Category Archives: Research

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)

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The Changing Sentence Structure of Children (1934)

LaBrant, L.L. (1934, March). The changing sentence structure of children. The Elementary English Review, 11(3),  59-65, 86

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41381714

LaBrant addresses first her concerns about research: the “gap” between that research and classroom practices as well as research focusing on student errors instead of “what children can do” (p. 59). She discusses her own research on language use by students in 4th-12th grades to emphasize the importance of research on literacy as that informs practice. LaBrant challenges “a large gap between natural expression and the stilted performance which passes as school composition” (p. 62). The piece concludes by identifying the connection between the structure of student writing and their engagement as well as understanding of their topics.

Quoting LaBrant:

It is a common complaint, almost too common to mention, that in education we constantly conduct research and content ourselves with reducing our findings to tables and sentence conclusions; that there is an increasing gap between laboratory research and school-room practice….Amazingly frequent have been the studies of the errors made by children in their writing and speaking, with almost no studies of what children can do. (p. 59)

There is frequently a large gap between natural expression and the stilted performance which passes as school composition. Constant attention to form and punctuation often causes the child to omit ideas when he is some- what uncertain as to the accuracy of his expression. (p. 62)

If language structure is the outgrowth or expression of experience, artificial stimulation of basic structure is fruitless, or almost fruitless at best….

The suggestion is offered that, although pupils wrote rapidly and had no opportunity even to re-read, expression was complete because the child was writing only of comprehended experience. Conversely, we may consider the possibility that sentence fragments (unless of course, written for effect) are the result of incomplete thinking caused by artificial stimulation rather than by complete experience. (p. 64)

Certain outstanding advantages of teaching language thus from the inside out, instead of from the outside in, are in harmony with the findings of the study at first reported. (p. 65)


Research in Language (1947)

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41383425

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)