that they don't like to read.

This is not necessarily because they lack the ability to read. As a matter of fact children who have difficulty reading often are not protesting against being read to because this takes the pressure off them. They may very well appreciate learning through stories, but do not have the reading stamina or skill yet to enjoy reading for themselves. If this is the case, I suggest patience--patience to take the time to read for them, and patience in gently, but persistently working on the rudiments of teaching reading.

However, in the majority of instances, it is their child's preference for non-story material that parents are expressing to me. If this is the case, I have a few questions in response:

Do children even know what they really like if they haven't been given wide experience? Children like what they are familiar with and are usually not enthusiastic about the unknown. If the only lunch they have ever had is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they may balk at grilled cheese or turkey and pesto croissants. If they have been allowed to eat candy bars, they may very well have no appetite for veggies. Similarly, children raised without a daily habit of reading aloud may just not have acquired an appetite for a good tale.

Habits take time. It takes time to read to children. If they are to love stories, that affection has to be cultivated slowly and deliberately over time.

One of the biggest proponents of teaching through narrative is the educator Charlotte Mason. Many others have also asserted that part of our human nature is the ability to absorb knowledge through stories. It is possible this may take a great effort on your part. Do not underestimate the effort it takes on your child's  part as well. Gently encourage them to move from the known territory they enjoy by degrees, rather than making a radical shift. If they are accustomed to the cartoon-y twaddle of today's picture books or other currently popular children's easy readers, find a book with a little less glitz and a little more depth to the story line. Don't go out and overwhelm them by immediately reading Beowulf or even The Wind in the Willows . Instead, starting withCharlotte's Web;or Little House in the Big Woods may be a better introduction into the world of wondrous tales and long stories. If they are only captivated by pirates, move toward Treasure Island; if your daughter is a fashion queen, try The Hundred Dresses.

When it comes to school lessons, again, I hear, "but my children love workbooks," or, "my kids want just the facts." I wonder if this is true simply because they want to get lessons over with as quickly as possible and expend the least amount of effort. Workbooks are often a busy mom's choice because she can feel like something has been accomplished. What is actually accomplished is probably not what she truly desires. My question is whether regurgitating swiftly read data is ensuring our children's love of learning? Rather, are we perhaps training them to be indifferent or, dare I say, lazy learners?

Learning requires effort. It comes naturally to children to want to learn if they are presented with an enticing feast, an intriguing enough idea. They are born curious. There is nothing intrinsically interesting in a mass produced consumable workbook. Filling in blanks is quick, easy, and gives a false sense of accomplishment. The information gathered is momentary at best, and certainly does not impress a child's mind enough to last a lifetime.

On the other hand, real ideas presented in intricate and fascinating narratives are (I'm not trying to be funny or punny here, truly) a different story. I do concede to parents, claiming their children don't enjoy learning from stories, that they are right; they do not enjoy them. But, let me ask, do you only allow your children to experience what they like? Do you never introduce new and unknown things into their life? Perhaps they have learned NOT to be curious as a result. I have discovered especially in the past years of library work with many, many children, that they are reluctant to investigate new genres in literature for one or all of the following reasons:

1. They have not been read to or had the habit of storytelling modeled in the home.

2. They are uninterested in schoolwork because nothing interesting has ever been presented.

3. They are addicted to easier entertainments, such as an over exposure to TV and other electronic passive “learning” tools.

My parents used to quip, "a brain is a terrible thing to waste." Your child's mind has an immeasurable  capacity to learn unbelievable quantities of ideas and retain the knowledge that results from those ideas. This  does take time and effort. An athlete does not become champion by thinking about a skill or watching others perform. An athlete becomes a champ by building muscle and honing precise movements. The mind is a  muscle that requires time and energy to work.

When my boys struggle with something new in school I often remind them of these things. I sympathize with the difficulty, but urge them to make the effort. One of the ways I do this is by reading them narrative  historical accounts, or scientific ideas that are foreign to them. We build their mental strength in small doses, taking small, increasingly difficult steps. When they realize they have the power to comprehend things they did not understand last year, or last month, they are inspired. They do not necessarily analyze this process themselves. What they neither cared about nor even heard of weeks ago, they now hunger to know more about. 

We have a great responsibility as parents to cultivate our children's love of learning. Believe it or not, story is the road to knowledge.

For the joy of reading,



  1. I find that the biggest balking point is the amount of work involved for the mother. The planning, the reading ahead, the reading aloud... It is so different from the workbook model. And they are right, it is more time consuming and there are a lot more decisions. But I also think it is extremely worthwhile - in fact, I am not sure I could think of a better use of my time than serving my children and my family this way. But it does mean I have to be very careful of my outside commitments (especially since I have a baby and 3 yo as well as school age kids) so I can live up to this methodology. But I have a hard time expressing this to people without making them feel defensive.

    I feel sometimes that parents can see the value of the method, but don't want to put the work into it that is required - especially the work needed when you are just getting started and trying to break out of old modes and habits.

  2. I agree with Amber, though I do think that the work can be minimized as far as "staying ahead" if you just "shop" your library (meaning your home or your public library) for books on related topics, put them all on your "shelf of the month" (or in a basket) then print a bunch of notebooking pages (or whatever you use for journaling, timelines, etc.). Doing this for a few hours one day a month can keep you busy reading, narrating, and notebooking/journaling/timeline-ing (LOL) for quite a while.

    I think that if people would see that you can learn along with your kids instead of thinking you have to already know it all, and that it becomes an enjoyable family delight to read and re-tell stories and ideas to others (and each other), then maybe it would seem a bit less intimidating.

    It is definitely worthwhile to make the time to do the extra planning required of a non-boxed curriculum. The memories are so much more rich and, well, memorable.

    Oh, bonus grading! You are learning right along with the kids, hearing their narrations right then, helping them put their notebooking pages away or arrange and classify some leaves in their nature journals, so what is there to grade? It's all learned well, so it's all "A" work. And they loved doing it, to boot! Think of all the time you just saved not having to grade all those workbook pages...nice(big sigh of relief).

    1. Heather,

      Thanks for your ideas. The trick for many of us is starting to think differently from the way we were taught in school or have seen others homeschooling. Once begun, the living books method has immeasurable rewards.