What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: Looking Back to See Now More Clearly

The November 1942 issue of The Elementary English Review (National Council of Teachers of English) included a provocative piece: What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium.

The opening editorial comment frames the need for the question:

Editorial blurb 1942.png

This symposium offers answers to the titular question from leading literacy experts of the time: Emmett A. Betts, E.W. Dolch, Arthur I. Gates, William S. Gray (first IRA president), Ernest Horn, Lou LaBrant (former president of NCTE and focus of my dissertation, an educational biography), Holland Roberts, Dora V. Smith (former NCTE president), Nila Banton Smith, and Paul Witty (key figure in the career and life of LaBrant).

Unlike most cries of educational “crisis,” this national focus on reading was nested in World War II—a genuine crisis. But, according to the assembled experts on literacy, this 1942 version of the Reading Wars was a harbinger of how these debates are mostly misinformed, misguided, and driven by ideology instead of evidence.

Betts, in the opening piece, notes an important fact drawn from a report by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: “One of the students had only four months of schooling, another was foreign born, some came from sections of the country where educational opportunities were meager, and so on. In short, the First Lady’s report emphasized the lack of educational opportunity [emphasis added] rather than the questionable quality of instruction” (p. 225).

Before detailing the problems and the possible solutions—including recognizing shortages and shifts in teacher availability—Betts makes a powerful claim: “In a democracy, the people get the kind of schools they want….In a democracy, the quantity and quality of educational opportunity is a product of what people want, and what they want is to no small degree conditioned by the educational leadership they have elected to follow” (pp. 225-226).

While I recommend reading the symposium responses in full, I focus below on two key answers from Gray and LaBrant.

Gray offers a solid framing of the debate spurred by claims of illiteracy among those called to serve, including this:

Gray second attitude.png

Along with refuting these standard false charges, Gray builds to a powerful closing argument:

A common error on the part of those who modify their reading programs is to adopt one or more reforms, such as the provision of much free reading, and neglect other aspects of reading that are in need of specific attention…

If the discussion thus far has achieved its purpose, it should be clear that current deficiencies in reading are not the product of “pseudo-scientific fumbling” or the use of progressive reforms, as some would have us believe. They are due in large measure either to the continued use of traditional patterns of teaching or to failure to provide a well-balanced [emphasis in original] program of reading activities that harmonize with progressive trends. (pp. 236-237)

LaBrant, in her typical style, takes a much more direct approach:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits that blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods [emphasis in original]. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs [emphasis in original].

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States [emphasis in original]. (pp. 240-241)

In her conclusion, LaBrant is passionate and unyielding:

lack of drill

Within five years, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “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).

The question about reading raised in the 1940s suffered from the same failures to recognize the problem in order to shape effective and credible answers that we are confronting in 2019.

The fumbling today of the Reading Wars is yet another snapshot of a tired truism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).

 

Advertisements

Navigating the Trivial in Writing Instruction

Most teachers charged with writing instruction at all levels from K-12 through graduate education have far too little time and almost impossible learning conditions in order to teach writing well, much less completely.

After decades of teaching writing, I have far more questions, and goals, than I have answers.

But I do have two guiding principles that I believe help my writing instruction to be more effective, if still lacking: (1) no writing-intensive course is an inoculation (writing and students are not diseased things to be cured), and (2) to invoke Thoreau, it is not any writing teacher’s duty to do everything, but to do something well.

With those in mind, this Twitter exchange provides an excellent entry point to how we should navigate the trivial in our very challenging work teaching writing:

Drezner’s original Tweet and Warner’s reply provide an important tension that all writing teachers face, the tension between the trivial (elements such as format, grammar, mechanics, and usage) and the substantive (expression, credibility of claims and evidence, audience awareness, purposefulness, etc.).

Broadly, this debate sits within the prescriptivist versus descriptivist approaches to language. For teachers of writing, I think we must acknowledge that prescriptivism remains the norm in both formal education and social norms. In other words, many people are prone to see (or hear) “errors” and then to draw some evaluative conclusions from those “errors” regardless of the credibility or effectiveness of the whole text or expression.

Drezner is typical of those who cannot look past the trivial (confusing “it’s” and “its”) in order to recognize the ultimate whole of the text.

