Category Archives: Writing

Analysis of Cliches and Abstractions (1949)

LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.

LaBrant examines the use of cliches and abstractions in student writing, noting that their use is often misunderstood by teachers and created by prompted writing. This is a nuanced and direct examination of the power of language as well as the need for student engagement and choice in writing.

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Quoting LaBrant:

Only after inch-by-inch progress was she able to see that from “orphan,” for which the novelist was undoubtedly responsible, my student had jumped to the whole cliche “poor, defenseless orphan” and consequent accusations against at least three other characters in the story.

…But of serious account is her tendency or that of any reader to accept a cliche and so permit it to stand between himself and a fact or understanding.

A word of warning may well be spoken here. Cliches are not alike in value, and users differ in age and speak under many circumstances….We must therefore be careful in criticizing the writing of the young, or in talking over poetry they enjoy, not to superimpose our own experience on them. The metaphor which seems stale or worn to us may be apt and new to them, and it is a happy circumstance that this is so. It is therefore not important that the figure which the student uses be new or unique to the adult; but it is of great necessity that the phrase express what the student really sees or believes and that he be made aware of the pitfalls of the too easily accepted phrase. On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness. (pp. 275-276)

…The cliche is, in such cases, an example of our tendency to overgeneralize or to use abstractions carelessly.

Certainly no student of language would deplore the ability of the human mind to develop abstract terms and to use them in thought. As with all inventions, however, the value of an instrument lies not only in its power but in the care and understanding with which it is used. (p. 276)

It should be noted that such analysis is made much more easily when the writer is dealing with a problem in which he has some stake and for which he has assumed the initiative in writing. If the statement comes from a workbook or from the teacher’s assignment, it is impossible to hold the writer to an understanding of meaning. Sometimes we ourselves deliver definitions (generalizations) meaningless to children.

“A verb is a word which expresses action, being, or state of being,” we tell youngsters who cannot possibly understand that “being”and “state of being” cover the various steps by which assertions of identity, classification, and evaluation move through various stages of sensory and logical verification. We assign topics for writing, well knowing that they are beyond the real understanding of our pupils and that consequently these young writers must fall back on vague and meaningless generalizations. (p. 277)

Assignments in literature frequently encourage undue generalizing….We teachers cannot escape responsibility for much unsound use of abstractions.Frequently we require it; the cliche is not confined to pupil writing.

Generalizations, abstractions? Yes—when we know what they are and that back of them must be knowledge. Honesty is itself a factor in thinking. Responsibility—a sense of needing to know, of limiting words to what one understands—all these are involved in analyzing the cliche and the abstraction. There are many ways of teaching how to think. This is offered as one. (p. 278)

Inducing Students to Write (1955)

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to write. English Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116.

LaBrant examines “how to induce students to write,” opening with five assumptions (p. 70). She then discusses the need to begin with the teacher and the writing situation that supports student writing.

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Quoting LaBrant:

My first assumption is that, since we have come voluntarily to this session, we all agree that writing is an important part of the program of English in our secondary schools.

I assume next that, since “induce” involves motivation, we are not talking about writing which is secured by threats of failure, nor which merely states what the teacher wants to have stated. …

I am assuming further that we look upon writing as having a dual value: to society and to the writer. …

A fourth assumption I think we make today is that writing is best taught through writing of one’s own ideas, and not through talking about writing or dealing solely with the writing of others. …

My final assumption is that we desire responsible writing.  (p. 70)

Where, then, do we begin to see that our student decides to write? I believe that first we begin with the teacher. I believe that just as a man must know something about equations if he is to teach algebra successfully, and must have some knowledge of current science if he is to teach physics and chemistry, so if one teaches writing he must himself be able to write. I believe also that he must be able to write better, more maturely, and more accurately than his students write….

I believe, then, that the teacher should know the agony of putting words on paper. We have some pretty careless talking about writing for fun, and the joy of just doing a simple composition. Writing anything that is worth writing is not pure joy unless you happen to be a most unusual person. Writing is hard work. It means formulating statements which must be read without the intonation, the context, the personality of the writer. (p. 71)

Writing is not easy, but the difficulty is forgotten if one is not writing frequently.

