Well into my 30s and during my doctoral program, I was finally afforded the opportunity to read carefully the work of John Dewey. This late scholarship on my part is an indictment of teacher certification, but it is also a window into the historical and current misinformation about the state of reading and the teaching of reading in U.S. schools.
Dewey, the Father of Progressive Education, I discovered, believed that we do not need to teach reading; Dewey noted that reading just happened, basing this claim on his own inability to recall having been taught to read.
The first time I came across this—considering I was then and remain primarily a teacher of English—I was puzzled that Dewey could be so wrong about reading and so compelling* about education in general.
With time, however, I realized that my initial rejection of Dewey’s belief about reading sprang from my perspective as a teacher: Teachers are predisposed to seeing themselves as change agents, as causational in the learning of others.
As an avid reader and writer, if I am honest, my perspective on reading isn’t all that different from Dewey’s. It is likely that Dewey and I experienced similar conditions of privilege that allowed something like a natural learning of reading, and literacy in general.
And it is here that we must confront a foundational question: Why have we declared a perpetual reading crisis in the U.S. throughout the last century?**
Lou LaBrant: A Progressive Voice
Lou LaBrant began teaching in 1906—in a one-room school, nonetheless. LaBrant’s career spanned most of the 20th century, ending in 1971.
Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, LaBrant built a substantial publishing record that focused on a few powerful commitments: (1) Endorsing progressive education, (2) calling for free reading, and (3) highlighting the importance of libraries and the role of librarians as teachers (LaBrant, 1940).
Progressive education and Dewey became and often remain targets of traditional claims that U.S. public education is a failure. But, as Alfie Kohn has detailed:
Despite the fact that all schools can be located on a continuum stretching between the poles of totally progressive and totally traditional — or, actually, on a series of continuums reflecting the various components of those models — it’s usually possible to visit a school and come away with a pretty clear sense of whether it can be classified as predominantly progressive. It’s also possible to reach a conclusion about how many schools — or even individual classrooms — in America merit that label: damned few. The higher the grade level, the rarer such teaching tends to be, and it’s not even all that prevalent at the lower grades. (Also, while it’s probably true that most progressive schools are independent, most independent schools are not progressive.)
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.
LaBrant’s career and her scholarship, then, represent both an accurate case for progressive approaches to teaching reading and a record of how U.S public schools have failed the promise those practices offered.
More so than Dewey, LaBrant’s scholarship and practice represent a practical progressive pedagogy that rises above “natural” and includes “critical”:
Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)
Dewey’s claim of “natural” learning has led critics to demonizing the latter, while LaBrant’s practices are grounded in the former. In reality, again as Kohn shows, neither the misapplication of a laissez-faire progressivism nor holistic, child-centered progressivism has ever characterized the learning experiences of most U.S. students.
And thus, LaBrant’s arguments throughout the first half of the twentieth century remain relevant.
“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).
By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).
In fact, many years before this observation, LaBrant (1936) confronted the failure of implementing progressive philosophy in the real-world classroom:
An Experience Curriculum in English [A Report of a Commission of the National Council of Teachers of English. W. Wilbur Hatfield, Chairman. D. Appleton- Century Company, 1935], published only a the year ago, is already influencing the course of study in many schools. There is always danger in popular revision that the change may be confined to stated objectives and superficial devices, and that basic understandings may not be involved at all. A teacher eager to join the ranks of progressives recently asked the question: “How can I put the teaching of The Lady of the Lake on an experience basis in my ninth grade class?” The question is but little less absurd than the procedures of many curriculum revisers who re-arrange old materials, add a little in- formality to class discussions and present the result as a mark of progress. We must consequently beware lest many so-called “experience curriculums” be set up without recognition of opportunity for normal, strong and complex experiences, within which language development in reading, writing, talking and listening is an integral factor. (p. 295)
Despite LaBrant’s optimism above about the impact of NCTE’s report, the history of reading programs in the U.S. remains a disappointing trail of costume parties. In fact, the history of reading instruction as little more than a masquerade was tackled by LaBrant (1936) just five years before:
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. At almost any meeting of teachers of English one may find, somewhere near the main entrance, a room full of exhibition work. This will include models of the castle from Ivanhoe, miniatures of the lake with Ellen’s isle, weaving ma-chines like those at Raveloe, and soap reproductions of Camelot. Recently a teacher attempted to protest against such an exhibition. The reply was that such materials always drew attention from teachers, more attention than lectures probably, and that pupils also found them interesting. …
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. Good work in handcraft would best be accomplished by a teacher trained in that field. The sand table, the soap for carving, the tiny mirrors for lakes, and the rest of the paraphernalia belong, certainly, outside the literature class. (pp. 245, 246)
The misapplication of the project method as arts and crafts (instead of reading) is a close cousin to what passes for reading instruction today: Test-prep for reading tests (instead of reading).
Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”
If LaBrant were alive today, I suspect she would express the same wrath for Common Core and the high-stakes testing that are the source of the materials bonanza now sweeping across the U.S.: This is once again allowing reading programs to masquerade as reading instruction—except these costume parties are incredibly costly in terms of time and public funding and detrimental to the exact students who need genuine progressive learning environments the most.
Why, then, are we failing reading once again?
There is no market incentive for doing what is right in terms of reading.
New standards and new tests feed our consumer culture, but genuine reading reform would not.
In short, the sort of reading practices we have known to be effective since LaBrant’s career (and echoed by leading literacy experts decade after decade) simply don’t sell:
- Alleviate poverty and inequity so that all children live in homes that foster early reading development.
- Choice reading, not prescriptive reading programs, is essential to reading development.
- Access to books, such as libraries as well as books in the home, is also central to reading growth.
Thus, if genuine social and school reform focused on the above, instead of new standards, new tests, and new materials, consider the consequences:
If all children entered schools as literate as most affluent children, the reading program industry would be destroyed.
Just as the market economy of the U.S. depends on poverty to thrive (and thus market forces will never overcome poverty), the reading program industry depends on struggling readers and thus will never seek ways to foster reading among all children.
The choice before us is to continue the masquerade that is Common Core—one that lines the pockets of curriculum consultants, textbook and testing companies, and government bureaucrats—or to make a truly progressive commitment to both the lives and schools of all children, lives and schools that allow learning that seems natural.
LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.
LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.
LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.
LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.
LaBrant, L.L. (1936). The library and “An experience curriculum in English.” The Elementary English Review, 13(8), pp. 295-297, 305.
LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.
Thomas, P. (2001). Lou LaBrant—A woman’s life, a teacher’s life. Huntington, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
* For the record, I am not a progressive, and I remain about equally disappointed in traditionalists and progressives in terms of educational practices. When I must acknowledge a label, I am most comfortable with “critical.”
** Without a historical perspective of education, the public may be unaware that at any moment throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, the public and professional claim about reading always includes: (a) children today aren’t reading as much as they used to, (b) our literacy rate is in crisis, and (c) we must make sure that all children can read [insert grade level here; in 2013, 3rd grade is the emergency year].