Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Words They Know (1944)

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant examines the role of vocabulary in the teaching of English. First, she unpacks the misapplication of correlating vocabulary with intelligence based on standardized tests, and then, she considers other reasons for teaching vocabulary. Most of the discussion includes detailing the then current understanding of word acquisition followed by her own proposal for how best to teach vocabulary.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/806883

Quoting LaBrant:

There are many causes for our concern. For one, we hear that vocabulary correlates with intelligence; hence, we decide, we should increase vocabulary. At the time of our most trusting interest in objective measurement—the 1920’s—much discussion followed the discovery that on group intelligence tests the single item most highly correlated with the total score, and consequently the best single prediction of intelligence rating, was the vocabulary score. As has been frequent in the history of human thinking, we inferred a causal relation, over-looking the fact that, since both tests were basically language, the results would naturally be similar. We were really only discovering that what we measured as “intelligence” was in large measure the ability to use school vocabulary. Nevertheless the idea persevered, and today many teachers base arguments for teaching vocabulary on the relation it bears to intelligence, although if vocabulary were causal, we should expect to move our low I.Q. pupils into a gifted group by vocabulary drills. (p. 475)

Apparently from consideration of the varied forms which “vocabulary” may take, and the amazing extent of the vocabulary which even the dullest student has, we have a more complicated problem than our exercises and assignments suggest….It is not, however, the number of words alone which is important. It is the depth of meaning. This also comes from experience. (p. 477)

Vocabulary range for a class of English-speaking pupils is therefore so wide as to make futile our selection of any particular list of words for teaching except for specific situations; and the full meaning of a word is so complicated that to teach even a small number thoroughly is a long-term task. (p. 478)

The following suggestions seem to be implied by the findings and observations stated.

1. We can extend vocabulary by providing a wealth of rich experiences: trips, hand work, discussion, reading….

2. We can bring into the classroom more personal writing, and more talk about personal experiences, introducing thereby the vocabulary which eludes us, but which needs better understanding and use. So-called “free” writing is excellent for this. …

3. We can take time to expand meanings….

4. We can teach students to learn meanings from context. This is the natural way….

5. We can help students judge meanings of words by those previously known….

6. We can undoubtedly teach our students something about the nature of symbols….(pp. 478-479)

…we can teach pupils that words have more than a literal or defined meaning: they carry feeling overtones which make them rich and beautiful as in poetry but often also dangerous and misleading in arguments….We cannot foresee all these needs. There are 750,000 words in English. We can encourage the use of what the student knows, deepen his understanding of the possibilities in a word (poetry is ideal for this), open his eyes to the simple ways for learning new words (context, and, this failing, the dictionary, encyclopedia, history, science book, or other reference), and teach him to respect the word he speaks and writes. The drive to lift his vocabulary will then be his own. (p. 480)


Preparation for the Teacher of English Composition (1930)

LaBrant, L. (1930, February). Preparation for the teacher of English composition. Bulletin of the Kansas Association of Teachers of English, 15(3), 4-6.

Based on a meeting by the Kansas Association of Teachers of English to discuss teacher preparation of English teachers, LaBrant discusses the need for English teachers to have extensive language training and an awareness that English is a changing language.

Quoting LaBrant:

The teacher must be intelligent concerning language growth before he can know how and when to correct even such errors. He must remember always that he is teaching a changing language at the growing end. …[T]hat to teach even the simplest matter in language training calls for an understanding of the structures and trends in language. (p. 6)


The Fallacy of “Modified Courses” (1936)

LaBrant, L. (1936, May 13). The fallacy of “modified courses.” Educational Research Bulletin, 15(5), 141-143.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1472242

LaBrant challenges the narrow use of intelligence tests to track students.

Quoting LaBrant:

American secondary education was for many years open to the privileged few, and only recently have we conceived our high schools as the property of the entire adolescent group. This generally recognized fact is perhaps responsible for our persistence in thinking of secondary education as planned for the more able of our young people. Consequently, when we consider mental ability we mean ability to do academic work. Mental tests, developed on the assumption that certain academic experiences are common to the mass of individuals, reflect what have come to be thought of as basic high-school experiences. …Unfortunately this emphasis on the intelligence test as a device for elimination has tended to obscure rather than to clarify its values. Instead of studying the interests and abilities of pupils, we have classified children with an emphasis on lack of ability rather than possession of ability. (p. 141)

We have frequently in schools having so-called homogeneous grouping, talked of the high group as those who can do certain types of work, and of the low groups as those who are underprivileged, unable. All of this vocabulary has had its effect on our teaching. Disregarding the strong interests, and the actual abilities of a third or even a half of our children, we have considered instead their inability to do certain operations, and have attempted to provide substitutes. Now a substitute implies that the thing offered is less desirable than the object for which it is a substitute. In education the implication is that we teachers wish that the pupils could all do a certain type of work, but that, since unfortunately this is not so, we will do the best we can and provide something as nearly like as possible. (pp. 141-142)

