Category Archives: Free Reading

The Content of a Free Reading Program (1937)

LaBrant, L. (1937, February 17). The content of a free reading program. Educational Research Bulletin, 16(2), 29–34.

Based on her implementation of a free reading program at the Ohio State University School, LaBrant documents the success of the program against common complaints about free reading.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1471836

Quoting LaBrant:

Within the last few years heated discussion has centered around the question of free reading for high-school students in English classes. Critics have insisted that interest as a basis for book selection merely tends to establish poor taste; they have stressed the importance of organization in reading as in any program; they have assumed that free reading, with its emphasis upon pupil-direction, lacks content. Indeed, the arguments in slightly more abstract form are those frequently advanced against any program in whose construction pupils participate, and have been offered as criticism of the whole progressive-school movement. Perhaps the basic misunderstanding comes from careless use of the term “interest.” An interest is not an entity, unchangeable, fixed. It is merely a way of behaving at a given time, and may be modi-fied, directed, developed, or discouraged. The important matter for the educator is to realize that interest means a strong tendency to behave in a certain way, and to understand that that tendency has driving power which is better used than thwarted. (p. 29)

At the Ohio State University School reading, or the study A of literature, develops as an inherent factor in the entire school program….Classes consider the whole field of reading, and work out group study and discussion around common problems of development. There is no assignment of books or pieces for uniform study except in rare cases where an entire class feels the need for introduction to an unfamiliar form or type. There is constant demand that the individual pupil contribute from his experience, and in consequence em-phasis is placed on understanding and careful interpretation. In addition to this emphasis on careful reading, from time to time classes make inventory of group development, setting up common criteria for judging. (pp. 30-31)

Recently an attempt was made to evaluate the free reading of one class (graduated June, 1935) in the light of a three-year record. Fifty-nine pupils, 26 boys and 33 girls, with an aver-age yearly enrollment of 57, made up the group. The study concerns the content, the organization, and the resulting drives in the free reading of this one class in the Ohio State University School….With neither teacher was there ever a uniform reading assignment for an entire class, however; and diversified reading was always a part of the pupil’s program regardless of the particular class unit of a given period. (p. 31)

The joint processes of analysis and synthesis are seen in the work of the twelfth year, when pupils insisted on seeing their intensive, individual units within a chronological setting which all assisted in formulating. That such a succession of meaningful experiences could be thought of as lacking in “content” is absurd. There was, it is true, no teaching of techniques as an end, no unit on the sonnet, no history of English or American literature. Voluntarily, the class spent three weeks in the twelfth year on reproducing Elizabethan dramatic scenes, singing Elizabethan music, and reading excerpts from a variety of Elizabethan lyric and dramatic writers for class enjoyment as an element in making the chronological approach more vivid. In brief, while there was organization, it was not the organization of the conventional program, and was not set up in advance of pupil understanding and need. (p. 32)

Sex differences are evident, although reasons are not suggested. The girls read twice as much as the boys, with especial interest in drama and poetry. Neither boys nor girls, however, showed the strong interest in romantic fiction, hero stories, and adventure so commonly attributed to adolescents.

The theory that in a free or extensive reading program designed to utilize interest and to serve individual needs there will be fruitless reading of light fiction gains no evidence from this study. The report does, however, point to the possibility that the adolescent has much greater power to read and to think intelligently about reading than the results of our conventional program have led us to believe. (p. 34)


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)

 


Language Teaching in a Changing World (1943)

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

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41382675

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)


Certain Criteria for Classifying Pupils in Literature Courses (1927)

LaBrant, L. (1927, June). Certain criteria for classifying pupils in literature courses. The School Review, 35(6), 458-466.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1079590

LaBrant offers an argument for matching student needs and prior experiences/knowledge with in-school classification, such as grouping or tracking. She places her argument in the context of education seeking goals with “social value” (p. 458). Her four criteria for classifying students are (1) IQ scores, (2) reading assessments of reading rates and comprehension, (3) vocabulary development, and (4) recommendations from teachers. The essay captures the early commitment among progressive educators that a scientific approach to teaching could address well democratic goals of schools; notable is that LaBrant grounds her discussion in action research she conducted in her classes at Oread Training School, University of Kansas.

Quoting LaBrant:

Recent studies in curriculum-making have placed great emphasis on those aims which can be stated in terms of habits and definite experiences. All departments have been forced to answer questions as to why they were in existence and whether they were presenting the best which might be taught. Along with other departments, the English department has found that answers to such demands have led to changed objectives and materials, so that from the modern curriculum many of the articles of faith have been banished. From progressive curriculums formal grammar has largely disappeared; close criticism of classics has been superseded by wide reading of a more popular sort; formal rhetoric has given place to the writing of letters and to such other composition as may be necessary in the daily program of the average citizen….A fair judgment would seem to be that, if our aims are to be in terms of social values, our classification-our arrangements for caring for pupils-must consider these social values as they are al-ready developed in the child. (p. 458)

There are undoubtedly abilities belonging to the field of English which all might lack, as, for example, a knowledge of certain rules of formal grammar, the rhyme scheme for a sonnet, or Chaucer’s relation to English literature; but, in the making of the English curriculum, it would seem desirable so to group courses with relation to objectives, so to separate habit-forming and informational courses, as to make it possible for the child who has profited by home training to avoid identical training to any large degree in his school work….In spite of these facts, we are refusing to recognize the significance of the social background in classifying pupils, even while we recognize social activity in our objectives. (p. 459)

Lists of books were supplied, and the pupils were allowed to choose. Consequently, no two read the same material. It was possible, however, to discuss general characteristics of peoples and writers, varied reading making these discussions interesting. Frequently pupils read material un-familiar to the instructor. The freedom from uniformity in daily assignments was an important element in meeting the difficulty of securing books. While the pupils had access to the library of the University of Kansas and to the Lawrence city library, the majority of the books read were secured through other sources. The teachers brought material to the school from their private shelves, and the pupils themselves contributed. Members of the teaching staff out-side the English department lent several volumes, and the school library furnished collections and most of the books on mythology. The writer has several times observed that even a rural community will afford many good books if duplicate copies are not required. A few books were purchased by the pupils, but the cost of these did not equal the usual expenditure for texts. (p. 463)