Category Archives: Language

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).

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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 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 us [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)

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)