The point is that the dull or average child has strong interests, and that they are not necessarily faint shadows of the interests of more scholarly children. They are real and individual, and deserve consideration on their own merits. (p. 142)

In A certain high school, for example, superior students study algebra and geometry to clarify the problems they meet in a study of the natural world about them. This seems reasonable and desirable. The students are curious about the scientific development of their age, and eager to investigate it. Mathematics plays a large part in this scientific world of today. But this same school offers to the duller students, just as eager to use and examine the inventions of their times, not additional work with wires and dynamos and batteries, but as a substitute for the algebra and mathematics which is involved in the technical study of the others, a review of arithmetic with more practice in figuring percentages and in multiplying and dividing. Numerous publishers are offering to schools modified editions of the classics-Dickens written down, Scott without his details of description, famous classics with the difficult words eliminated. Back of such offerings is not a study of the reading needs and interests of average children, but an ideal of copying the reading activities of better students. (pp. 142-143)

If educational practices are to produce active, thinking citizens, they must be based on the real needs of the children who are educated, not on shadows of the needs of a small group. Intelligence tests are useful, but only if they are considered as positive rather than negative. They must then be recognized as the limited measures which they are, and supplemented by information concerning the emotional equipment, the interests, skills, and abilities of the children. Visitors to many progressive schools fail to distinguish, in a class where work is largely individualized, the brilliant from the less intelligent children. All appear interested and intelligent, because they are using intelligence on problems meaningful to them. The teacher who complains that a low ability class is dull and uninterested is in all probability offering material which is chosen for values suitable to more gifted children. Interest is not the property of genius, as may be seen from watching dull to average children at their chosen sports. Let us have suitable courses, yes, but not modified ones. (p. 143)


Writing Is Learned by Writing (1953)

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writing. Elementary English, 30(7), 417-420.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41384113

LaBrant argues for asking students to write as central to their learning to write, highlighting how teachers can end traditional practices (such as isolated grammar exercises) and shift toward doing the real work of teaching writing.

Quoting LaBrant:

It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need. Again and again teachers or schools are accused of failing to teach students to write decent English, and again and again investigations show that students have been taught about punctuation, the function of a paragraph, parts of speech, selection of “vivid” words, spelling – that students have done everything but the writing of many complete papers. Again and again college freshmen report that never in either high school or grammar school have they been asked to select a topic for writing, and write their own ideas about that subject. Some have been given topics for writing; others have been asked to summarize what someone else has said; numbers have been given work on revising sentences, filling in blanks, punctuating sentences, and analyzing what others have written….Knowing facts about language does not necessarily result in ability to use it. (p. 417)

A second excuse of the teacher is that he has no time for marking papers. There is, in one sense, much basis for this argument. There is likewise a basis for argument when the arithmetic teacher says he has too much to do to grade addition and so will just talk about it. If we are teachers of writing, we just have to read and mark writing. That is unavoidable. How are we to get the time? I think there are workable answers.

First, let us learn that punctuation is best taught in the body of a paper, and that we might just as well stop all that nonsense of having children do long exercises on punctuation. (p. 418)

Save time, then, by omitting exercises and getting directly to papers.

Another time saver comes in telling the student to work on his own paragraph until it makes enough sense that he can read it. Much of the correcting we do on papers teaches nothing but copying. Any- one can copy what we have written in. Mark around a confused paragraph, and write “mixed up” in the margin. The youngster can straighten out his own thoughts, with, perhaps, a slight suggestion during the work period. It is probably needless to say that identifying parts of speech when one can’t write ten lines of prose is busy work which could well be omitted. (p. 419)

There is much to say. It all comes back in the end to this: As citizens we need to be able to write and to understand the importance and difficulty of being honest and clear. We will learn to do this by doing it. (p. 420)


Masquerading (1931)

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/803664

LaBrant offers a passionate confrontation of the misapplied project method, focusing on how its misuse has manifested in English classes.

Quoting LaBrant:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

It is doubtful, however, whether playing with toy furniture will produce in the average adult an ambition to own his own house, or whether enjoyment in carving a boat for the Lady of the Lake will induce one to read Cavender’s House. Quite the contrary may be the result. In encouraging much of handwork in connection with the reading of literature, it seems to the writer, wrong emphasis is made. The children may be interested, yes. But it makes considerable difference whether the interest be such as to lead to more reading or more carving. Soap is doubtless an excellent material, and important in present civilization. The question is whether carving out of soap a castle or a horse or a clown will stimulate interest in the drama, or even in daily bathing….On the contrary, the need of the reader is to secure a picture from the written word. (p. 245)

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)


Differentiated Teaching of Literature (1931)

LaBrant, L. (1931). Differentiated teaching of literature. English Journal, 20(7), 548–556.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/803120

LaBrant discusses individualized literature instruction, drawing on her experiences at Oread Training School (University of Kansas), “a four-year high school with an enrollment of approximately one hundred pupils” (p. 548).