Like Warner, I rest in the camp that rejects prescriptivism and seek ways to focus my instruction, and student drafting, on the substance of their writing as well as their journey to being writers and scholars.

But this is no new tension, as Lou LaBrant (1946) expresses, many decades before Warner’s retort: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing.”

With limited time and reduced teaching and learning conditions, teachers of writing must focus on priorities—fostering purposeful, thoughtful, and risk-taking young writers who have an awareness of prescriptivism and the consequences of so-called “errors” in their writing.

As a first-year writing teacher, I can attest that most of my students enter my writing-intensive classes mostly viewing their work as students to be about correctness and then when prompted to revise or rewrite, to be about correcting.

Their priorities learned in formal schooling about writing are the inverse of LaBrant’s mantra above; students believe correctness trumps content because they have often submitted “irresponsible, unimportant writing,” driven by the teacher’s prompts, and received high grades simply for having conventional surface features.

One example of how I try to navigate the trivial in writing instruction is the current debates about “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

I offer students a mini-lesson on how language changes, a short overview of the history of the English language with some examples (grain/corn, the demonizing of “ain’t” and the tortured construction “Aren’t I?” that grew out of that), and then I introduce them to the “they” debate.

We examine pronoun/antecedent agreement and concerns about sexist language (the use of “he” as gender neutral, for example) before I detail for them that they are living in a time of language flux; many formal publications and organizations now have standardized “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun (see especially NCTE).

However, I also address with them that many people remain trapped in the fading prescriptive view of pronoun/antecedent agreement. I caution students that they may (likely will) encounter professors and others who will, as Drezner’s Tweet in the opening shows, make conscious or unconscious decisions about their credibility as writers based on the developing convention of “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

I often follow this with a discussion of my own experiences as a student in the 1970s and 1980s that included drills and workbook exercises on “shall” and “will”—noting that poor “shall” is now deceased. This leads me to the certain impending demise of “whom” coming, I think, in my students’ lifetime.

As their writing teacher, I am committed to fostering purposefulness in my students, and to help them rise above the paralysis of correctness. I want them to have healthy attitudes about language and writing, much as linguists and writers do.

Yet, this effort to raise their awareness about the specter of the language police while prioritizing their content, organization, style, and such as purposeful writers is no easy task.

It is nearly impossible to break them from habits formed over years—viewing their job as being correct or correcting their drafts—and my own practice, I fear still seems to them to prioritize the trivial.

One of my strategies embedded in my requirement that students draft and conference with me during each essay is that I use highlighting in Word to draw their eyes to the trivial (issues of grammar, mechanics, usage, and format) and reserve comments and the conferences for what I consider to be substance.

I will still highlight, for example, a singular gender neutral use of “they,” and may add a comment asking if they have used this with purpose and with awareness, but I have no policy about their grades based on that use (I do not grade writing at all in fact).

Since many of the elements I highlight are what most teachers would call “errors,” students tend to ask me why I highlight, leading to a mini-lesson. Occasionally, the highlighting works, and students self-edit, if needed.

My work as a teacher of writing, then, is defined in many ways by the tension in the Tweet exchange above. I feel mostly compelled to foster my students as purposeful writers and scholars with healthy attitudes about language and writing.

But I also feel an ethical obligation to make my students aware that language use is political, that language use (often the trivial) has real consequences for them as students and in their lives beyond formal schooling.

I do invite them to join me is changing the norm of prescriptivism, to challenge the language police, but I also am deeply aware that is a tall task to ask of any of us.

LaBrant (1952) lamented that “thousands of teachers seem to resent or refuse to recognize change.” This, I think, is a grand failure when we are teaching writing and ultimately thinking.

Language is in constant flux, and our students are both agents and victims of that change.

Navigating the trivial in writing instruction is ultimately about honoring the human dignity of our students because language is an essential part of that humanity.

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “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).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

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)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

On New Criticism and Louise Rosenblatt: A Clarification and Dialogue

In an ambitious and contrarian essay, Reconciling Rosenblatt and the New Critics: The Quest for an “Experienced Understanding” of Literature, Andrew Rejan asserts:

Without diminishing the significance of Rosenblatt’s contributions, I wish to reexamine and reimagine the familiar history of Rosenblatt’s rebellion against New Criticism: I will propose that Rosenblatt and the New Critics, particularly Cleanth Brooks, might be viewed as pioneers of parallel, rather than opposing, pedagogical traditions, shaped by the shared influence of I. A. Richards.

