Category Archives: English Journal

Differentiated Teaching of Literature (1931)

LaBrant, L. (1931). Differentiated teaching of literature. English Journal, 20(7), 548–556.

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LaBrant discusses individualized literature instruction, drawing on her experiences at Oread Training School (University of Kansas), “a four-year high school with an enrollment of approximately one hundred pupils” (p. 548).

Quoting LaBrant:

The first principle which became evident in formulating plans for individualized instruction was that objectives must be framed in terms independent of specific literature content. (p. 549)

Individualized instruction…must provide for each pupil, rather than for three pupils, and must involve a range so great as to make formulation in terms of read materials an impossible task. It must also provide some definite basis for guidance unless we agree that teaching is unnecessary. The impossibility of teaching every skill and piece of information privately is also evident. Individualized instruction in groups is consequently somewhat paradoxical. It must in reality mean group instruction for all common elements dis-coverable, and private instruction and guidance beyond that….General objectives such as “knowledge of literature” and “standards of appreciation” were of little help. In the first place, individualized instruction means that not all children will know, now or ever, all of the literature we have been teaching; nor will all have equal standards of appreciation. This always has been true. Many children have sat through a class which has presumably studied Macbeth and have learned two things only: the name of the book, and the story as told by the teacher and other pupils. They might better have read Lamb’s Tales. (p. 550)

If we are really teaching Charles (intelligence quotient ninety) to read to his best advantage, we must stop trying to develop the appreciation of many things which English teachers find fascinating. We must acknowledge that Charles will probably do well if he reads The American Magazine instead of Confessions, and Thornton Wilder instead of nothing at all….(pp. 550-551)

He should, therefore, establish in high school the habit of reading as a real and pleasant factor in the use of leisure. A reading habit, suitable, as nearly as we can determine, to each child’s general ability, becomes a major objective. Such an aim is too vague for use as a teaching guide. In order to insure good habits of regular reading we must see that our pupil has taken three steps: (i) that he has learned how to read the various kinds of materials which follow conventions of writing, dividing them into novels, plays, poems, essays, biographies, and records of history, science, or travel, and that he has learned how to read these whether he finds them in volumes or in current periodicals; (2) that he has learned how to find these various kinds of materials without teacher assistance; and (3) that he has continued for some time to experience satisfaction in finding and reading material, until the resultant habit is strong enough to compete successfully with other forms of leisure activity. (p. 551)

Burch’s study presents evidence that the classics commonly taught in our high-school courses are beyond the reading comprehension of a considerable percentage of pupils studying them. It is fair to question the real value resulting from such study, where dependence must rest on teacher interpretation instead of on individual understanding. (p. 554)

Individualized instruction involves a considerable amount of bookkeeping, indi-vidual records. Pupils keep these themselves, asking only that the teacher initial the entries for verification….Consequently, by the third year there is a very wide range of interests and needs in the class. This makes teaching much more difficult as the course progresses. (p. 555)

As soon as a pupil excels his teacher in any one field, he is given an opportunity to share the pleasure of directing. Classes are usually informal. It is not essential that a classroom have one and only one center of conversation. One can talk intelligently at an afternoon tea without demanding silence from all other persons in the room….Essentials of the plan here presented may be summarized as follows: I. A revision of the teaching objectives into a statement of desirable pupil skills in the reading of literature. 2. A revision of curriculum content into materials adapted to provide the above skills, and the discarding of a list of required classics as a basis for the literature course. 3. The limiting of group teaching to the teaching of such specific skills as “how to discover the action in a play,” and the giving over of remaining class periods to individual reports discussed either with teacher or with class. 4. The making of careful diagnosis of individual needs and progress, with co-operation of the pupils. 5. The gradual emancipation of pupil from teacher direction. (p. 556)


The Place of English in General Education (1940)

LaBrant, L. (1940, May). The place of English in general education. The English Journal, 29(5), 356-365.

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LaBrant argues for the foundational and central place of the teaching of English in general education: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving” (p. 364). Throughout, she calls for a child-centered, honest, and healthy approach to language.

