Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Content of a Free Reading Program (1937)

LaBrant, L. (1937, February 17). The content of a free reading program. Educational Research Bulletin, 16(2), 29–34.

Based on her implementation of a free reading program at the Ohio State University School, LaBrant documents the success of the program against common complaints about free reading.

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Quoting LaBrant:

Within the last few years heated discussion has centered around the question of free reading for high-school students in English classes. Critics have insisted that interest as a basis for book selection merely tends to establish poor taste; they have stressed the importance of organization in reading as in any program; they have assumed that free reading, with its emphasis upon pupil-direction, lacks content. Indeed, the arguments in slightly more abstract form are those frequently advanced against any program in whose construction pupils participate, and have been offered as criticism of the whole progressive-school movement. Perhaps the basic misunderstanding comes from careless use of the term “interest.” An interest is not an entity, unchangeable, fixed. It is merely a way of behaving at a given time, and may be modi-fied, directed, developed, or discouraged. The important matter for the educator is to realize that interest means a strong tendency to behave in a certain way, and to understand that that tendency has driving power which is better used than thwarted. (p. 29)

At the Ohio State University School reading, or the study A of literature, develops as an inherent factor in the entire school program….Classes consider the whole field of reading, and work out group study and discussion around common problems of development. There is no assignment of books or pieces for uniform study except in rare cases where an entire class feels the need for introduction to an unfamiliar form or type. There is constant demand that the individual pupil contribute from his experience, and in consequence em-phasis is placed on understanding and careful interpretation. In addition to this emphasis on careful reading, from time to time classes make inventory of group development, setting up common criteria for judging. (pp. 30-31)

Recently an attempt was made to evaluate the free reading of one class (graduated June, 1935) in the light of a three-year record. Fifty-nine pupils, 26 boys and 33 girls, with an aver-age yearly enrollment of 57, made up the group. The study concerns the content, the organization, and the resulting drives in the free reading of this one class in the Ohio State University School….With neither teacher was there ever a uniform reading assignment for an entire class, however; and diversified reading was always a part of the pupil’s program regardless of the particular class unit of a given period. (p. 31)

The joint processes of analysis and synthesis are seen in the work of the twelfth year, when pupils insisted on seeing their intensive, individual units within a chronological setting which all assisted in formulating. That such a succession of meaningful experiences could be thought of as lacking in “content” is absurd. There was, it is true, no teaching of techniques as an end, no unit on the sonnet, no history of English or American literature. Voluntarily, the class spent three weeks in the twelfth year on reproducing Elizabethan dramatic scenes, singing Elizabethan music, and reading excerpts from a variety of Elizabethan lyric and dramatic writers for class enjoyment as an element in making the chronological approach more vivid. In brief, while there was organization, it was not the organization of the conventional program, and was not set up in advance of pupil understanding and need. (p. 32)

Sex differences are evident, although reasons are not suggested. The girls read twice as much as the boys, with especial interest in drama and poetry. Neither boys nor girls, however, showed the strong interest in romantic fiction, hero stories, and adventure so commonly attributed to adolescents.

The theory that in a free or extensive reading program designed to utilize interest and to serve individual needs there will be fruitless reading of light fiction gains no evidence from this study. The report does, however, point to the possibility that the adolescent has much greater power to read and to think intelligently about reading than the results of our conventional program have led us to believe. (p. 34)

What Shall We Do About Reading Today? (1942)

LaBrant, L. (1942, November). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium [Lou LaBrant]. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 240-241.

As one of ten contributors (including Dora V. Smith and Paul Witty), LaBrant notes that inductees into the military exposed literacy problems with young men in the U.S. She challenges the military-based crisis in literacy with “A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient under- standing to be constructive peace-time citizens” (p. 240). The focus of LaBrant’s contribution, however, is to reject the blame placed on progressive pedagogy for the literacy problems and caution about calls for a “return to drill and formal reciting from a text book” (p. 240).

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Quoting LaBrant:

The induction of American youth into the armed forces, and the attendant examinations and classifications have called attention to a matter long of concern to those who teach reading or who are devoted to the cause of democracy: the fact that in a land which purports to offer universal education we have a considerable number of youth who cannot read intelligently. We are disturbed now because we want these men to be able to read military directions, and they cannot. A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient understanding to be constructive peace-time citizens.