As a former Council Historian of NCTE and the biographer of Lou LaBrant, whose career overlapped significantly with Rosenblatt’s, I was immediately drawn to Rejan’s unpacking of both New Criticism and Rosenblatt—but was also intrigued by his citing my “A Richer, Not a Narrower, Aesthetic”: The Rise of New Criticism in En­glish Journal.

Rejan incorporates my analysis of the historical relationship between EJ and New Criticism to offer an example of what he calls the “the folly of defining and critiquing the New Critics without directly citing any of the New Critics’ actual writing.” While I find much of Rejan’s analysis important and nuanced, here he rushes to support his thesis without taking into account the purpose of my piece and he fails to note key final points I raise that fit more closely with his thesis than providing evidence of “folly”:

On one level, we owe our field of English language arts pedagogy the opportunity to reexamine the unspoken power of New Criticism as well as the reduced ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in our classes. We must consider the role reader response has played as the most frequent challenge to New Criticism in our classrooms—including the misunderstanding and misuse of Rosenblatt’s perspective as well. But we must rise above the narrow tensions among critical perspectives.

Literary analysis, then, becomes about agency—the agency in the work/text itself and the agency of the reader reading and rereading the world (Freire). The call for critical literacy does not deny or silence the potential power of New Criticism or reader response or any critical stance. Instead it calls for confronting efficiency and objectivity as questionable stances:

“We can help students read the word and the world in deeper and more profound ways. We can help students investigate the ways in which they are manipulated. They can become critically literate consumers of the media. They can engage with and focus on current issues. We can help them problematize the world so they think about their role in it and what they can do to shape its future directions.” (Michell 45) 

Before highlighting how Rejan offers some very important contributions to both literary theory and how that manifests in traditional English and literature classrooms, I want to clarify a couple points about my own work cited.

First, my article is a historical overview of the relationship between teaching English in high school or college and New Criticism; and in that overview, I note that there is a gap between the pure theory in its founding and how teachers practice a reduced (and often bastardized) version best represented, I think, by the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition [1] test.

In other words, while not as developed or explicit as Rejan’s thorough essay, I very much recognize that what passes as New Criticism in the teaching of English is not solidly grounded in the seminal work of the New Critics. In fact, I will address this more fully below, high school English teachers may have never read the New Critics and, like our students, often navigate within New Criticism without it being named or acknowledged in any way.

The commonly implemented (distorted) version of New Criticism is mostly a consequence of the goal of appearing to be objective that is driven by the primacy of assessment in teaching; in other words, literary interpretation grounded in analysis and “right/wrong” answers helped reduce New Criticism to a practical shadow of its original self—as I teased out when rejecting “close reading”:

Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy.

And to the “folly” Rejan sees my essay modeling, I would note that I spend a significant subsection of the essay, “New Criticism: Defined and Embraced, Narrowly,” arguing a similar point as Rejan’s, the reductive application of New Criticism, citing heavily from a major literary scholar, David Daiches.

Finally, as the passage from my essay highlighted above demonstrates, I was documenting the exact dynamic—the tension between New Criticism and Rosenblatt—Rejan teases out far more explicitly, and also suggesting that tension is too often reductive and fails ultimately to be sufficiently critical, in that students are rarely afforded agency in the process whether they are navigating text through New Criticism or reader response.

Setting aside that Rejan was a bit hasty in one paragraph citing my work, I want to note that Rejan offers some important take aways for how English teachers are prepared and then how we practice our crafts of literary analysis with our students.

One foundational commitment I have implemented as a college professor since my doctoral program in the mid 1990s is assigning seminal texts, not secondary texts, addressing the most prominent ideas in education and literacy. As one example, my undergraduate and graduate students read Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration.

And during our discussion, we address that Rosenblatt’s work is often mischaracterized and over-simplified; I typically add that a careful reading of Rosenblatt uncovers a thinker far more conservative and traditional that often acknowledged.

So, yes, Rejan’s call for reading the original work of the New Critics to understand New Criticism is a worthy call for all aspects of education, the teaching of English, and preparing teachers of English.