Quoting LaBrant:

The first principle which became evident in formulating plans for individualized instruction was that objectives must be framed in terms independent of specific literature content. (p. 549)

Individualized instruction…must provide for each pupil, rather than for three pupils, and must involve a range so great as to make formulation in terms of read materials an impossible task. It must also provide some definite basis for guidance unless we agree that teaching is unnecessary. The impossibility of teaching every skill and piece of information privately is also evident. Individualized instruction in groups is consequently somewhat paradoxical. It must in reality mean group instruction for all common elements dis-coverable, and private instruction and guidance beyond that….General objectives such as “knowledge of literature” and “standards of appreciation” were of little help. In the first place, individualized instruction means that not all children will know, now or ever, all of the literature we have been teaching; nor will all have equal standards of appreciation. This always has been true. Many children have sat through a class which has presumably studied Macbeth and have learned two things only: the name of the book, and the story as told by the teacher and other pupils. They might better have read Lamb’s Tales. (p. 550)

If we are really teaching Charles (intelligence quotient ninety) to read to his best advantage, we must stop trying to develop the appreciation of many things which English teachers find fascinating. We must acknowledge that Charles will probably do well if he reads The American Magazine instead of Confessions, and Thornton Wilder instead of nothing at all….(pp. 550-551)

He should, therefore, establish in high school the habit of reading as a real and pleasant factor in the use of leisure. A reading habit, suitable, as nearly as we can determine, to each child’s general ability, becomes a major objective. Such an aim is too vague for use as a teaching guide. In order to insure good habits of regular reading we must see that our pupil has taken three steps: (i) that he has learned how to read the various kinds of materials which follow conventions of writing, dividing them into novels, plays, poems, essays, biographies, and records of history, science, or travel, and that he has learned how to read these whether he finds them in volumes or in current periodicals; (2) that he has learned how to find these various kinds of materials without teacher assistance; and (3) that he has continued for some time to experience satisfaction in finding and reading material, until the resultant habit is strong enough to compete successfully with other forms of leisure activity. (p. 551)

Burch’s study presents evidence that the classics commonly taught in our high-school courses are beyond the reading comprehension of a considerable percentage of pupils studying them. It is fair to question the real value resulting from such study, where dependence must rest on teacher interpretation instead of on individual understanding. (p. 554)

Individualized instruction involves a considerable amount of bookkeeping, indi-vidual records. Pupils keep these themselves, asking only that the teacher initial the entries for verification….Consequently, by the third year there is a very wide range of interests and needs in the class. This makes teaching much more difficult as the course progresses. (p. 555)

As soon as a pupil excels his teacher in any one field, he is given an opportunity to share the pleasure of directing. Classes are usually informal. It is not essential that a classroom have one and only one center of conversation. One can talk intelligently at an afternoon tea without demanding silence from all other persons in the room….Essentials of the plan here presented may be summarized as follows: I. A revision of the teaching objectives into a statement of desirable pupil skills in the reading of literature. 2. A revision of curriculum content into materials adapted to provide the above skills, and the discarding of a list of required classics as a basis for the literature course. 3. The limiting of group teaching to the teaching of such specific skills as “how to discover the action in a play,” and the giving over of remaining class periods to individual reports discussed either with teacher or with class. 4. The making of careful diagnosis of individual needs and progress, with co-operation of the pupils. 5. The gradual emancipation of pupil from teacher direction. (p. 556)


To Keep the Peace (1943)

LaBrant, L. (1943, December). To keep the peace. Education, 64(4), 225-230.

Access a PDF of the essay HERE.

LaBrant explores the roles of schools in the post-war world and its place in seeking peace. She emphasizes the role of teachers, critical thinking, and collaboration among all people for that goal.

Quoting LaBrant:

Whether we are willing to admit the role or not, schools cannot escape responsibility for some share in determining whether the peace which comes will last….Our peculiar advantage and resulting responsibility is that we are skilled in the arts of reading, of independent study, and of writing….Human society does not stay fixed. (p. 225)

First, I believe that every teacher should—immediately—begin the study of the world situation with the determination that he will know as much as is humanly possible for him to know, and that he will use that knowledge in the most effective way. (p. 227)

The second effort I would advocate is that we attempt to develop the kind of students who can themselves make a world of peace even though we do not give them the pattern. (p. 228)

What I started to say was that we must not depend upon presenting a body of facts, useful as facts are, but that we must in our classrooms constantly remember that it is thinking about facts which is the important thing, and that this is as true in science and English and mathematics as it is in history or economics or the arts….Thinking is not sufficient. We must also have people who are accustomed to work with others (not against them), and who know that regardless of color, religion, clothing, occupation, or skills, people can work together….Teachers who are themselves striving to find answers will lead children toward those answers. (p. 229)