Quoting LaBrant:

Again, language is a device for giving and receiving emotional responses—a function we in school often forget or limit to love for trees and flowers or to occasional bursts of patriotism. (p. 357)

But I am saying, for I believe it intensely, that present-day living and understanding of it comes first, and that usually we have taken a wasteful course by beginning with the past and its lessons. (p. 361)

Mental hygiene calls for a wholesome use of language. Schools do much to set up the opposite attitude. By the very nature of the school, its experiences become a standard of sort. Language used in school is characterized as “good” in contrast to language which cannot be used in school. By our taboo on sex words, on literature which deals frankly with life-experiences, and on discussion of love and romance, we set up inhibitions and false values. Only by discussing frankly and unemotionally vital matters can we develop individuals who use language adequately and without embarrassment….Our people use [language] timidly, haltingly. They fear to speak directly, call frankness vulgarity, fear to discuss love, beauty, the poetry of life. They ban honest words and prefer circumlocutions. The language teacher, the teacher of English, carries a goodly share of responsibility for the mental hygiene of young people. (p. 362)

As training for independent thinking and clear self-expression, how appropriate is it to ask children to punctuate bad sentences some textbook-maker has written, or to write endless papers on topics chosen by a teacher or committee? (pp. 363-364)

Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books. (p. 364)

Our Readers Think: About Integration (1945)

LaBrant, L. (1945, November). [Comment]. Our Readers Think: About Integration. The English Journal, 34(9), 497-502.

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LaBrant’s comment in full:

I’m afraid one of our problems is that English teachers have failed to under-stand and to teach fundamental values. They have taught chiefly punctuation (by drillbooks), grammar which is out of touch with the English language as it now operates, and considerable writing for the sake of writing. They are thus caught; for, while there are important understandings which ought to be taught, they are realizing these too late. It is as though they were saying: “Maybe you teachers in other departments can do what I’ve been doing but you can’t do what I should have been doing.” I hope repentance is not coming too late.

There is, in addition, need for intensive study of how words work—semantics, psychology of language, rhetoric, perhaps all three—which study takes time, repetition, definite planning. Work in other courses, especially science and social studies, can supplement and apply this, but there is certainly a place for the teacher who understands and interprets the native language (See Language in General Education [Zahner].) (p. 501)

New Bottles for New Wine (1952)

LaBrant, L. (1952, September). New bottles for new wine. The English Journal, 41(7), 341-347.

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In one of her most recognized articles for English Journal, LaBrant examines the need for the teaching of English to change along with changes in society. The discussion explores the many ways in which language changes, highlighting the traditional practices in the English classroom as insufficient for those changes.

Quoting LaBrant:

It would be strange, indeed, if the chief medium for human communication did not change as the society which uses it changes; and yet one can find in schools of the United States classes in English which are practically identical to English classes of a half-century ago. It is time to examine this material, so universally taught in our country, to see whether we are teaching the language that is or the language that once existed. A physicist who presented the physics of 1900 would lose his job immediately. A teacher of language is under equal obligation to understand the current status of his material. (p. 341)

Do our students know that our language is changing, that it is the product of all the people, each trying to tell what is in his mind? Do they understand their own share in its making and re-creation? Recently a teacher asked me: “But isn’t it our role to defend the language, to maintain standards?” It is certainly our role to insist that a high standard of thoughtfulness, responsibility, honesty, and clarity be maintained. But I doubt that it is our role, responsibility, or right to insist that the forms of the language of tomorrow be the same as the forms of the language of yesterday….Let us, ourselves, understand the forces which develop language and help our students to understand them. Let us show students that vocabulary, meanings, and structures are changed by man as he moves through time. (p. 342)

And yet, only last week, one of my colleagues, talking to an electrician who came to his house, a young man who had seen service in both Europe and the Pacific islands, was met by the statement: “Oh, so you teach English. I’m afraid I can’t talk to you.” What in the name of all the facts we pretend to know about language has made us, teachers of English, the kind of persons who can’t be talked to? How infinitely more skilled was the young electrician who had talked to Frenchmen and Germans, to islanders and Chinese, and had faith he could talk to almost anyone—except a teacher of English! Can we wake up in time to maintain communication with those we supposedly are to teach? (p. 343)