As is to be expected, immediate explanations have been forthcoming, and immediate pointing-of-fingers has begun. Most of the explanations and pointing have come from those who have had least to do with teaching reading, and who are least conversant with the real problem. Moreover, as is again to be expected, the diagnosis is frequently in terms of prejudice or pet complaint, and could be used in other situations as logically. Many are hunting scapegoats; there are scores of “I-told-you-so’s.” It is best to look at the situation critically….

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Leťs be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more. (p. 241)

Inducing Students to Write (1955)

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to write. English Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116.

LaBrant examines “how to induce students to write,” opening with five assumptions (p. 70). She then discusses the need to begin with the teacher and the writing situation that supports student writing.

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Quoting LaBrant:

My first assumption is that, since we have come voluntarily to this session, we all agree that writing is an important part of the program of English in our secondary schools.

I assume next that, since “induce” involves motivation, we are not talking about writing which is secured by threats of failure, nor which merely states what the teacher wants to have stated. …

I am assuming further that we look upon writing as having a dual value: to society and to the writer. …

A fourth assumption I think we make today is that writing is best taught through writing of one’s own ideas, and not through talking about writing or dealing solely with the writing of others. …

My final assumption is that we desire responsible writing.  (p. 70)

Where, then, do we begin to see that our student decides to write? I believe that first we begin with the teacher. I believe that just as a man must know something about equations if he is to teach algebra successfully, and must have some knowledge of current science if he is to teach physics and chemistry, so if one teaches writing he must himself be able to write. I believe also that he must be able to write better, more maturely, and more accurately than his students write….

I believe, then, that the teacher should know the agony of putting words on paper. We have some pretty careless talking about writing for fun, and the joy of just doing a simple composition. Writing anything that is worth writing is not pure joy unless you happen to be a most unusual person. Writing is hard work. It means formulating statements which must be read without the intonation, the context, the personality of the writer. (p. 71)

Writing is not easy, but the difficulty is forgotten if one is not writing frequently.

I think further that the teacher who writes is aware of the embarrassment about writing. I must confess that never have I been able to reread an article or book I have written except in galley form, and then I dread the task and try to do it mechanically. What has been said seems so futile, so awkward, so incomplete. …

First, therefore, I would say that in some modest way the teacher should be a person who uses writing, knows the satisfactions and difficulties of it, and lets his students know of those experiences. (p. 72)

First, I would ask for each student evidence that what he thinks important or worth writing will be accepted as such, and that, although he may be challenged, what he writes will meet with respect because it is his own statement. (p. 72)

A fourth condition is ample time. Good writing is not dashed off in fifteen or twenty minutes, and yet I have seen teacher after teacher take fifteen minutes of a period to make a hasty assignment, pass out papers, and give students twenty minutes to “write something.” Ernest Hemingway couldn’t do it; nor would he try. (pp. 73-74)

A fifth condition is response. Any writer deserves a response to what he has written. This is a far cry from the comment “good,” “bad,” or “indifferent.” It is a long way from red markings indicating punctuation and sentence structure errors. Of course there will be correction, but beyond that must come a response to what has been said -or to what the writer tried to say. Is the paper confused? The comment “I do not get your point” or “This is not clear to me. Why did you do this?” means much more than “fair” or “C.” …

Finally I believe there should be revision and rewriting. I know there are many who believe that a constant stream of writing will of itself produce quality. I doubt this; and doubt its stimulation of the writer. Instead it is my experience that the student values most the paper he has revised and the one he has struggled to make clear. (p. 74)

And here at the close may I offer one further criterion for inducing students to write, a criterion implicit in all that I have said: You have to like to teach writing. (p. 116)

An English Program Based on Present Needs (1939)

LaBrant, L. (1939, November). An English program based on present needs. The High School Journal, 22(7), 269-271.

LaBrant details the English program at the experimental and progressive The Ohio State University School.

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Quoting LaBrant:

The English program for grades seven to twelve, inclusive, of the Ohio State University High School has been based on several premises generally accepted by the school faculty. Briefly, these are:

That the English curriculum should be an effort on the part of faculty and students to enable the latter to meet their language needs in listening, reading, speaking, and writing as adequately as possible.

That these needs should, in so far as possible, be met when and where they arise.

That both students and faculty should discuss and attempt to analyze these needs.

That consequently language growth and study are to be expected in all phases of school experience.

