Category Archives: Elementary English

Writing Is Learned by Writing (1953)

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

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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)

The Individual and His Writing (1950)

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writing. Elementary English27(4), 261-265.

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LaBrant discusses the role of writing as a contemporary (to 1950) need for students. She identifies examples of how literacy (writing) has changed in society. Recognizing the importance of writing, LaBrant argues for ways to teach writing well, including “what an intelligent person in our country should know about language” (p. 263). She concludes with four points for teachers of writing to consider.

Quoting LaBrant:

Related to all of the foregoing is our fairly successful attempt to bring reading and writing to the masses of the people whereas it was once the possession of the few and privileged, and a resultant tendency to treasure books and written copy less. (p. 262)

Moreover, it is probable, though I would find it hard to prove, that doing careful writing is the best device for understanding careful writing, and the best device for teaching critical and understanding reading. (p. 263)

Once on a time we teachers of the primary and secondary school and even of the first college courses, thought our prime duty was to teach about sentence structure (“Grammar” we called it, although grammar is also much more than structure) and achieve a fairly respectable use of conventional form in the sentence. We now know that good usage is most effectively taught by direct correction and change, and by reading. We no longer believe that teaching abstract statements about the need for a verb will result in the use of verbs, and we can be certain if we read the literature that similar failure will result from other similar measures applied to agreement, case, and/ or any grammatical structure. (p. 263)

There is other sematic knowledge with which our students should become familiar. They should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what we say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or the postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word magic. (p. 264)

Perhaps not everyone in the land is ready to read Macbeth or to write a sonnet. Better, it seems to me, that each read what he can honestly understand, and admit on occasion that he is baffled; better that the boy or girl write a simple account of what he saw on the street than that he write a collection of stereotypes on democracy. Let him, perhaps, admit with all of us that he is learning about democracy and has much to read and to think before he can say what should be. Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. Alice was wrong, for once: It makes a great deal of difference whether one says “important” or “unimportant.” (p. 265)

Research in Language (1947)

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

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LaBrant confronts the failure of the field of education to implement the then current state of research on language. She calls for ways NCTE could close that gap between research and practice by identifying key areas of language research.

Quoting LaBrant:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods. (p. 87)

It is not strange, in view of the extensive literature on language, that the teacher tends to fall back upon the textbook as authority, unmindful of the fact that the writer of the text may himself be ignorant of the basis for his study. (pp. 88-89)

I believe that the Council should make two efforts. First, the Council should work with experts in the various fields where language study is being carried on, and publish a series of interpretations or monographs for the class-room teacher who needs information but does not have the time nor the necessary background to read the many basic studies. Second, the Council should undertake some sort of promotion program which will guarantee that text-book makers, teachers, supervisors, and school superintendents know that such materials are not only available, but that their study is imperative. (pp. 89-90)

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)