Rejan’s broad message about understanding literary theory also shows the importance of the “considerable gap” (LaBrant, 1947) between theory and practice too often common in English classrooms.

A former graduate student of mine and current doctoral student has been discussing by email with me Rejan’s piece as she investigates Rosenblatt. She has confessed, in fact, that she knows little about literary theory because that topic wasn’t covered well in her undergraduate English courses, leaving her with a “superficial” understanding—all of which reinforces Rejan’s central concerns.

When I have taught young adult literature, where I assign Rosenblatt, practicing teachers in the graduate section often share a similar lack of understanding when we practice literary theory with a picture book.

Ultimately, as I shared with Rejan, we are offering a similar message, although our pieces are distinct in purpose and thoroughness (EJ articles tend to be brief, and EE essays, dense and extended). I could not agree more with Rejan’s last paragraph and sentence: “I suspect that Brooks and Rosenblatt both would appreciate a closer reading of the past that might bring us closer together in the future.”

Although I must offer yet one more caveat, the central thrust of my essay—any literary theory lens is a way to investigate text, and if any becomes the way to investigate text, we have failed the ultimate goal of fostering critical literacy in our students.

That is a folly we cannot afford.


[1] I Taught AP Lit and Comp for most of my 18 years as a high school English teacher.

See Also

“A Respect for the Past, a Knowledge of the Present, and a Concern for the Future”: The Role of History in English Education, P.L. Thomas (English Education, January 2011)

On Common Terminology and Teaching Writing: Once Again, the Grammar Debate

In 1971, after years of scrounging and clawing, my parents were able to build their dream home on the largest lot at the new golf course in my home town. This was a redneck working-class vision of what it meant to achieve the American Dream.

As a consequence, I lived on and worked at this golf course (called a “country club” without a speck of irony) throughout my adolescence. Some of my formative moments, then, occurred on the golf course while I was working—including discovering that when a teen has been covertly drinking mini-bottles of liquor for hours virtually every adult can see that in about 2 seconds.

The grass on the course itself was over-seeded a couple times a year, and this required the work of all the employees and many of the club members simply volunteering, including my father.

One fall, I believe, I was told to drive around the old pickup truck used exclusively on the course. I was likely a year or so away from driving legally.

The truck was a 3-speed manual shift on the column and a transmission that worked about as well as you’d imagine for a work truck that never left the fairways of a redneck golf course.

My father hopped in the passenger seat and told me what to do, throwing around terms such as “clutch” as well as all the intricacies of column shifting. I was overwhelmed and terrified.

Within moments, he had me start the truck, and lurch forward, coaching me along the way about using the three pedals and finding the sweat spot for engaging and releasing the clutch (I would drive manual transmission cars with glee well into my late twenties when a broken ankle proved to me the practicality of automatic transmissions).

Soon I was left alone with this beast of a truck to shuttle whatever was needed all over the golf course. Within hours, I was pretty damn proficient despite the rolling berms of the fairways, the steep hills, and the idiosyncratic transmission in this truck well past its prime.

Once again on NCTE’s Connected Community’s Teaching and Learning Forum questions about teaching grammar surfaced, and as I often do, I thought about how we learn to drive cars.

Driving a car and composing are quite similar since they are holistic behaviors that require many seemingly simultaneous decisions performed in some type of “rules” environment (driving within laws and writing within conventions, what people commonly call “grammar” to encompass grammar, mechanics, and usage).

As well, I am convinced that both are best learned by actually doing the whole thing, preferably with an experienced mentor guiding the learning process.

And thus we come to a recurring and powerful question whenever the grammar debate claws its way zombie-like out of the dirt: Do teachers and students need common terminology for the teaching of writing to be effective?

This is a very practical retort to those who caution about isolated direct grammar instruction and a rules-based approach to how language works. It is a very common complaint I hear from teachers of second languages as well.

Let me return for a moment to my adventure in a 3-speed pickup truck. My hearing the term “clutch” did me no good at all in terms of engaging and releasing the clutch and actually maneuvering the truck around the golf course.

In fact, my dad immediately added “the pedal on the left.”

So my first response to the question about the importance of common (grammar) terminology in teaching writing is that we must all step back and critically examine if this is really essential.

