Category Archives: 1946

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.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/807767

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)


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)