Bible reading and young children

Q. How do I get my 3 y.o. to narrate?

You don’t.  Narration, the kind where you ask the child to tell you back (rather than his own spontaneous retellings) doesn’t start until six.

Q. If I don’t teach him how to do this now, how will he do it when he’s of school age?

Developmentally, this question is a lot like asking ‘how do you teach a child to read at 6 if you don’t teach him how to read when he’s 2?” You don’t (yes, yes, there are some special exceptions, but in general, 2 year olds are not interested or developmentally capable of handling, or in need of formal reading lessons). You teach him other things that are related- like letting him develop maturity and good health (lots of outside free play), get used to word patters and rhymes (nursery rhymes, conversations with parents, stories), some letter recognition if he’s interested but drop it if he isn’t (and this is best done naturally, and as you go- pointing out one letter whenever you see it at the grocery store or on a cereal box in the morning, and then later another), singing together, and so on- these things all are like building blocks with connections on all sides (sort of like waffle blocks with lego interfaces) that work together and kind of lay the foundation which makes later learning work.  There’s good research showing that seemingly unrelated skills- catching and throwing a ball, climbing, jumping, building eye hand coordination and large motor skills, aid in brain development in areas that will be later applied in academics, so that free outside play is vital at this age.

Q. so what are some of those early building blocks for narration skills?

Much the same as for other skills.  If you give him plenty of free time to play freely and spend lots of time outside at this age, and work gently on issues of cooperation and obedience, and tell him stories now- orally, and choose about 6-12 or so per year to tell over and over-  he will learn to listen, to picture in his mind’s eye the ideas and events of the stories, he will build those connections that make other things work together later.  Also be sure to sing together, work together, build relationships, then at 6 you do not have to motivate him to respond when you read a story and ask him to tell it back to you. He will try to do that. Then if he does poorly, you model narration for him to give him an idea of what you are asking for. Sometimes you have him draw a picture- but that is for six and later.

Q. I don’t buy that a kid of 3 or 4 can’t narrate.  My kid tells the story of the 3 bears to his toys, and when daddy comes home he is always retelling something that happened to day.

That’s true- but those things are spontaneous, he’s not being put on the spot and told to tell back.
Before he is six, he will also narrate some things naturally on his own but they will at first be concrete things he experienced or saw himself, not abstract things he only heard about- when you go to the park he will come home and tell Daddy something about it- listen, be glad to hear him, don’t badger him, and when he’s done sometimes you might say, thank you for narrating that for me, that was interesting, and it sounds like you had fun, use the word narration here and there to connect that word in his mind with what he’s done (if you don’t learn about narration until you kid is ten, that’s okay, you haven’t ruined his life or failed as a parent, I’m just suggesting things you can do if you are fortunate enough to know about it before 6).  When you go to the zoo and he tells you later about his favourite animal, listen, be engaged, tell him something about what you liked about the zoo, but don’t badger him with questions- it might help before you ask a question to think about it and see if it would be natural to ask this question of an adult who just got done telling you about his zoo trip. I know the child is not an adult, and you are his parent not his colleague, but this will help you recognize which kinds of questions are conversational and which are really a form of pestering and turning something natural and fun into an oral pop quiz.  Don’t do the pop quizzes for this kind of thing.

Q. What do you mean by oral stories?  Why only 6-12?

Oral retellings- the kinds of things pre-literate cultures would sit around the campfire and tell each other, or that families might have told around the fireplace in days before gas lights or electricity.  Children like stories of when their parents were young- and the stories do not have to be dramatic and brilliant.  They like continuity and old familiar tales, so you don’t need a variety.

Here’s Charlotte Mason, volume 5:

But we must adapt ourselves to new conditions; “books for the young” used to be few and dull; now, they are many and delightful.

In connection with this subject let me add a word about story-telling. Here are some of the points which make a story worth studying to tell to the nestling listeners in many a sweet “Children’s Hour”;––graceful and artistic details; moral impulse of a high order, conveyed with a strong and delicate touch; sweet human affection; a tender, fanciful link between the children and the Nature-world; humour, pathos, righteous satire, and last, but not least, the fact that the story does not turn on children, and does not foster that self-consciousness, the dawn of which in the child is, perhaps, the individual “Fall of Man.” But children will not take in all this? No; but let it be a canon that no story, nor part of a story, is ever to be explained. You have sown the seed; leave it to germinate.

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. By the way, before a child begins school work may be the time to give a little care to a subject of some importance.” pgs 216-7

Q. What Bible stories? 


Here are some suggestions of the sorts of Bible stories to tell him:
Jesus birth; Creation; the serpent tempting Eve to sin and the awful result; noah’s ark, Jonah and the coat of many colours, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus raising a little girl from the dead, Jesus calming the storm, Peter walking on the water, the fishing story (where the disciples caught no fish and then Jesus came along and told them to cast their nets elsewhere and the nets were so full they started to tear), Elijah, Elishah, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, David and Goliath, the fiery furnace,
Rather than questioning him about them, listen in on his own free play – he may incorporate them into his play, retell them to a toy, or make observations like “there’s a fish like the little boy gave Jesus,” or “A rainbow! God showed that to Noah.” Use a couple simple props to tell the stories and you may notice he picks them up on his own and retells.

So should we stop family Bible readings?

Oh, I don’t think so. Just be clear about what you’re accomplishing, and what you’re not.
The Bible is important, and having family readings together is wonderful, and important and I am always happy to hear about families doing this. But it’s important for the parents and for communicating and building a couple of habits and attitudes. At this young age this is not going to be where he learns most of his spiritual lessons or Bible stories.

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One Comment

  1. Jac Lynn Sharp
    Posted June 1, 2017 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Oh! Thank you for this!!! Just what I needed to hear.

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