Last updated 8/17/04
The Free, Self-Paced, 
KISS Grammar Course
from Dr. Ed Vavra
Note: This section of my web site was created in the summer of 2000. If you find it interesting, you will probably also be interested in the newer KISS Grammar Workbooks.

1. Introduction

2. Objective

3. Method

Go (Begin)


     As the editor of Syntax in the Schools, I regularly hear the complaint -- from college teachers as well as from teachers of K-12 -- that they have not been prepared to teach grammar. Too many teachers don't themselves have a useful, conscious understanding of grammar, and thus they don't know how to teach it. A few teachers have expressed interest in taking an official course with me, over the net. Currently, however, there are problems with the kind of credit (offered as opposed to needed), with timing, and with the cost. I have therefore decided to put this self-instructional course on the net. Anyone who is interested can use it at his or her leisure.


     The objective of the course -- and ideally the objective of anyone who uses the material -- is to develop a limited but powerful terminology adequate for discussing the structure and style of any English sentence. The terminology, of course, is the same as that which I propose in the suggested KISS curriculum, and in that section teachers may find more suggestions for using the concepts in their classrooms. Once teachers have mastered the material here, they will (I hope.) no longer feel ill-prepared to teach grammar. 
     The KISS Approach, I should note at the beginning, concerns syntax (sentence structure) as opposed to usage. Its primary focus is to help students more clearly express their ideas in writing, and to improve their reading comprehension. It will, however, definitely help students avoid errors.


     KISS approaches sentence structure through five levels, new constructions being ADDED at each level:

1. Prepositional Phrases
2. Subjects / Verbs / Complements
3. Clauses [Subordinate and Main]
4. Verbals [Gerunds, Gerundives, and Infinitives]
5. Eight additional constructions.
In this course, numerous exercises -- and answer keys for them -- will be provided on this website. Users are urged not to work ahead, i.e., begin at level one and stay with the exercises on that level until you have mastered them. (You can test yourself simply by using any exercise and the answer key for it.) Once you have mastered a level, you will no longer have to think at that level. For example, once you have mastered prepositional phrases, you will be able to put them in parentheses automatically. This mastery will free your brain to concentrate on the next level.
     In twenty years of using this approach, I have failed with only two students. One of them, an interesting case, simply could not learn to distinguish a noun from a verb. [For anyone who might have this problem, I intend to add some materials once the main course is up and usable.] The other student insisted on working ahead -- in looking for noun absolutes before he had mastered basic clauses. He failed. 
     The KISS approach is intentionally designed such that one level depends on mastery of the the preceding levels. With prepositional phrases neatly tucked out of the way in parentheses, subjects and verbs (Level 2) are easier to find. A clause (Level 3) is defined as "a subject / verb / complement pattern and all the words that chunk to it." If you cannot identify the subjects and verbs in a sentence, then the instructional material at Level 3 will only frustrate you. With clauses out of the way, Level 4 turns to verbals. All those verbs in a passage that are not part of a clause pattern now MUST BE one of the three verbals. If clauses are understood, then verbals are relatively easy to master. But if S/V/C patterns and clauses are have not been mastered, you are very likely to try to make the finite verbs in clauses into verbals. You'll get confused and frustrated. Once you have mastered the verbals, the eight other constructions are a relative snap. In analyzing a sentence at this level, always starting with prepositional phrases and moving through the levels, you will find a (very) few words left to be explained. At this point, you can easily apply the eight additional constructions to finish the analysis -- thereby explaining how any word, in any English sentence, is syntactically related to the main subject/verb pattern.
     Having read one of my articles about the KISS Approach, one teacher claimed that she could see no difference between this approach and traditional grammar. To explore this difference, we can briefly review one set of exercises. Each set is based on either a complete work, or a passage from a longer work. Participants use that passage over and over again as the exercise for the set.
A Sample Passage

In Level One, after studying the instructional material, participants place parentheses around each prepositional phrase:

A Sample Answer Key for Level One

At the bottom of each answer key is a table on "Noting Progress." Our sample passage consists of 73 words, nine of which are in prepositional phrases. Because the participants' objective is ultimately to be able to explain how each of those words grammatically connects to a main subject/verb pattern, the table indicates that, in this exercise, nine of 73 words have been accounted for, so the participant is 12% of the way toward the goal.
     As presented on this site, the KISS Approach assumes basic familiarity with adjectives and adverbs. (See note.) I have, however, supplied a supplementary answer key for each exercise which teachers can use either to study adjectives and adverbs, or to see how an understanding of them moves students toward their goal.

A Sample Supplementary Answer Key for Level One

In our sample, twelve additional words are adjectives or adverbs. Added to the nine in the prepositional phrases, they now total 21 accounted for, or 29% of the total passage.
     Participants should work on different passages in Level One until prepositional phrases have been mastered. At that point, they are ready to move to Level Two -- Subject / Verb / Complement patterns. After studying the instructional material, they can now use the same exercise sheets, quickly mark off the prepositional phrases (a nice, automatic review), and then identify the subjects, verbs and complements:

A Sample Answer Key for Level Two

As the progress chart for our sample indicates, 33 more words can be added to the total accounted for. Any student who got them all right has, in this exercise set, reached 74% of the goal. As always, participants should work on different passages in this level until they are comfortable identifying the relevant constructions.
     Level Three concerns clauses, and although it does not generally add much to the total number of words accounted for, it does explain how several subject/verb patterns can fit together within a single sentence:

A Sample Answer Key for Level Three

In our example, the explanation of clauses adds nine words to the total, which brings us to 86% of the goal for the passage. But even more important, perhaps, the answer keys for this level include some basic information about style, and the instructional material deals with comma splices, run-ons, and fragments, all three of which are often considered major errors.
     Levels Four and Five mop up the words that have been left unexplained. Level Four adds verbals (gerunds, gerundives, and infinitives):

A Sample Answer Key for Level Four

In our example, seven additional words are explained, so participants who got them correct are now 96% of the way toward the ultimate goal. Level Five covers the seven (or eight, depending on how one wants to count them) additional constructions that are needed to explain how every word in every sentence is grammatically related to a main subject/verb pattern:

A Sample Answer Key for Level Five

Every set of exercises, in other words, begins with prepositional phrases and moves through the levels until, at Level Five, students can explain how every word in every sentence grammatically fits. Along the way, of course, there are various discussions of both errors and of style.
     To my knowledge, there are no other instructional materials, either in textbooks or on the net, that take this approach. The vast majority of instructional materials on grammar deal with bits and pieces -- subjects and verbs are taught in one place, clauses are taught in another (and often totally unrelated to subjects and verbs), prepositional phrases in still another. And these bits and pieces are never brought together to see how they work in real sentences. The closest approach to KISS is sentence diagramming, but texts which present sentence diagramming use relatively simple, specially selected sentences -- which fit the diagrams. (Have you ever seen a diagramming text which presents the diagrams, one after the other, for sentences in real passages such as those you will find here?)

     The KISS Approach is different. Give it a try, and you'll love it. So will your students.

A Note on Regular Adjectives and Adverbs

     Although it uses the terms, the KISS approach spends little time on adjectives and adverbs. Any word that modifies a noun or pronoun is considered an adjective; any word that modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb is an adverb. The KISS approach focuses on how the parts of a sentence work together, but we really do not need to spend time exploring and explaining how, for example, in "the tired old man," "the," "tired," and "old" chunk to "man." Those grammars that attempt to do so add so much baggage that our students never get off the ground -- witness the current situation in our schools. KISS grammar can make you -- and your students -- soar. If you are still interested, you are ready to begin. I hope you enjoy the course.

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau's
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