My sense gained from teaching writing for over 30 years is that students do not need the technical language that teachers must have and that the terms students should acquire are incredibly few.

None the less, my professional concern as a teacher and a writer is not if students will acquire common terminology (they will and they should), but how and to what extent.

The grammar debate has one aspect in common with the phonics debate: too many see the argument as a yes/no dichotomy (and it isn’t).

So a foundational guiding principle for the role of grammar and common terminology in the teaching of writing is to provide students with the least direct instruction and acquisition of terminology needed for the students to be fully engaged in the whole behavior. And then during that whole behavior, students continue to build their grammatical awareness and technical terminology storehouse.

And that begins to address the how.

I learned to drive the 3-speed truck by driving the truck very badly for an extended amount of time and among a group of experienced drivers who were also incredibly patient and encouraging.

There was no pass/fail, and I never took a test on the parts of the truck or how to drive a 3-speed manual transmission.

Our students need low-stakes and extended opportunities to write by choice while receiving ample feedback from their teacher, who models the writing process and the technical terminology that helps those students learn and improve.

Ultimately, then, when our goal is to foster students as writers, let’s critically interrogate our own assumptions about what students must have to learn to write, and then let’s be vigilant about protecting that goal; in other words, prioritize the time students have to practice the full writing process in low-stakes and supportive environments over time spent on isolated and direct instruction that detracts from that foundational commitment.

I will set aside driving a truck for a final example from my teaching writing. In a first-year writing seminar, I use a text that frames effective writing in broad concepts such as cohesion and clarity.

I assign the text; students read weekly and submit response journals on key points and questions. In class and during writing conferences, I use these terms—cohesion, clarity—but we have no test and I never explicitly say they need these terms that I typically use along with some concept or analogy building on their existing schema (my father adding “pedal on the left” after “clutch”).

Regularly and often throughout the semester, students begin to say “I was trying to work on cohesion like Williams says in our book.”

Teaching writing is not well served by either/or debates, especially when warranted practice is about not if but how.

My students throughout my 18 years teaching high school (in the same redneck town when I grew up) and then at the college level have almost all acquired common terminology in context of what they do without a doubt learn—my writing classroom is about composing, and everything we do is in service to that one essential goal.

Just as the recalcitrant grammar debate spurs in me nostalgia for my formative years gaining the All-American rite of passage, driving, it also pulls me once again to my (abrasive) muse, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant, who confronted in 1953: “It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need.”

In 2017, we stand on the same worn path, and I conclude here by urging us all who teach writing to keep our bearings: “writing is learned by writing,” and anything else we do must not detract from that truism.

Suggested Reading

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writingElementary English, 30(7), 417-420. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41384113

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to writeEnglish Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/808778

Avoiding The Adjective Fallacy

SC Fails Students Still: More on Grade Retention and Misreading Literacy

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde (1891), The Soul of Man under Socialism

Bells will certainly continue to signal class changes in public schools all across South Carolina this fall, but there is a much more serious (and unwarranted) bell of doom for many third-graders because of SC’s punitive Read to Succeed legislation.

Paul Hyde’s Furman professor: Read to Succeed retention policy ‘a disaster’ offers a primer on the politically and publicly popular move across the U.S. to retain students based in part or fully on third-grade high-stakes tests of reading.

Once again, literacy policy often fails to address valid literacy practices or to acknowledge that literacy proficiency is strongly correlated with systemic conditions beyond the walls of the school or the control of teachers.

Worksheets on literacy skills, test-prep for state assessments of reading and writing, linking teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, and retaining children are simply not only flawed literacy policies, but also negative influences on children’s literacy and academic achievement.

And decades of creating ever-new standards and then purchasing ever-new reading textbooks and programs have utterly failed children and literacy.

For about a century, in fact, we have known what is needed to help students develop literacy—but the political will remains lacking.

A robust literacy strategy for schools must include instead the following:

  • Addressing access to books in all children’s homes.
  • Insuring access to books in all children’s schools.
  • Providing all students ample and extended time in class to read by choice.
  • Guaranteeing every student balanced literacy instruction based on each student’s demonstrated literacy needs (not the prescriptions of literacy programs).
  • Discontinuing the standards and testing disaster dominating schools and classrooms by providing teachers the materials, time, and professional autonomy to teach literacy in evidence-based ways.