The teacher’s role is changed. When I finished college my teachers thought I was “prepared to teach English.” I had studied the standard English classics prescribed for the secondary school, could recite the Mercy speech and “What is so rare as a day in June” without error; I knew Latin grammar and could distinguish the various genitives and identify the Greek accusative. Whether I should teach in the elementary school or the secondary did not matter. I was prepared. I could go into the classroom and hand back to children what had been handed to me. Those who rejected it, who did not care or understand, could drop out…. (p. 345)

Here is something much more than a choice between he and him, between I and me; here is a choice between man and brute, between civilization and savagery….Can we measure up to our task? Is it possible to teach our changing population a changing language and still give to them something they can use, something they can cherish—standards, if you will? Have we not found it all but impossible to teach the items we have stressed before: the comma in series, apostrophes, distinctions between better and best, the order in which George Eliot introduces characters in Silas Marner, the Mercy speech? Are we not overburdened as it is? I think a partial answer lies in eliminating the useless. (p. 346)

Let us admit that in thousands of schoolrooms our teaching of punctuation has concerned sentences no child ever made, errors which adults and publishing houses provided, books which we have spent hours trying to “motivate,” and corrections of so-called “errors” which are approved forms everywhere except in our classrooms. We have wasted hours on diagramming dull sentences when what a sentence calls for is not to be drawn but to be understood. Who understands “Thou shalt not steal” the better for having written not on a slanting line under shalt steal? Our first step is clearing away busy work, meaningless matters, and getting at the problems of speaking about something worth saying and writing with sincerity and zest. Reading is not to be “something I had”; it should be “something I do.” (pp. 346-347)

For years we have talked about “every teacher a teacher of English.” Perhaps one reason the idea has remained mere talk is that other teachers have seen “English” as the mere mechanical details of writing, the correction of common errors in diction, a pedantic concern for usage of a somewhat outmoded order, and the reading of a list of books whose selection would be hard to justify….Twenty centuries ago a teacher whose words were to change the history of the world spoke in a parable: “And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish.” It is time to examine the patched and worn bottles into which we have put this magnificent, live wine of language. If our pupils miss its glory, if they use it carelessly as a form, a manner of dress; if they cease to guard it as a means for honest exploration of truth, the tragedy of atomic warfare may be slight. (p. 347)

Teaching High-School Students to Write (1946)

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to write. English Journal, 35(3), 123–128.

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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)

Writing Is More than Structure (1957)

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structure. English Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

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Original article abstract:

That writing is not taught merely “by considering the subject-predicate nature of modem English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers” is the thesis of this paper. The author, a well-known figure in the teaching of English and a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, is concerned with the factors in the “full experience of translating ideas into the written word.” Miss LaBrant is now professor of English education at the University of Kansas City.

Quoting LaBrant:

We approach the process of writing as though it were merely the adding of one structural unit to another. We begin, for example, with the bare bones of the clause-the subject and predicate. We teach that these are imperative parts. We proceed to the paragraph and point out and experiment with its structure: it follows certain principles, contains certain pieces. And from the paragraph we proceed to the whole piece, presumably made up by combining paragraphs. Moving back to more intricate bits, we come to the various parts of speech, to the signs of structure which are punctuation marks-still working with structure. On such a program we often rest our case for the teaching of the written language….I would insist, however, that the full process of writing is much more complicated than any analysis of the grammar of its parts could show and that to deal with mechanics only—even though some of those mechanics are highly complicated—is inadequate. (p. 252)

The first great difference-and it is fundamental-between doing exercises on sentences or paragraphs and writing a whole piece is that the latter requires a larger purpose of the writer. (p. 253)

But I hope that I have hit upon enough of the important factors which go into writing to make it clear that it is not taught by considering the subject-predicate nature of modern English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers. Nor is writing taught when the formal outline with its A’s and B’s, its l’s, 2’s, and 3’s has been considered. Again let me repeat that these matters are not being discarded or condemned; but they are seen as mere factors in the larger process of writing the language. Writing remains the final, most difficult of the language arts….Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house….Despite this, there are today in the freshman classes of our nation’s colleges some hundreds and even thousands of freshmen who are having their first experience in selecting a subject and writing their ideas about it. They have outlined, parsed, and punctuated bits, have perhaps written paragraphs (parts of pieces), but they lack experience with the full production. Does the fact that writing is more than structure mean that we ignore the parts of composition and their makeup? I am sure it does not. (p. 256)

