Category Archives: Teaching English

An English Program Based on Present Needs (1939)

LaBrant, L. (1939, November). An English program based on present needs. The High School Journal, 22(7), 269-271.

LaBrant details the English program at the experimental and progressive The Ohio State University School.

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Quoting LaBrant:

The English program for grades seven to twelve, inclusive, of the Ohio State University High School has been based on several premises generally accepted by the school faculty. Briefly, these are:

That the English curriculum should be an effort on the part of faculty and students to enable the latter to meet their language needs in listening, reading, speaking, and writing as adequately as possible.

That these needs should, in so far as possible, be met when and where they arise.

That both students and faculty should discuss and attempt to analyze these needs.

That consequently language growth and study are to be expected in all phases of school experience.

That some language experiences are developed most satisfactorily in classes in science, mathematics, or social studies.

That not all teachers are, however, equally skilled in assisting with all phases of language experiences, as, for example with personal or creative writing or with leisure reading; and consequently that students need a so-called “English” teacher who will assume certain specialized responsibilities and who will, in addition, study the general language growth of individual students and classes, and see that, as far as possible, adequate and balanced growth takes place.

That all language development should be considered in guiding a child’s work, and that consequently foreign-language experience is not to be separated from experience with the native tongue. (p. 269)

3. Open for Inspection (1944)

LaBrant, L. (1944, March). 3. Open for inspection. The Stanford language arts investigation: A symposium. The English Journal, 33(3), 123-125.

The 1937 Stanford Language Arts Investigation is detailed in the opening paragraphs of the article as follows:

In the spring of 1937 ten thousand children and one hundred and fifty teachers and administrators represent-ing twenty-eight secondary schools in ten cities and towns on the Pacific Coast began a three-year experiment in the language arts. At the invitation of the three directors from the Stanford School of Education and with the aid of a grant of $45,000 from the General Education Board, they undertook a new approach to educational progress.

The purposes of the project were threefold.

First, the participants made a determined creative effort to improve the growth of the students in their classes through English and the foreign languages. Every effort was made to free all participants in the investigation from routine courses of study and the traditional demands of subject-matter organization. The teachers and the children were free to create and to grow according to their own best thought, and they were challenged to exercise their freedom.

A second purpose was the discovery of the professional values that teachers from many different schools, systems, and regions could gain in working co-operatively with one another, aided by a university staff and selected specialists in the broad field of the language arts. For three summers these teachers and administrators voluntarily met at Stanford University to do creative thinking aimed at the improvement of their teaching. The plans which they constructed were then tested out in the classroom and the school during the year and revised or supplanted in the light of experience or new thinking.

Finally, the investigation aimed to observe the results of centering work in English and foreign languages upon the personal and social welfare of young people, conceived within the democratic framework of a creative Americanism.

LaBrant’s response includes five questions about the study so “the values gained are not to be lessened or lost” (p. 124).

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Quoting LaBrant:

Motivation is intrinsic rather than artificial. Youngsters, for example, read and talk about the culture of Mexico because they are trying to dis-cover how they, Mexican and non-Mexican Americans, can work happily together. This is a far cry from making a toy castle as motivation for reading Ivanhoe or preparing a speech on last summer’s trip in order to learn how to use an outline or eliminate first-person pronouns or stand erect on the balls of the feet while speaking from notes. (p. 123)

Although the present investigation proves that language classes can be situations where language is used purposefully and successfully, large problems are still unsolved. (p. 124)

The following questions seem to me to be raised and to require early and careful study if the values gained are not to be lessened or lost.

I. If students have now no serious problems of communication in their daily school and home experiences, what further teaching of spoken and written language is necessary?…

2. Some of the units described deal particularly with personal problems; others with large social issues. Are not both types of work essential?…

3. In using reading to answer problems, to serve personal interests, or to give pleasure through escape and stimulation it is possible that some of the major forms (drama, poetry, biography) may not be used. What responsibility should the language course take for seeing that the student is introduced to these forms which may offer difficulties peculiar to the type?

4. Is it sufficient that the student should be using language effectively and appropriately? Should he, in addition, be made aware of the role language is playing in his thinking and action?…

5. What are the implications of the study for teacher training?…(pp. 124-125)

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)

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)