Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Some Thoughts on Volume 1: Recitation

"There is hardly any 'subject' so educative and so elevating as ...'The Children's Art.' All children have it in them to recite; it is an imprisoned gift waiting to be delivered, like Ariel from the pine. In this most thoughtful and methodical volume we are possessed of the fit incantations. Use them duly, and out of the woodenness of even the most commonplace child steps forth the child-artist, a delicate sprite, who shall make you laugh and make you weep." (Volume 1, p. 222-3)
Recitation is a skill that, until now, I have thought very little about.  I was surprised to come upon this section and to see her call it (using Mr. Burrell's words) "The Children's Art"!  Now I must note that Miss Mason has the tendency to speak of every subject as if it is the best, most important, most educative of all the subjects--I think it is perhaps from a genuine confidence in the broad and generous liberal arts education she promotes and how fitting she feels its mind-food truly is for a child's inborn hunger for ideas.  What we might otherwise consider "extras," she insists are essential.  But what's curious to me on reading this chapter is how rarely I hear of recitation mentioned in CM circles.  It is true that she does not devote much space to it here, but she seems to imply that is only because Mr. Burrell said all that needed to be said on that matter.  So what does he say?  What precisely do she and Mr. Burrell mean by recitation?  How is it different than memorization, narration, reading, public speaking?  How should it be taught?  And to what purpose?

Her simple definition of recitation is "the fine art of beautiful and perfect speaking," but she goes on to explain it a bit more thoroughly in this section, and, of course, enthusiastically directs us to Mr. Burrell's piece on recitation for more.  (Before I go on, I do encourage you to check out Burrell's article.  I found it charmingly exacting.  Anyone who prefaces his comments with, "I shall give lists, and I mean to be clear, even if I am wrong" has my attention!  And he ends with an ominous, "See you to it that you do not let the powers given to them go to rack and ruin through your carelessness."  Neglect recitation at your own risk! :)  Really, though, I found his explanations surprisingly helpful and his passion for his subject very engaging.)  So Miss Mason's words combined with Burrell's comments give us a good idea of how to understand and approach this subject:

:: Recitation is not memorization.  In this section, she is talking about reading aloud, not necessarily about performing a memorized passage.  Now strangely, recitation is mentioned just a handful of other times in Miss Mason's volumes (mostly in the programmes section of Volume 3), and each of those times she is specifically referring to the recitation of memorized work (poems, biblical passages, etc.).  So it is odd that she makes the distinction here.  But nevertheless, she does--and considering that Mr. Burrell's work deals very clearly with read pieces, not memorized ones, the distinction is purposeful.

:: Recitation should be natural to the child--should be being the operative term here.  Most children are born story-tellers, as any mother knows!  The earnestness, the animation, the genuine feeling that goes into the imaginative play or the spontaneous narrations of a young child demonstrates this.  Unfortunately, these natural inclinations usually do not translate to reading aloud.  But they should, if the child is trained well and if:

:: The passages selected should be suited to the child.  The ideas should be in his grasp, able to be understood and interpreted by him for his audience, so that the recitation is not a mere performance of a coached piece but a genuine interpretation of the author's meaning through a carefully considered reading.  And as always with Miss Mason, the selections should be fitting for children, but they should not be twaddle.  Both Miss Mason and Mr. Burrell include many examples of appropriate pieces, so you can see what they mean.  And whenever possible, the child should choose his own.

:: Recitation teaches us "to speak effectively in public."  Now, I don't know about you, but this reminded me of the public speaking class one often takes in college!  Thankfully, Mason and Burrell are talking about much more than that.  Yes, it's a valuable tool in all walks of life to be able to express yourself "clearly, sweetly, and convincingly," as Burrell discusses in Clear Speaking and Good Reading.  But Charlotte never encourages learning for merely utilitarian purposes--there is always something deeper.  In this case, it's that:

:: Recitation should bring pleasure to the student and to the audience.  As Burrrell argues, "It is not necessary, I hope, for me to point out the usefulness of these arts. Without them the best pieces of English writing lose half their value; the best paper read before a cultivated audience misses its aim; the best lecture is only half a lecture, and the best sermon is an opiate. With them all is changed; the light from the writer's soul is handed down from one generation to another."  The efficacy and enjoyment of words often depends on delivery.  My first thought on reading this was of a scene from Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne complains of Edward Ferrars' reading:
"Oh! mama, how spiritless, how tame was Edward's manner in reading to us last night! I felt for my sister most severely. Yet she bore it with so much composure, she seemed scarcely to notice it. I could hardly keep my seat. To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!"--
"He would certainly have done more justice to simple and elegant prose. I thought so at the time; but you would give him Cowper."
"Nay, Mamma, if he is not to be animated by Cowper!--but we must allow for difference of taste. Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him. But it would have broke my heart, had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility." (Volume 1, Chapter 3)
It is a real pleasure to hear someone read well (and as Marianne notes here, a real struggle to hear someone read poorly!).  Right now we're taking advantage of a couple audiobooks for Year 1, and it adds so much pleasure to our days to hear Cherry Jones reading Farmer Boy or Jim Weiss reading Just So Stories.  I'm sure you know just what I mean.  That wonderful marriage of good writing and good delivery can add so much to our understanding of the story.

And not only that, but the student too understands the piece in a new way: preparing for the recitation, seeing the audience's response--the whole process "foster[s] a love of literature" in the student (quoting Burrell).

So are you convinced? :)  The next step--how do we encourage this "art" in the child?  How might we incorporate this in our homeschooling?  I'm going to come back with some ideas on this next time.   


  1. " Rack and ruin." Ghaaaaa! I supposed I'd better attend to this;) But it does seem children who are reading and reading well naturally want to read aloud and do so with great gusto when they have a captive audience. I notice Cate very willing to take on a new passage and read aloud, but we still stumble over unfamiliar words. I'm sure the "cure" is simply more good, non-twaddle reading, and as vocab increases, we can choose excellent selections for our young readers to try. Looking forward to more of your ideas! And I'll be reading Mr. Burrell's article as well.

  2. Recitation of memorized poetry and reading aloud together is the primary reason why my daughter with autism and aphasia has improved her articulation! Recitation is cheaper than and more nourishing than speech therapy.

    I love what you wrote here: "What we might otherwise consider 'extras,' she insists are essential." Realizing this idea and applying it every day has turned homeschooling into a beautiful tapestry.

    1. What a wonderful testimony to the power of recitation! I have seen a real improvement in my son's articulation this past year, and I have been thinking that although part of it is just his getting older, part is the work we have done memorizing poetry.