The Words of My Mouth (1946)

LaBrant, L. (1946, June). The words of my mouth. English Journal, 35(6), 323-327.

Exploring the relationship between words and attitudes, LaBrant confronts teaching students about words and language within the context of their changing and nuanced meanings.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/807767

Quoting LaBrant:

The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance. Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues-all of these may be evils in the English classes as in others. Indeed, many of our classifications, built on results of reading tests, tend to promote rather than to destroy the kind of antisocial situation just mentioned….The question is briefly: Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323)

First, let us be clear that any principles of teaching which are important for one group are equally important for another. There is something of condescension in talking only of prejudices toward minorities, as though there existed minorities incapable themselves of the same kinds of attitudes which majorities easily attain. The principles are universal and should be approached in that way.

A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of any thing. Children do not understand this; nor do all adults. (p. 324)

Shall we, therefore, urge children and young people to drop the word “Jew” from their vocabulary? No more than we drop the words “fairy” or”dragon.” But we should certainly make them understand that the original meaning has been lost, and that only in referring to an ethnic group has it any validity; that, indeed, it is frequently misleading and best avoided….

This leads naturally to a related principle of language growth: that, as we have developed in the complexity of our civilization, as our experiences have multiplied in number beyond any possible number of words, we have had to use abstract terms to include many objects, experiences, ideas. These abstractions tend to become vague and therefore misleading. Class names, such as “labor,” “capital,” “whites,” “Christians,” and so forth are among these terms. Frequently the speaker uses them with apparent assurance that they have meaning, and yet could not for his life explain what he means. (p. 325)

Parenthetically, it may be right to suggest here that the most effective teaching comes from good example….

She is suggesting the primitive belief that by avoiding the words she is avoiding the differences. We have much of this word magic indirectly taught in our classrooms. (p. 326)

Teaching how language works is not a matter of formulas which, once applied, are forever effective. We have tried for some decades now to teach “rules” of grammar, with the expectation that, once they were memorized and illustrated through one or fifty sets of exercises, we would have established a pattern for sentence structure. Our ears tell us that this method is almost completely futile. Similarly, we cannot expect to teach in a few lessons the ways to use language to promote intergroup understandings, and to prevent its potential strengthening of our prejudices and ignorance. Language is much too closely associated with our daily living, much too complicated; and the influences outside the school are much too strong for any sudden or easy competence to be developed. The teacher needs first to question her own use, as she would question her own habits of verb agreement or pronoun reference. (p. 327)

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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).

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/806739

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 Words They Know (1944)

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant examines the role of vocabulary in the teaching of English. First, she unpacks the misapplication of correlating vocabulary with intelligence based on standardized tests, and then, she considers other reasons for teaching vocabulary. Most of the discussion includes detailing the then current understanding of word acquisition followed by her own proposal for how best to teach vocabulary.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/806883

Quoting LaBrant:

There are many causes for our concern. For one, we hear that vocabulary correlates with intelligence; hence, we decide, we should increase vocabulary. At the time of our most trusting interest in objective measurement—the 1920’s—much discussion followed the discovery that on group intelligence tests the single item most highly correlated with the total score, and consequently the best single prediction of intelligence rating, was the vocabulary score. As has been frequent in the history of human thinking, we inferred a causal relation, over-looking the fact that, since both tests were basically language, the results would naturally be similar. We were really only discovering that what we measured as “intelligence” was in large measure the ability to use school vocabulary. Nevertheless the idea persevered, and today many teachers base arguments for teaching vocabulary on the relation it bears to intelligence, although if vocabulary were causal, we should expect to move our low I.Q. pupils into a gifted group by vocabulary drills. (p. 475)

Apparently from consideration of the varied forms which “vocabulary” may take, and the amazing extent of the vocabulary which even the dullest student has, we have a more complicated problem than our exercises and assignments suggest….It is not, however, the number of words alone which is important. It is the depth of meaning. This also comes from experience. (p. 477)

Vocabulary range for a class of English-speaking pupils is therefore so wide as to make futile our selection of any particular list of words for teaching except for specific situations; and the full meaning of a word is so complicated that to teach even a small number thoroughly is a long-term task. (p. 478)

The following suggestions seem to be implied by the findings and observations stated.

1. We can extend vocabulary by providing a wealth of rich experiences: trips, hand work, discussion, reading….

2. We can bring into the classroom more personal writing, and more talk about personal experiences, introducing thereby the vocabulary which eludes us, but which needs better understanding and use. So-called “free” writing is excellent for this. …

3. We can take time to expand meanings….

4. We can teach students to learn meanings from context. This is the natural way….

5. We can help students judge meanings of words by those previously known….

6. We can undoubtedly teach our students something about the nature of symbols….(pp. 478-479)

…we can teach pupils that words have more than a literal or defined meaning: they carry feeling overtones which make them rich and beautiful as in poetry but often also dangerous and misleading in arguments….We cannot foresee all these needs. There are 750,000 words in English. We can encourage the use of what the student knows, deepen his understanding of the possibilities in a word (poetry is ideal for this), open his eyes to the simple ways for learning new words (context, and, this failing, the dictionary, encyclopedia, history, science book, or other reference), and teach him to respect the word he speaks and writes. The drive to lift his vocabulary will then be his own. (p. 480)


Preparation for the Teacher of English Composition (1930)

LaBrant, L. (1930, February). Preparation for the teacher of English composition. Bulletin of the Kansas Association of Teachers of English, 15(3), 4-6.

