Saturday, July 4, 2015

Narration: The Cognitive Core of Learning to Write?

Charlotte Mason said that narrating was an art. She believed that the ability to narrate was innate, and that it wasn't the product of instruction. It was not the result of a teacher teaching a student how to tell back a story.

She went further to say that children naturally tell back stories with ease. They have lots to say. They naturally tell stories in order. They include lots of details. They choose their words carefully, without being wordy or redundant.

In Volume 1 (pg. 232), Mason tells the story of a child (Bobbie) who has seen a fight between two dogs, and comes home to tell his parents the story of what he saw. He tells it with "splendid vigour in the true epic vein." But his parents don't perceive their child's storytelling this way. They're dismissive.

[B]ut so ingrained is our contempt for children that we see nothing in this but Bobbie's foolish childish way! Whereas here, if we have eyes to see and grace to build, is the ground-plan of his education.

Narration is the ground-plan.

And now I have to share with you a paper I read titled "A Natural Way to Write" by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner. Thomas and Turner remind us that writing is modern, whereas drawing another person's attention to something is ancient.
[W]riting is a recent invention... For most of its history, it was a special purpose activity... Literature is considerably older than writing. And even after it was invented, poets such as Homer remained illiterate.
Homer couldn't write, but he sure could tell a story.

Thomas and Turner go on to write:
Much of the world's population is even now illiterate. It is a mistake to treat writing as a common, species-wide behavior like talking or walking... All writing is exotic, but in literate societies it is now taken as "normal."
The authors posit that there is an ancient behavior underlying writing that cognitive scientists call "joint attention."

In joint attention, two - or more - people are paying attention to something. For example, if I point out a beautiful flower to my daughter, and she looks at the flower, we are looking at the flower together. Now, I know she's looking at it, and she knows I'm looking at it, and we both know that we are sharing the experience of looking at this flower. Additionally, we both know that we both know we are sharing this experience. This is joint attention, and joint attention, the authors say, is the "cognitive core of writing."

I don't have any trouble pointing out this beautiful flower because it is directly observable to my daughter. I expect my daughter to be able to perceive the flower once I point it out.

But what if my daughter can't see the flower? What if I saw it earlier, and I want to tell her about it? To do this, I need to blend the unfamiliar with the familiar. I need to anchor the new flower to ideas that already exist to my daughter. For example, the new flower is small, tiny, the size of the tip of her thumb. It's pink. And it's shaped like a strawberry. My daughter's thumb, the color pink, and strawberries, are all familiar to my daughter. If I tell her about the flowers of the Arbutus 'Marina' using the ideas that are familiar to her, she is able to "see" them, even though they are unfamiliar.

Once the process of learning how to write is anchored in its cognitive core, the scene of classic joint attention—rather than a list of surface features—the process becomes straightforward and intelligible. In a series of steps, one can master the actual scene of classic joint attention, then extend it and practice until the new behavior becomes second nature—and then extend it again, until one has become an accomplished prose stylist. This process takes a scene that human beings everywhere are built for...
We are built for this. It's innate.
When Bobbie told his parents about the dogs fighting, he wanted them to "see" the scene. He saw something interesting and tried to direct his parents' attention to that thing. Charlotte Mason called this narration. Might a cognitive scientist call it joint attention? Might Thomas and Turner call what Bobbie was doing learning to write?


  1. "All writing is exotic"...what a thought! Love your connections here and explanations. So interesting.

  2. Thank you. I love that quote too! :)