Category Archives: Elementary English Review

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)

Language Teaching in a Changing World (1943)

LaBrant, L. (1943). Language teaching in a changing world. The Elementary English Review, 20(3), 93–97.

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Original editor note:

The editor of Educational Method and chairman of the Committee on Language Communication of the National Council of Teachers of English tells of the growing power of language in the rapidly shifting world scene, and suggests ways in which the school may utilize this instrument most effectively.

Quoting LaBrant:

Today in a world of hyperbole, it is easy to make sweeping statements and to have them accepted. We must therefore be cautious when thinking of our work. Teachers are, by the nature of their work, largely outside immediate war activities. They spend their days with children, whose greatest contribution will be made after the war. Hence teaching is a unique profession, dealing with remote rather than immediate influence over society. This may in reality make teachers a very powerful group in America, but at the moment it may also make us unduly eager to place too high value upon what we are doing. (p. 93)

What all of this will mean ten or twenty years hence we as teachers of the language probably can not predict. But certainly it will mean many changes, changes which we will be unable to prevent if we would. It is important that we do not set up in our classrooms prejudices or snobberies which will make our students less instead of better able to understand, enjoy, and use this language. Such a mingling of tongues took place in England from 1066 to 1400. The teacher who understands the history of English will find current changes interesting and stimulating. (p. 94)

Too frequently we give children books which have enough value that we call them “good,” forgetting that there are other, perhaps more important values which we are thereby missing. It is actually possible that reading will narrow rather than broaden understanding. Some children’s books, moreover, are directed toward encouraging a naive, simple acceptance of externals which we seem at times to hold as desirable for children….Let us have no more of assignments which emphasize quantity, place form above meaning, or insist on structure which is not the child’s. (p. 95)

Far too often as a people we are led astray by orators or writers whose words sound fine and smooth, but whose meanings are false, shallow, or misleading. We make their path easy when we approve essays, stories, or poems which are imitations or are full of words used for the sake of sound. We are responsible for such writing when we approve the correctly punctuated, correctly spelled, and neatly written paper which says nothing of importance, as against a less attractive but sincere account or argument. Children can and should learn to write correctly; but first should be sincere, purposeful expression of the child’s own ideas. (pp. 95-96)

Similar unsound attitudes can be the result of being taught to “write just anything” (or to write on the teacher’s topic) ; to spend time correcting sentences which someone else has written about nothing of importance; to change one’s structure merely to have a variety of sentence forms; and so on through a whole series of assignments based on the principle that form is first and meaning second. (p. 96)

Teachers who follow the rule of emphasizing meaning and true communication find children eager to accept conventional form, and to choose words carefully. But the choice is then in terms of the purposes of the writer or speaker, and not in terms of artificial or superficial standards….Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum. (p. 97)

The Changing Sentence Structure of Children (1934)

LaBrant, L.L. (1934, March). The changing sentence structure of children. The Elementary English Review, 11(3),  59-65, 86

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LaBrant addresses first her concerns about research: the “gap” between that research and classroom practices as well as research focusing on student errors instead of “what children can do” (p. 59). She discusses her own research on language use by students in 4th-12th grades to emphasize the importance of research on literacy as that informs practice. LaBrant challenges “a large gap between natural expression and the stilted performance which passes as school composition” (p. 62). The piece concludes by identifying the connection between the structure of student writing and their engagement as well as understanding of their topics.

Quoting LaBrant:

It is a common complaint, almost too common to mention, that in education we constantly conduct research and content ourselves with reducing our findings to tables and sentence conclusions; that there is an increasing gap between laboratory research and school-room practice….Amazingly frequent have been the studies of the errors made by children in their writing and speaking, with almost no studies of what children can do. (p. 59)

There is frequently a large gap between natural expression and the stilted performance which passes as school composition. Constant attention to form and punctuation often causes the child to omit ideas when he is some- what uncertain as to the accuracy of his expression. (p. 62)

If language structure is the outgrowth or expression of experience, artificial stimulation of basic structure is fruitless, or almost fruitless at best….

The suggestion is offered that, although pupils wrote rapidly and had no opportunity even to re-read, expression was complete because the child was writing only of comprehended experience. Conversely, we may consider the possibility that sentence fragments (unless of course, written for effect) are the result of incomplete thinking caused by artificial stimulation rather than by complete experience. (p. 64)

Certain outstanding advantages of teaching language thus from the inside out, instead of from the outside in, are in harmony with the findings of the study at first reported. (p. 65)