I think further that the teacher who writes is aware of the embarrassment about writing. I must confess that never have I been able to reread an article or book I have written except in galley form, and then I dread the task and try to do it mechanically. What has been said seems so futile, so awkward, so incomplete. …

First, therefore, I would say that in some modest way the teacher should be a person who uses writing, knows the satisfactions and difficulties of it, and lets his students know of those experiences. (p. 72)

First, I would ask for each student evidence that what he thinks important or worth writing will be accepted as such, and that, although he may be challenged, what he writes will meet with respect because it is his own statement. (p. 72)

A fourth condition is ample time. Good writing is not dashed off in fifteen or twenty minutes, and yet I have seen teacher after teacher take fifteen minutes of a period to make a hasty assignment, pass out papers, and give students twenty minutes to “write something.” Ernest Hemingway couldn’t do it; nor would he try. (pp. 73-74)

A fifth condition is response. Any writer deserves a response to what he has written. This is a far cry from the comment “good,” “bad,” or “indifferent.” It is a long way from red markings indicating punctuation and sentence structure errors. Of course there will be correction, but beyond that must come a response to what has been said -or to what the writer tried to say. Is the paper confused? The comment “I do not get your point” or “This is not clear to me. Why did you do this?” means much more than “fair” or “C.” …

Finally I believe there should be revision and rewriting. I know there are many who believe that a constant stream of writing will of itself produce quality. I doubt this; and doubt its stimulation of the writer. Instead it is my experience that the student values most the paper he has revised and the one he has struggled to make clear. (p. 74)

And here at the close may I offer one further criterion for inducing students to write, a criterion implicit in all that I have said: You have to like to teach writing. (p. 116)

Writing Is Learned by Writing (1953)

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

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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)

Language Teaching in a Changing World (1943)

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

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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)

Our Readers Think: About Integration (1945)

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

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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.

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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)

Writing Is More than Structure (1957)

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structure. English Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

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Original article abstract:

That writing is not taught merely “by considering the subject-predicate nature of modem English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers” is the thesis of this paper. The author, a well-known figure in the teaching of English and a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, is concerned with the factors in the “full experience of translating ideas into the written word.” Miss LaBrant is now professor of English education at the University of Kansas City.

Quoting LaBrant:

We approach the process of writing as though it were merely the adding of one structural unit to another. We begin, for example, with the bare bones of the clause-the subject and predicate. We teach that these are imperative parts. We proceed to the paragraph and point out and experiment with its structure: it follows certain principles, contains certain pieces. And from the paragraph we proceed to the whole piece, presumably made up by combining paragraphs. Moving back to more intricate bits, we come to the various parts of speech, to the signs of structure which are punctuation marks-still working with structure. On such a program we often rest our case for the teaching of the written language….I would insist, however, that the full process of writing is much more complicated than any analysis of the grammar of its parts could show and that to deal with mechanics only—even though some of those mechanics are highly complicated—is inadequate. (p. 252)

The first great difference-and it is fundamental-between doing exercises on sentences or paragraphs and writing a whole piece is that the latter requires a larger purpose of the writer. (p. 253)

But I hope that I have hit upon enough of the important factors which go into writing to make it clear that it is not taught by considering the subject-predicate nature of modern English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers. Nor is writing taught when the formal outline with its A’s and B’s, its l’s, 2’s, and 3’s has been considered. Again let me repeat that these matters are not being discarded or condemned; but they are seen as mere factors in the larger process of writing the language. Writing remains the final, most difficult of the language arts….Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house….Despite this, there are today in the freshman classes of our nation’s colleges some hundreds and even thousands of freshmen who are having their first experience in selecting a subject and writing their ideas about it. They have outlined, parsed, and punctuated bits, have perhaps written paragraphs (parts of pieces), but they lack experience with the full production. Does the fact that writing is more than structure mean that we ignore the parts of composition and their makeup? I am sure it does not. (p. 256)

The end has all along been writing, but somewhere along the way we have thought to substitute mechanical plans and parts for the total. We have ceased to build the house and have contented ourselves with blueprints. Whatever the cost in time (and that is great), and whatever the effort, our students must be taught to write, to rewrite, to have the full experience of translating ideas into the written word. This is a deep and full experience, one to which each in his own way has a right. (p. 293)

Please see related:

Thomas, P.L. (2011, September). Revisiting LaBrant’s “Writing is more than structure” (English Journal, May 1957). English Journal, 101(1), 103-104.

Thomas, P.L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.