That some language experiences are developed most satisfactorily in classes in science, mathematics, or social studies.

That not all teachers are, however, equally skilled in assisting with all phases of language experiences, as, for example with personal or creative writing or with leisure reading; and consequently that students need a so-called “English” teacher who will assume certain specialized responsibilities and who will, in addition, study the general language growth of individual students and classes, and see that, as far as possible, adequate and balanced growth takes place.

That all language development should be considered in guiding a child’s work, and that consequently foreign-language experience is not to be separated from experience with the native tongue. (p. 269)

English in the American Scene (1941)

LaBrant, L. (1941). English in the American scene. The English Journal, 30(3), 203–209.

LaBrant argues for the need to focus on language in ways that address larger social and historical aspects of the human condition. She stresses context, choice in reading, and an “honest use of language” (p. 206).

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Quoting LaBrant:

Many persons accept the generalization that what we do in the way of making machines for killing, of building houses, and of producing food and clothing are the important matters of life, most significant of all in an emergency like today’s, and that language is a convenient tool, something like an assembly-line belt, already made and convenient for communication….High-school courses emphasize techniques and analysis of a few literary pieces. And so when we face a great crisis in human relations and social philosophy we turn to ammunition and guns and food supplies, meanwhile letting language take care of itself. We introduce, perhaps, a few books on the world-situation and feel that as teachers of language we have done all we need to do. Let me first of all point to the fact that language is our basic means of being human; that words are a part of our very tissues; and that our life as a democratic society is dependent upon understandings which must be wrought through language. (pp. 203-204)

It is a truism to say that every man’s every day calls for choices. We often infer from this that choice is between high and low, good and evil. One of the errors in our use of language is that we infer from it this contrast in phenomena. English teachers, who have accepted responsibility for teaching the people’s language, frequently make the mistake themselves. They say, for example: This is a good book (good for whom and why they do not always say); this is a good experience (I learned something important from it); this is a good sentence (it does not violate certain conventions). They do not examine, judge, and choose in terms of all that is happening in the situations with which they deal. Playing the violin may be a “good” experience. Nero’s notorious action shows the absurdity of overlook-ing the time and the place-the context. (p. 204)

For these reasons my first request of every American teacher of English is that he teach in his classroom this honest use of language and an understanding of its relation to life.

These teachings it seems to me are imperative and must come first. Compared to these understandings the use of me for I, of who for whom, done for did, or walks for walk are trivia. Making neat diagrams of sentences which pervert truth is as wrong as participating in sabotage or obstructing the common defense-more wrong be-cause language deals with the most precious concepts we have. (p. 206)

Fearing controversial issues we have offered but meager emotional satisfactions through the reading of books dealing freely with such questions. I am not advocating a re-turn to the sentimentality of The Idylls or Sir Launfal but an honest dealing with ideals, human fears, and hopes.

Finally, and perhaps as never before, our students need to learn from literature to understand their own world, the world of this America. (p. 208)

Probably the foregoing means also a free-reading program, in the main, for whenever we begin to consider personal needs we meet individual variation. Frequently I have been told that a free-reading program is one in which there is no guidance and in which no prog-ress is made. I use the term here as always to mean a program in which pupil and teacher are free to select whatever meets the need of that student. (pp. 208-209)


The Words of My Mouth (1946)

LaBrant, L. (1946, June). The words of my mouth. English Journal, 35(6), 323-327.

Exploring the relationship between words and attitudes, LaBrant confronts teaching students about words and language within the context of their changing and nuanced meanings.

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Quoting LaBrant:

The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance. Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues-all of these may be evils in the English classes as in others. Indeed, many of our classifications, built on results of reading tests, tend to promote rather than to destroy the kind of antisocial situation just mentioned….The question is briefly: Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323)

First, let us be clear that any principles of teaching which are important for one group are equally important for another. There is something of condescension in talking only of prejudices toward minorities, as though there existed minorities incapable themselves of the same kinds of attitudes which majorities easily attain. The principles are universal and should be approached in that way.

A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of any thing. Children do not understand this; nor do all adults. (p. 324)

Shall we, therefore, urge children and young people to drop the word “Jew” from their vocabulary? No more than we drop the words “fairy” or”dragon.” But we should certainly make them understand that the original meaning has been lost, and that only in referring to an ethnic group has it any validity; that, indeed, it is frequently misleading and best avoided….