Based on a meeting by the Kansas Association of Teachers of English to discuss teacher preparation of English teachers, LaBrant discusses the need for English teachers to have extensive language training and an awareness that English is a changing language.

Quoting LaBrant:

The teacher must be intelligent concerning language growth before he can know how and when to correct even such errors. He must remember always that he is teaching a changing language at the growing end. …[T]hat to teach even the simplest matter in language training calls for an understanding of the structures and trends in language. (p. 6)


The Fallacy of “Modified Courses” (1936)

LaBrant, L. (1936, May 13). The fallacy of “modified courses.” Educational Research Bulletin, 15(5), 141-143.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1472242

LaBrant challenges the narrow use of intelligence tests to track students.

Quoting LaBrant:

American secondary education was for many years open to the privileged few, and only recently have we conceived our high schools as the property of the entire adolescent group. This generally recognized fact is perhaps responsible for our persistence in thinking of secondary education as planned for the more able of our young people. Consequently, when we consider mental ability we mean ability to do academic work. Mental tests, developed on the assumption that certain academic experiences are common to the mass of individuals, reflect what have come to be thought of as basic high-school experiences. …Unfortunately this emphasis on the intelligence test as a device for elimination has tended to obscure rather than to clarify its values. Instead of studying the interests and abilities of pupils, we have classified children with an emphasis on lack of ability rather than possession of ability. (p. 141)

We have frequently in schools having so-called homogeneous grouping, talked of the high group as those who can do certain types of work, and of the low groups as those who are underprivileged, unable. All of this vocabulary has had its effect on our teaching. Disregarding the strong interests, and the actual abilities of a third or even a half of our children, we have considered instead their inability to do certain operations, and have attempted to provide substitutes. Now a substitute implies that the thing offered is less desirable than the object for which it is a substitute. In education the implication is that we teachers wish that the pupils could all do a certain type of work, but that, since unfortunately this is not so, we will do the best we can and provide something as nearly like as possible. (pp. 141-142)

The point is that the dull or average child has strong interests, and that they are not necessarily faint shadows of the interests of more scholarly children. They are real and individual, and deserve consideration on their own merits. (p. 142)

In A certain high school, for example, superior students study algebra and geometry to clarify the problems they meet in a study of the natural world about them. This seems reasonable and desirable. The students are curious about the scientific development of their age, and eager to investigate it. Mathematics plays a large part in this scientific world of today. But this same school offers to the duller students, just as eager to use and examine the inventions of their times, not additional work with wires and dynamos and batteries, but as a substitute for the algebra and mathematics which is involved in the technical study of the others, a review of arithmetic with more practice in figuring percentages and in multiplying and dividing. Numerous publishers are offering to schools modified editions of the classics-Dickens written down, Scott without his details of description, famous classics with the difficult words eliminated. Back of such offerings is not a study of the reading needs and interests of average children, but an ideal of copying the reading activities of better students. (pp. 142-143)

If educational practices are to produce active, thinking citizens, they must be based on the real needs of the children who are educated, not on shadows of the needs of a small group. Intelligence tests are useful, but only if they are considered as positive rather than negative. They must then be recognized as the limited measures which they are, and supplemented by information concerning the emotional equipment, the interests, skills, and abilities of the children. Visitors to many progressive schools fail to distinguish, in a class where work is largely individualized, the brilliant from the less intelligent children. All appear interested and intelligent, because they are using intelligence on problems meaningful to them. The teacher who complains that a low ability class is dull and uninterested is in all probability offering material which is chosen for values suitable to more gifted children. Interest is not the property of genius, as may be seen from watching dull to average children at their chosen sports. Let us have suitable courses, yes, but not modified ones. (p. 143)


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)


Masquerading (1931)

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/803664

LaBrant offers a passionate confrontation of the misapplied project method, focusing on how its misuse has manifested in English classes.

Quoting LaBrant:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

It is doubtful, however, whether playing with toy furniture will produce in the average adult an ambition to own his own house, or whether enjoyment in carving a boat for the Lady of the Lake will induce one to read Cavender’s House. Quite the contrary may be the result. In encouraging much of handwork in connection with the reading of literature, it seems to the writer, wrong emphasis is made. The children may be interested, yes. But it makes considerable difference whether the interest be such as to lead to more reading or more carving. Soap is doubtless an excellent material, and important in present civilization. The question is whether carving out of soap a castle or a horse or a clown will stimulate interest in the drama, or even in daily bathing….On the contrary, the need of the reader is to secure a picture from the written word. (p. 245)

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)