Category Archives: Isolated Grammar Instruction

Writing Is Learned by Writing (1953)

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

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41384113

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)

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Our Readers Think: About Integration (1945)

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

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/807934

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)


Teaching High-School Students to Write (1946)

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

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/806777

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)