Sunday, December 13, 2009

Recitation, 'The Children's Art'

This is our second year of implementing recitation with our children, ranging in age from five to nine. Some of the selections we have used are: Caterpillar by Christina Rosetti, The Eagle by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lullaby by Edith Nesbit, Trees by Joyce Kilmer, 1st Corinthians 13, and Joy to the World.

In that time, the children have grown more and more comfortable speaking to their group. A good start for developing their 'art' of recitation.

So how do we guide them along to the next step?

I've tried talking to them about speaking clearly, audibly, not too fast, looking their audience in the eyes - I gave examples of good and bad delivery to help them understand. I'm sure it helped, but I wouldn't say it inspired any grand ideas in them to recite beautifully.

Charlotte Mason says this about recitation:
(Vol. 1, page 222 - 224 Modern English Version)
You can read the original English text here.

Recitation is among the most useful and advancing tools for education. Arthur Burrell has called it 'the children's art.' It is born in children to recite, like a buried jewel waiting to be discovered, or like an imprisoned spirit just waiting to be freed.

...If used faithfully, even ordinary children get beyond their stiffness and recite artistically and dramatically.

...Burrell's book gives gradual steps that can teach even ordinary children the fine art of beautiful and perfect speaking. Yet that is only the first step in being able to recite. A child should speak beautiful thoughts so beautifully and with such precise rendering of every shade of meaning that he interprets the author's work to his listener. It takes appreciation for a work to be able to do that, as well as sensitivity and expressiveness. That's why reciting is a learning experience on its own, or, like Richard Steele said about loving his wife, 'a liberal education' in itself.

Some may assume that expressive children are merely parroting the way they've heard something said rather than understanding and expressing it themselves. But that's not the case. In Burrell's book, children are taught to find the meaning for themselves. The teacher isn't supposed to set a pattern for the child to mimic. The texts he uses are limited to what the child can understand, and the child adds in the expressiveness himself. A clever teacher can entice him by harnessing his naughty attitudes: the child may enjoy coming up with different ways of saying, "I won't!" and from there, the teacher cunningly brings him along by steps until he starts expressing himself in other ways, and even the child is surprised and delighted.

The texts suggested are fun for children.
Wynken, Blynken and Nod, Miss Lilywhite's Party (by George Cooper) or The Two Kittens should make any child want to recite. Try a poem using the technique suggestions in Burrell's book and you'll see that the result is as unlike ordinary reading aloud as music is when played with or without the composer's expression marks. I hope everyone reading this book will train their children to recite. In the future, it will become more and more necessary for educated people to speak effectively in public, and reciting teaches children to do that.

Boy, does CM ever paint high standards in a Mother's mind!! What gradual steps? How are children taught to find meaning for themselves? How does a teacher cleverly and cunningly bring them about to find meaning for themselves all without setting a pattern for them? I need this Burrell book she is referencing!! (HA!~ I found it after posting this. It's in the PR archives:Recitation: The Children's Art.by Arthur Burrell. Volume 1, 1890/91, pgs. 92-103)

The good news is, it is available!
The bad news is, the only copy I could find is at Cambridge University in the U.K. only 5400 miles away.

Err.... um.. Ms. Mason, where are we to find CM mentors to teach us these things in California?!?!?

I did find this other book, Clear Speaking and Good Reading by Burrell on Google Books, which may be worth browsing.

Here are some interesting quotes from it:

The good reader is so rare that his name is treasured as a family inheritance when his voice and he are gone; and his rarity has produced some dicta, partly true and partly false, on the subject of his art

The art of reading and speaking clearly, sweetly, and convincingly depends on many things. It goes without saying that it demands a distinct enunciation and a good pronunciation; a freedom from woodenness, staginess, and all obvious searching after effect; a natural and a quiet instead of a blustering, bullying, and termagant manner; a sympathy with subject and with audience; a self-forgetfulness and enthusiasm that will carry speaker and hearers wherever the music of the words leads them.

...what words are too beautiful to describe them? Stirring and enthusiastic voices; soft and persuasive voices; mysterious, penetrating, illuminating voices; voices that hold out to us the meaning of poet and speaker as one holds out fruit to a child; voices with the 'natural gift' preserved and not wasted. This natural beauty of the voice, quite distinct from intensity or quality, must be saved or won back again. In fact, we have to get back to our mothers and nurses, to our Fairy Tales, Contes, and Marchen, if we would learn to read and speak well and beautifully.

The art of reading requires also, or at least asks for, a wide acquaintance with the masterpieces of literature, that the speaker may at his will, and by means of his note-book or his memory, at once transfer himself into regions of a moral and aesthetic refinement.

These quotes in grey are from Recitation: The Children's Art by Burrell:

With them [the art of reading and recitation] all is changed; the light from the writer's soul is handed down from one generation to another. For good authors cannot die; the human voice is for-ever conferring immortality upon them. So magical is the power of a good reader that he can convey to an audience shades of meaning in his author which he himself does not suspect.

...is it not worse than madness for us to look on English literature as mere work for the study, mere dictionary stuff? It was meant to be interpreted by the voice of life; there is only half the passion in the printed page. If there were more good reading round English firesides, do you suppose that the masterpieces of English thought would be studied, as they often are, merely with an eye to the examiners' certificate?

Can you see how CM would love his books? There's beauty in the way he expresses the art of speaking; his love for it is evident in his words. And words like these spark fantastic ideas.

Perhaps we are to put our children in touch directly with some of these words in order to convey these ideas to them. In any case, I look forward to this journey of recitation with my children.

I must admit, at bedtime, when the kids are all tucked in and I'm reading to them from a wonderful living book - I am practicing this art, the art of reciting! I find myself working the tonality and extending the pauses and slowing down to a crawl at some parts completely pleased with their fixed attention on every word. It is such an enjoyable process conveying a story and bringing it to life in the minds of children.

If you ever need examples of good and bad recitation, or to convince yourself the need to teach this art, try listening to several of the children's selections on librivox - Peter Pan is one that comes to mind. Some of the readers were wonderful, others were, well - you never got to the story because your mind couldn't get past the unnatural delivery. It seemed to me that the better the speaker, the less you noticed them, they faded into the background as the story came to life.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on recitation or any insight into how CM or Arthur Burrell suggest we teach it. What's worked with your kids?


  1. i adore making stories come alive through the art of read aloud. i believe it is the inner drama queen coming to life in me! :) and although my son is too young for recitation, i love hearing his stories beginning to take form. what a great post.

  2. thanks for this. I'm glad to have found you. I think I can learn a lot from you ;) We've been using AO for years now, and I'm always trying to learn more.

    I have my kids doing recitation, but we haven't made the opportunity for public presentation of their work, just informally. I'd love to learn more about this!

    Amy in Peru

  3. So glad you stopped by Amy! I enjoyed perusing your blog - what a beautiful family. God bless!

  4. I found this great article on recitation by Linda Fay, she talks about her 12 year old and some of the ways they incorporate recitation with their children. She also has a list of tips on there that is a great read! http://www.charlottemasonhelp.com/2009/07/art-of-public-speaking.html

  5. I've dropped the ball with recitation these past few years and was looking for some inspiration and came across your amazing post! You are a blessing to the CM Community and I feel so privileged to have met you in person!!!

    1. Thank you Christine! I'm glad you're getting some use out of these old posts!