The end has all along been writing, but somewhere along the way we have thought to substitute mechanical plans and parts for the total. We have ceased to build the house and have contented ourselves with blueprints. Whatever the cost in time (and that is great), and whatever the effort, our students must be taught to write, to rewrite, to have the full experience of translating ideas into the written word. This is a deep and full experience, one to which each in his own way has a right. (p. 293)

Please see related:

Thomas, P.L. (2011, September). Revisiting LaBrant’s “Writing is more than structure” (English Journal, May 1957). English Journal, 101(1), 103-104.

Thomas, P.L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English (1961)

LaBrant, L. (1961). The rights and responsibilities of the teacher of English. English Journal, 50(6), 379–383, 391.

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Originally a keynote address at the annual NCTE convention in 1960, this essay looks, as LaBrant explains, at “a considerable movement in this country to curtail certain freedom—rights—of the classroom teacher” (p. 379). LaBrant notes that English teachers tend to work in settings that require of them and their students certain requirements, such as prescribed reading lists. However, LaBrant rejects a mechanical view of teaching. She offers ample examples of the unpredictable nature of teaching and the shifting needs of students. Her central point asserts: “The exercise of freedom is itself one means by which we become good teachers” (p. 383).

Quoting LaBrant:

Every teacher of English exercises some rights, no matter how dictatorial the system under which he works; and every teacher carries out some responsibilities. But today we have a considerable movement in this country to curtail certain freedom—rights—of the classroom teacher, and those rights are the matter of this discussion. (p. 379)

Teaching, unlike the making of a car, is primarily a thought process. A man may work on an assembly line, turning a special kind of bolt day after day, and succeed as a bolt-turner. (For the moment we will forget the man and what happens to his personal life.) Having the bolts tightly turned may be all the car-in-the-making needs. But the teacher is something quite different from the man who turns a bolt, because the student is not like a car. Teaching is a matter of changing the mind of the student, of using that magic by which the thinking of one so bears on the thinking of another that new understanding and new mental activity begin. Obviously, the degree to which this is reduced to a mechanical procedure affects the results….

What I am trying to say here is that the teacher who is not thinking, testing, experimenting, and exploring the world of thought with which he deals and the very materials with which he works, that teacher is a robot himself. But we cannot expect a teacher to continue the attempt to find better means or to invent new approaches unless he knows he will have freedom to use his results. Without this freedom we must expect either a static teacher or a frustrated one. I have seen both: the dull, hopeless, discouraged teacher, and the angry, blocked, unhappy individual. (p. 380)

Careful reading often leads to such digressions and it is a part of sound education to learn that this is so—to learn that reading is not a cover-to-cover trek with no outside demands but that only the trivial writer fails to require more than the reader brought to Chapter One. (p. 381)

Repeatedly when capable teachers ask for freedom, someone points out that we have many lazy teachers, stupid teachers unable to think and choose, ignorant teachers; in short, bad teachers who need control. We do have some, but we encourage others to be bad. Even the weak teacher does better when he has to face his own decisions, and when he supports that decision. The best way to induce teachers to think and act is to put them into situations where some thinking is essential. This less competent teacher will put more effort into the work he has himself undertaken than he will into something handed out to him. Moreover, he can, if he proves helpless, be given direction. The right to select does not force everyone to use all of his freedom, but it en-courages him to use his mind. The nature of human beings precludes for either teacher or class a totally static course. The exercise of freedom is it-self one means by which we become good teachers. (p. 383)

One reason so many of us do not have our rights is that we have not earned them. The teacher who is free to decide when and how to teach language structure has an obligation to master his grammar, to analyze the problems of writing, and to study their relations to structure….But his right to choose comes only when he has read and considered methods other than his own. He has no right to choose methods or materials which research has proved ineffective….There is little point in asking for a right without preparation for its use. (p. 390)

Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire. Many are talking as though teachers with sufficient training would become good teachers. There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. Speaking and writing and exploring the books of the world are prime fields for freedom. (pp. 390-391)