This leads naturally to a related principle of language growth: that, as we have developed in the complexity of our civilization, as our experiences have multiplied in number beyond any possible number of words, we have had to use abstract terms to include many objects, experiences, ideas. These abstractions tend to become vague and therefore misleading. Class names, such as “labor,” “capital,” “whites,” “Christians,” and so forth are among these terms. Frequently the speaker uses them with apparent assurance that they have meaning, and yet could not for his life explain what he means. (p. 325)

Parenthetically, it may be right to suggest here that the most effective teaching comes from good example….

She is suggesting the primitive belief that by avoiding the words she is avoiding the differences. We have much of this word magic indirectly taught in our classrooms. (p. 326)

Teaching how language works is not a matter of formulas which, once applied, are forever effective. We have tried for some decades now to teach “rules” of grammar, with the expectation that, once they were memorized and illustrated through one or fifty sets of exercises, we would have established a pattern for sentence structure. Our ears tell us that this method is almost completely futile. Similarly, we cannot expect to teach in a few lessons the ways to use language to promote intergroup understandings, and to prevent its potential strengthening of our prejudices and ignorance. Language is much too closely associated with our daily living, much too complicated; and the influences outside the school are much too strong for any sudden or easy competence to be developed. The teacher needs first to question her own use, as she would question her own habits of verb agreement or pronoun reference. (p. 327)

3. Open for Inspection (1944)

LaBrant, L. (1944, March). 3. Open for inspection. The Stanford language arts investigation: A symposium. The English Journal, 33(3), 123-125.

The 1937 Stanford Language Arts Investigation is detailed in the opening paragraphs of the article as follows:

In the spring of 1937 ten thousand children and one hundred and fifty teachers and administrators represent-ing twenty-eight secondary schools in ten cities and towns on the Pacific Coast began a three-year experiment in the language arts. At the invitation of the three directors from the Stanford School of Education and with the aid of a grant of $45,000 from the General Education Board, they undertook a new approach to educational progress.

The purposes of the project were threefold.

First, the participants made a determined creative effort to improve the growth of the students in their classes through English and the foreign languages. Every effort was made to free all participants in the investigation from routine courses of study and the traditional demands of subject-matter organization. The teachers and the children were free to create and to grow according to their own best thought, and they were challenged to exercise their freedom.

A second purpose was the discovery of the professional values that teachers from many different schools, systems, and regions could gain in working co-operatively with one another, aided by a university staff and selected specialists in the broad field of the language arts. For three summers these teachers and administrators voluntarily met at Stanford University to do creative thinking aimed at the improvement of their teaching. The plans which they constructed were then tested out in the classroom and the school during the year and revised or supplanted in the light of experience or new thinking.

Finally, the investigation aimed to observe the results of centering work in English and foreign languages upon the personal and social welfare of young people, conceived within the democratic framework of a creative Americanism.

LaBrant’s response includes five questions about the study so “the values gained are not to be lessened or lost” (p. 124).

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Quoting LaBrant:

Motivation is intrinsic rather than artificial. Youngsters, for example, read and talk about the culture of Mexico because they are trying to dis-cover how they, Mexican and non-Mexican Americans, can work happily together. This is a far cry from making a toy castle as motivation for reading Ivanhoe or preparing a speech on last summer’s trip in order to learn how to use an outline or eliminate first-person pronouns or stand erect on the balls of the feet while speaking from notes. (p. 123)

Although the present investigation proves that language classes can be situations where language is used purposefully and successfully, large problems are still unsolved. (p. 124)

The following questions seem to me to be raised and to require early and careful study if the values gained are not to be lessened or lost.

I. If students have now no serious problems of communication in their daily school and home experiences, what further teaching of spoken and written language is necessary?…

2. Some of the units described deal particularly with personal problems; others with large social issues. Are not both types of work essential?…

3. In using reading to answer problems, to serve personal interests, or to give pleasure through escape and stimulation it is possible that some of the major forms (drama, poetry, biography) may not be used. What responsibility should the language course take for seeing that the student is introduced to these forms which may offer difficulties peculiar to the type?

4. Is it sufficient that the student should be using language effectively and appropriately? Should he, in addition, be made aware of the role language is playing in his thinking and action?…

5. What are the implications of the study for teacher training?…(pp. 124-125)