Category Archives: English Journal

Analysis of Cliches and Abstractions (1949)

LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.

LaBrant examines the use of cliches and abstractions in student writing, noting that their use is often misunderstood by teachers and created by prompted writing. This is a nuanced and direct examination of the power of language as well as the need for student engagement and choice in writing.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/807545

Quoting LaBrant:

Only after inch-by-inch progress was she able to see that from “orphan,” for which the novelist was undoubtedly responsible, my student had jumped to the whole cliche “poor, defenseless orphan” and consequent accusations against at least three other characters in the story.

…But of serious account is her tendency or that of any reader to accept a cliche and so permit it to stand between himself and a fact or understanding.

A word of warning may well be spoken here. Cliches are not alike in value, and users differ in age and speak under many circumstances….We must therefore be careful in criticizing the writing of the young, or in talking over poetry they enjoy, not to superimpose our own experience on them. The metaphor which seems stale or worn to us may be apt and new to them, and it is a happy circumstance that this is so. It is therefore not important that the figure which the student uses be new or unique to the adult; but it is of great necessity that the phrase express what the student really sees or believes and that he be made aware of the pitfalls of the too easily accepted phrase. On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness. (pp. 275-276)

…The cliche is, in such cases, an example of our tendency to overgeneralize or to use abstractions carelessly.

Certainly no student of language would deplore the ability of the human mind to develop abstract terms and to use them in thought. As with all inventions, however, the value of an instrument lies not only in its power but in the care and understanding with which it is used. (p. 276)

It should be noted that such analysis is made much more easily when the writer is dealing with a problem in which he has some stake and for which he has assumed the initiative in writing. If the statement comes from a workbook or from the teacher’s assignment, it is impossible to hold the writer to an understanding of meaning. Sometimes we ourselves deliver definitions (generalizations) meaningless to children.

“A verb is a word which expresses action, being, or state of being,” we tell youngsters who cannot possibly understand that “being”and “state of being” cover the various steps by which assertions of identity, classification, and evaluation move through various stages of sensory and logical verification. We assign topics for writing, well knowing that they are beyond the real understanding of our pupils and that consequently these young writers must fall back on vague and meaningless generalizations. (p. 277)

Assignments in literature frequently encourage undue generalizing….We teachers cannot escape responsibility for much unsound use of abstractions.Frequently we require it; the cliche is not confined to pupil writing.

Generalizations, abstractions? Yes—when we know what they are and that back of them must be knowledge. Honesty is itself a factor in thinking. Responsibility—a sense of needing to know, of limiting words to what one understands—all these are involved in analyzing the cliche and the abstraction. There are many ways of teaching how to think. This is offered as one. (p. 278)

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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.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/808778

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)


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).

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/805755 

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.

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)


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).

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/806739

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)


The Words They Know (1944)

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant examines the role of vocabulary in the teaching of English. First, she unpacks the misapplication of correlating vocabulary with intelligence based on standardized tests, and then, she considers other reasons for teaching vocabulary. Most of the discussion includes detailing the then current understanding of word acquisition followed by her own proposal for how best to teach vocabulary.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/806883

Quoting LaBrant:

There are many causes for our concern. For one, we hear that vocabulary correlates with intelligence; hence, we decide, we should increase vocabulary. At the time of our most trusting interest in objective measurement—the 1920’s—much discussion followed the discovery that on group intelligence tests the single item most highly correlated with the total score, and consequently the best single prediction of intelligence rating, was the vocabulary score. As has been frequent in the history of human thinking, we inferred a causal relation, over-looking the fact that, since both tests were basically language, the results would naturally be similar. We were really only discovering that what we measured as “intelligence” was in large measure the ability to use school vocabulary. Nevertheless the idea persevered, and today many teachers base arguments for teaching vocabulary on the relation it bears to intelligence, although if vocabulary were causal, we should expect to move our low I.Q. pupils into a gifted group by vocabulary drills. (p. 475)

Apparently from consideration of the varied forms which “vocabulary” may take, and the amazing extent of the vocabulary which even the dullest student has, we have a more complicated problem than our exercises and assignments suggest….It is not, however, the number of words alone which is important. It is the depth of meaning. This also comes from experience. (p. 477)

Vocabulary range for a class of English-speaking pupils is therefore so wide as to make futile our selection of any particular list of words for teaching except for specific situations; and the full meaning of a word is so complicated that to teach even a small number thoroughly is a long-term task. (p. 478)

The following suggestions seem to be implied by the findings and observations stated.

1. We can extend vocabulary by providing a wealth of rich experiences: trips, hand work, discussion, reading….

2. We can bring into the classroom more personal writing, and more talk about personal experiences, introducing thereby the vocabulary which eludes us, but which needs better understanding and use. So-called “free” writing is excellent for this. …

3. We can take time to expand meanings….

4. We can teach students to learn meanings from context. This is the natural way….

5. We can help students judge meanings of words by those previously known….

6. We can undoubtedly teach our students something about the nature of symbols….(pp. 478-479)

…we can teach pupils that words have more than a literal or defined meaning: they carry feeling overtones which make them rich and beautiful as in poetry but often also dangerous and misleading in arguments….We cannot foresee all these needs. There are 750,000 words in English. We can encourage the use of what the student knows, deepen his understanding of the possibilities in a word (poetry is ideal for this), open his eyes to the simple ways for learning new words (context, and, this failing, the dictionary, encyclopedia, history, science book, or other reference), and teach him to respect the word he speaks and writes. The drive to lift his vocabulary will then be his own. (p. 480)


Masquerading (1931)

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/803664

LaBrant offers a passionate confrontation of the misapplied project method, focusing on how its misuse has manifested in English classes.

Quoting LaBrant:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

It is doubtful, however, whether playing with toy furniture will produce in the average adult an ambition to own his own house, or whether enjoyment in carving a boat for the Lady of the Lake will induce one to read Cavender’s House. Quite the contrary may be the result. In encouraging much of handwork in connection with the reading of literature, it seems to the writer, wrong emphasis is made. The children may be interested, yes. But it makes considerable difference whether the interest be such as to lead to more reading or more carving. Soap is doubtless an excellent material, and important in present civilization. The question is whether carving out of soap a castle or a horse or a clown will stimulate interest in the drama, or even in daily bathing….On the contrary, the need of the reader is to secure a picture from the written word. (p. 245)

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)