Tell, Don’t Show

A little-known aspect of Charlotte Mason’s teaching is that she actually discouraged too much reading aloud to preschool children; she suggested it was better for the parents to tell a few stories over and over. It seems rather opposite to her decrying of teachers of older children getting between children and writers or allowing the rereading of material, but there it is.
Every father and mother should have a repertoire of stories––a dozen will do, beautiful stories beautifully told; children cannot stand variations. "You left out the rustle of the lady’s gown, mother!" expresses reasonable irritation; the child cannot endure a suggestion that the story he lives in is no more than the "baseless fabric of a vision." Away with books, and "reading to"––for the first five or six years of life. The endless succession of story-books, scenes, shifting like a panorama before the child’s vision, is a mental and moral dissipation; he gets nothing to grow upon, or is allowed no leisure to digest what he gets. It is contrary to nature, too. "Tell us about the little boy who saved Haarlem!" How often do the children who know it ask for that most hero-making of all tales! And here is another advantage of the story told over the story read. Lightly come, lightly go, is the rule for the latter. But if you have to make a study of your story, if you mean to appropriate it as bread of life for your children, why, you select with the caution of the merchantman seeking goodly pearls. Again, in the story read, the parent is no more than the middleman; but the story told is food as directly and deliberately given as milk from the mother’s breast. Wise parents, whose children sit with big eyes pondering the oft-told tale, could tell us about this. But it must be borne in mind that the story told is as milk to the child at the breast. By-and-by comes the time when children must read, must learn, and digest for themselves.

~Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschooling Series, Volume 5, p. 216

I’m not sure I fully understand her reasons–perhaps some of it was the little availability of books for small children in those days, but given her dislike for literature designed for children in general, I doubt it.

Anyway, I’m not giving up reading out loud, but over the past few months I’ve been trying to suppress the urge to go hunt up a library book with a story they need to hear, and replace it with telling the story myself. We skipped the Thanksgiving books and I told them the story of the First Thanksgiving. When D1 asked about Santa Claus, we told her the legend of St. Nicholas. Monday I revived "Henny Penny," which I used to read to them out of an anthology.

The practical advantage I can see right off is that I don’t have to have my hands free to hold a book. Thus, it’s even easier for the children to beg for the same story over and over while we’re working or caring for the babies–until they know it well themselves. On Thanksgiving Day D1 heard a passing radio reference to Squanto and recognized it immediately.

Perhaps long term, the difference is that a child this small first needs to know their parents above all, which means it’s good for the stories to come filtered through the parents’ experience and philosophy. The parent also can better adapt the story on the spot to the child’s needs and understanding. (I do this anyway when reading books, but perhaps it goes smoother when I’m telling the story off the top of my head.) My children don’t mind brutal endings (like in Henny Penny!) but other children might.

Since books written for preschooolers are inevitably accompanied by large pictures, perhaps telling the story rather than reading the book gives a greater motivation for the child to learn to picture the story for himself instead of relying on outside props. Seeing parents telling stories, not just reading them, might also provide a greater model for narration later on.

Above all, telling stories instead of reading them means that a few stories will be learned, dwelt upon, and slowly understood. A good folk tale or historical legend has far-reaching implications, moral, literary, historical–it is worth coming back to again and again.

Whatever the reason, I’m enjoying the experiment enough to continue. There are still some favorite picture books I couldn’t bear them to miss out on, and we’ll still read non-fiction books when they’re interested in a topic, but I’d like to focus our read-alouds on the Bible and an occasional chapter book, and give them their heritage of folk tales and religious and cultural icons by telling them the story myself.

7 thoughts on “Tell, Don’t Show

  1. I've wondered about that. I'm really tempted to just grab the book. About the only story I can tell off the cuff is Goldilocks and the Three Bears which is incredibly pathetic.

    Good food for thought.
    — Carrie

  2. This is one aspect of Charlotte Mason's philosophy that I love, but just can't seen to implement consistently. When I do tell a story, it's a big hit, but my children are much more prone to beg for a book than a story. I think it's because I just don't do it enough. Like you said, storytelling is nice, because your hands don't have to be free. Next time someone is following me around, begging for a book, instead of saying, "not now," I'll offer a story!

  3. I wish I was a good story teller. I do know that my daughter always liked to hear the same ones over
    & over, and even today she had me retell one about when she got rid of her pacifier in exchange for me buying her a My Little Pony. 🙂 That was 5+ years ago, but she likes the stories.

  4. imo… it does model narration – also most "non-twaddle" books do not have pictures. the transition from picture books to non-pics is eliminated when storytelling, instead of reading, is done. Also, if done while working, it builds a love of work, reinforces communication habits (not interrupting), and allows small children to have free hands too instead of expecting them to "sit still and listen" with storytelling they are doing AND listening. I tend to read outloud to them at lunch or breakfast and storytell throughout the day, but I still strive for 1 hour of book reading a day, just 15 min at a time. Also, bible stories are #1 here, our childhood stories/lessons, stories about how mom and dad met, or stories about them and siblings when they were babies are just as important as "the great minds" because they give our children identity, legitimacy, and a sense of belonging – something most people search for their whole life! It is the "I am" of the child's motto "I am, I can, I ought, I will," and the "a life" portion of the parent's motto.

  5. This is an aspect of CM's philosophy that I haven't run across before. Interesting. I'm going to have to mull it over before I buy into it. Right this moment, I can see the value of the told stories *in addition to* the read stories, but I'm really struggling with the idea of setting aside the books altogether. That seems so counter-productive from a teaching reading perspective.

    I'm going to have to ponder and pray over this one.

    Great post. Thanks!

    Ritsumei of Baby Steps Blog

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