Just as education policy ignores a rich research base, political leaders and the public refuse to address how public policy directly and indirectly impacts student achievement; the following would create higher student achievement and literacy:

  • Eradicating food deserts and insuring food security.
  • Providing universal healthcare to children and families with children.
  • Creating job security for families with children.

Finally, we must acknowledge that grade retention fulfills a cultural negative attitude about children and people in poverty among the U.S. public—one grounded in individual blame and punishment.

But decades of research has shown (yes, even with the failed Florida policy that serves as a template for many states such as SC) that grade retention may raise test scores short term, but that gain disappears in a few years and the many negative consequences of retention remain.

As the National Council of Teachers of English detail in their position statement on grade retention and high-stakes testing, grade retention fails in the following ways:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.

Of course all children need and deserve rich and rewarding literacy experiences and growth, but third grade literacy is both a manufactured metric (by textbook and testing companies) and a misleading emergency.

Grade retention and skills- and standards-based literacy instruction and testing have failed and continue to fail horribly the students who need authentic literacy instruction the most—black and brown children, English language learners (who may need a decade to acquire a second language), students in poverty, special needs students.

These populations are a significant portion of the students served in SC public schools; our hateful and misguided policies are created and tolerated by a more white and affluent political leadership and public who have racist and classist biases against “other people’s children.”

In fact, failed literacy policy in SC can be linked directly to how the U.S. demonizes and fails the impoverished:

It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.

For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.

Struggling students in SC are viewed as lacking or broken, in need of repair and/or punishment to correct.

If you think this is harsh, compare how mostly white and more affluent students learn literacy in advanced and gifted classes in public schools (a dirty little secret about how we have maintained segregation) and most private schools.

Like No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act, Read to Succeed is an Orwellian name for a horrible way to view, treat, and teach children.

SC continues to be a morally bankrupt state, calloused and driven to punish instead of offering our citizens, especially our children, the compassion and opportunities all people deserve.

For Further Reading

At Duke, I realized how badly many South Carolina schools are failing students like me, Ehime Ohue

Grade Retention Research

Executive Summary: THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES OVER TIME: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN (9 January 2017)

THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN, Kathleen M. Jasper (2016)

NCTE: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

Confirmed: SC Implementing Retain to Impede

Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US

 

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

Because, in the final analysis, the language we speak constitutes who we are as a people.

“Yesterday,” Men without Women, Haruki Murakami

“Let us look at this English tongue with which, as English teachers, we profess to deal,” proposes Lou LaBrant in her “The Place of English in General Education,” published in English Journal in 1940.

As LaBrant’s biographer, I immediately pause at “profess” and recognize that a scolding is about to commence—one that is blunt, smart, and unlikely to achieve her goals because of her scathing tone and style as well as the recalcitrance of far too many who teach literacy at all levels of formal education.

During my interviews with people who had known LaBrant, one spoke directly to her essence: “She never suffered fools gladly,” he said.

And about language and their uses, we have always been and remain surrounded by foolishness about language—in William Butler Yeats’s trap: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Among her many points addressing how educators teach literature/reading and writing, LaBrant makes a foundational demand:

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 use [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)

Formal schooling, LaBrant confronts, creates an unhealthy attitude about language in young people—and thus, corrupting what young people believe, how they think, and ultimately how they navigate the world. These failures of formal schooling have roots, she notes, in misguided practice:

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)

And thus, LaBrant concludes: “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).

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

For about a decade now, my university has been offering faculty seminars focusing on teaching writing/composition to first-year students. The university switched from a traditional English 101/102 model (though we never used those labels) to a pair of first-year seminars with one being writing-intensive.

That shift included a commitment to inviting and allowing faculty across the disciplines to teach writing/composition—despite virtually none of them (included some in the English Department) having formal training in teaching composition or being writers.

More recently, we have created a year-long seminar, Faculty Writing Fellows (FWF), and appointed a Director of Writing who leads these seminars and all aspects of the writing program, which now includes the writing-intensive first-year seminar (the second one has been dropped) and an upper-level writing/research requirement.

