Teaching High-School Students to Write (1946)

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to write. English Journal, 35(3), 123–128.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/806777

LaBrant asserts that writing instruction must focus on the content of student compositions before addressing surface features. The piece is a powerful argument for student-centered writing instruction and the failure of isolated grammar instruction to support students as writers, notably: “We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing” (p. 127).

Quoting LaBrant:

There are many ways of writing English, and the teacher of composition must know, before he thinks of means for teaching, what kind of writing he thinks important to teach. He may be content if the writing is composed of sentences with correct structure, with periods neatly placed, verbs correctly ended, pronouns in the right case, and all attractively placed on the page. I have heard teachers say that if their pupils do all this, and spell with reasonable correctness, they (the teachers) are content. I am willing to admit that a conventional paper, such as is just described, tempts one to be satisfied; but I am not willing to admit that it represents a worth-while aim. As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing….I would place as the first aim of teaching students to write the development of full responsibility for what they say. (p. 123)

No English teacher would deny that one function of work in language is to improve the method of presentation; but to make method first reduces it automatically to use of approved form and gives as full credit to the irresponsible statement or paper as to the thoughtful one….We have consistently led them away from writing as a means for conveying thought and have substituted writing as an exercise in conjugation, punctuation, spelling, and declension….Read over the drivel which passes for content in the millions of exercises American children are working on, and see whether these children would gain the idea that we learn to use language so that we may state what we believe and that we are responsible for the ideas we set forth. (p. 124)

“But,”a teacher once said to me, “if I don’t use drillbooks and if I wait for sincere writing, I’d never teach punctuation or form. My students never want to write.” The answer is, of course,too obvious: If they don’t write, how can they use skills in punctuation and paragraphing? There is no need to drive a car when I have no expectation of driving one. It would be far better to spend my efforts on learning to walk well….First, the teacher should set up a friendly, unstrained atmosphere. (p. 125)

All writing that is worth putting on paper is creative in that it is made by the writer and is his own product….Again there may be those who will infer that I am advocating no correction, no emphasis on form. The opposite is really true. The reason for clarity, for approved usage, for attractive form, for organization, lies in the fact that these are means to the communication of something important. (p. 126)

We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation(whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing….Little is gained from blind drills, that is, from drills prepared in advance by some textbook writer who could, of course, not know the idiosyncrasies of the class….We think our exercises lead to clarification; he finds them merely inhibiting. (p. 127)

There will undoubtedly be many who will call this an ideal picture, an impossible end. If they are right, I see no reason for teaching writing;if they are right, we teachers of English have the dubious privilege of spending our best efforts to produce more conventionally stated futility. I am not willing to admit such defeat. (p. 128)

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About plthomasedd

P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is a column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) and series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres (Sense Publishers), in which he authored the first volume—Challenging Genres: Comics and Graphic Novels (2010). He has served on major committees with NCTE, and has been named Council Historian (2013-2015), and formerly served as co-editor for The South Carolina English Teacher for SCCTE. Recent books include Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education (Information Age Publishing, 2012) and Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010).He has also published books on Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Ralph Ellison. His scholarly work includes dozens of works in major journals—English Journal, English Education, Souls, Notes on American Literature, Journal of Educational Controversy, Journal of Teaching Writing, and others. His commentaries have been included in Room for Debate (The New York Times), The Answer Sheet (Washington Post), The Guardian (UK), truthout, Education Week, The Daily Censored, OpEdNews, The State (Columbia, SC), The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, NC), The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) and The Greenville News (Greenville, SC). His work can be followed at the becoming radical (http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/) and @plthomasEdD on twitter. View all posts by plthomasedd

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