This past week, the opening session of the upcoming cohort of FWF began their journey, and during one presentation, I sat listening to a colleague explore with the participants how to decide if and how to engage with students whose writing includes so-called problems with grammar, mechanics, and usage (a set of distinctions that most professors lump as “grammar”).

This colleague teaches history of the English language and upper-level grammar courses; she was very patiently and kindly—unlike LaBrant—making a case for descriptive grammar and stepping back from focusing in an unhealthy way on correctness in order to begin with student expression, while also carefully unpacking what students do and don’t know about conventional uses of language (instead of rules).

I could listen to this colleague all day; she is a measured and gifted scholar of language who embodies how linguists talk about and think about language (it is more about marveling at and wondering about than preserving some arcane and misguided rule).

Then the inevitable happened.

A participant asked about a rule, concerned that we professors have an obligation to maintain the rules of the language but also worried that she may be addressing a rule that no longer applies.

My colleague was steadfast. Instead of making a declaration on the said rule, she walked the point back to our overarching obligation to address the ideas of students as expressed in their writing.

Despite her kindness, patience, and authoritative reply,  I fear that she had no more success than LaBrant did with her abrupt mannerisms.

Far too many teachers charged with teaching literacy as their main obligation and teachers who necessarily engage with literacy anchored to what they would call teaching about disciplinary knowledge/content remain trapped in thinking that correctness trumps all else in teaching writing/composition and speaking in formal settings.

In the session about responding to student writing, then, we were derailed into chatter about splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

My colleague’s message, I regret, was lost in the feeding frenzy, the language itself left bleeding and battered in the wake of the grammar police circling and attacking like sharks.

And here is what was lost.

First, our obligations with teaching literacy must begin with two primary goals: fostering an accurate and healthy attitude about language (descriptive grammar grounded in the history of language development) concurrent with initially addressing the ideas expressed by students (accuracy, originality, complexity) through coherent, clear, and concise language use (diction, style, organization).

Next, nested in that first dual obligation, we must raise student awareness that conventional uses of language, although always shifting, carry status marking in many circumstances. Language use, then, impacts directly and indirectly a person’s credibility as well as the effectiveness of the ideas being expressed.

Here, let me emphasize that this obligation allows any of us to teach directly to students that people continue to function under the rule mentality, but along with that, we should make them aware of several important caveats:

  • Prescriptive grammar often fails in the context of historical patterns of language, and many so-called rules are illogical in that historical context: not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions both sprung from imposing Latin grammar onto English in order to raise its status as a language; rejecting double negatives the result of garbling mathematical and linguistic concepts; and constructions such as “Aren’t I?” highlighting the often foolish pursuit of rules over naturally occurring usage (the latter being how “they” has become a singular pronoun).
  • Teaching students about a rules approach to language must include pulling back the curtain, sharing with students that many so-called rules are in fact the topic of heated debate among experts on language (again, the “they” debate).
  • Language use cannot be divorced from discussions of power; the standard dialect versus non-standard dialect dichotomy is about who has power and how those in power manipulate language correctness to marginalize and silence some groups (LaBrant addresses this in her 1940 essay quoted above). Despite many who call for no politics in teaching, to teach standard English in a rules-based way is a blunt political act itself. Instead taking a false objective stance about rules, invite students to read, for example, James Baldwin on black English, or Silas House’s “In My Country.”

Finally, and I am making a sequential case here, once a student has presented an artifact of a quality that deserves it (after purposeful drafting and conferencing), we must wade into editing, where we do have an obligation to address conventional grammar, mechanics, and usage. But even as we confront conventional language use, we must know the status of the language ourselves, and we must also continue to focus on issues that are status marking for the student’s attention in editing.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers are likely to garble meaning while split infinitives, not so much.

Subject/verb agreement (common when students are ambitious, writing longer sentences with subordinations that separate the subject and verb) can scar credibility while pronoun/antecedent agreement or a comma failure, not so much.

Ultimately, no teacher can do everything in any one course. We are all forced, then, to make priorities.

In terms of literacy and language, we must first do no harm—foster and honor “a wholesome use of language” that cannot be separated from the autonomy and agency of our students as purposeful, ethical, and informed people.


LaBrant, L. (1940, May). The place of English in general education. The English Journal, 29(5), 356-365.