Chapter 12: KISS Level One: Prepositional Phrases; Adjectives & Adverbs


       Although most of the later KISS constructions are defined in terms of function, prepositional phrases are defined simply as a matter of identify. Students can simply be given a list of words that function as prepositions. Those words, plus whatever answers the question "What?" after them, create prepositional phrases. KISS defines adjectives and adverbs by function: whatever modifies a noun or a pronoun functions as, and therefore is considered to be, an adjective. Whatever modifies a verb, adjective, or adverb, is likewise an adverb.


       Third grade is probably the ideal time to teach prepositional phrases. By third grade most students have had some general work with recognizing nouns, pronouns, and verbs, and that work will help them, for example, distinguish the "to" as a sign of an infinitive from the "to" that functions as a preposition. And, if the students are being taught to identify "all" the prepositional phrases in passages written by themselves or by their peers, the research clearly shows that they will not run across a lot of phrases that have clauses or other advanced constructions as the objects of prepositions. For instruction to be effective, it is important that students meet a few sentences that may confuse them. In this respect, the writing of third graders is "just right" for prepositional phrases.
       I am frequently asked why the KISS the approach begins with prepositional phrases instead of with subjects and verbs. The question is so frequent because we have been lulled to sleep by the traditional approaches to grammar. These approaches still work on the assumption that the students have to be taught everything about grammar, from the bottom up. If this assumption were true, then subjects and verbs would be the place to begin. But even third graders are already masters of English. They have learned more about grammar than we will ever teach them in our classrooms. Their knowledge is, of course, subconscious. Our objective is to make enough of that subconscious knowledge conscious so that they can intelligently discuss questions of style and errors.
       One reason for beginning with prepositional phrases has already been suggested (the high number of words that appear in them), but prepositional phrases are also the best place to start because relatively few words function as prepositions. Third graders can learn to recognize prepositions, and thus prepositional phrases, far more easily than they could subject / verb/ complement patterns -- especially since, without knowledge of such phrases, they would confuse the objects of some prepositions with the subjects of some verbs.
       As third graders look for prepositional phrases, they will meet some with compound objects (with Bill and Sue) and perhaps even a few cases of ellipsis. By the end of third grade, students could be taught to recognize almost all prepositional phrases with compound objects, but probably not those involving ellipsis. Teachers should probably explain these cases using and explaining the terms "compound" and "ellipsis," but I would not expect students to learn these terms at this level. I would not, in other words, test them on the terms. Most of the terms we know, we have learned ostensively, and, as students hear the terms used in context, they will learn them. The important skill for third graders is to be able to place parentheses around all the simple and compound prepositional phrases.
       The education standards of most states include recognition of the parts of speech for second or third graders. Some schools may therefore want to have third graders learn to recognize simple adjectives and adverbs.  One common question about the KISS Approach concerns why adjectives and adverbs are not treated as a distinct level. The answer is that students do not need to be able to identify adjectives and adverbs to move on to the next level.
       Working with college Freshmen in a composition course, for example, I devote only about ten class hours to syntax. As a result, I spend about five minutes explaining adjectives and adverbs. I quickly give them (without expecting them to memorize them) the KISS definitions of the two terms. Then I point out that they already unconsciously understand these concepts, and I show them a sentence such as "The old man slowly walked to the park." I ask them to break the sentence into phrases -- smaller multi-word chunks that form the parts of the sentence. No one ever gives me "man slowly" as a chunk. I then point out that "The" and "old" chunk to the noun "man" so they are adjectives; "slowly" chunks to the verb "walked" so it is an adverb. Thereafter, I do not expect them to identify normal adjectives and adverbs -- they can simply tell me what the words chunk to. It is, after all, their understanding of these "chunking" relationships that we are after.
       I should note here that many of my students have problems recognizing predicate adjectives because they do not recognize most adjectives as such. Within the limits of individual courses, however, there is only so much that any teacher can do. Most of my students come to me with little, if any, conscious knowledge of grammatical concepts. It would be nice (and much better for our students) if, as a profession, we could work as a team, later grades building on what has been taught -- and assimilated -- in earlier grades. But currently that is not the situation.

Required Objective:

       Students should be able to identify all the "simple" prepositional phrases in randomly selected passages from their own writing and reading materials. ("Simple" excludes phrases that have complements with gerunds, clauses, or other advanced constructions as their objects.) The primary purpose of this required objective is simply to enable students to disregard the words in prepositional phrases when they are attempting to find S/V/C patterns.

Memorization Required: "And," "or," and "but" join equal parts of speech or constructions.

       At this level, students do not need to know that these are called "coordinating conjunctions," but they do need to recognize their function in phrases such as "Sue went with Sally or Sarah." Older students, whose sentences are naturally more complex, often place clauses between the compound objects of prepositions. They may therefore find "ellipsis" a clarifying concept. One of my students wrote:

The stage at the Bucks County Playhouse impresses any actor who performs there with such things as the thirty-six fly ropes that line the stage left wall and the roof that rises three stories.
In analyzing sentences such as this one, my students usually prefer to insert an ellipsed "as" before "roof":
. . . with such things (as the thirty-six fly ropes) that line the stage left wall and (*as* the roof) that rises three stories.
Neither of these terms should probably be required at KISS Level One, but they can be used to explain many of the infrequent cases that students are not yet expected to understand.

Suggested Approaches to Instruction:

       Give the students an instructional handout on prepositional phrases. (See below.) In class, use a short passage (two or three sentences) to demonstrate what you expect them to do. Then, either as an in-class assignment, or for homework, distribute copies of another short passage (double-spaced, and no more than half a page) for the students to do. Review their work in class. Repeat the exercise with different passages until most of the students can quickly identify all of the simple phrases. If you are using the Grammar Game to review homework, you will easily recognize when this time comes. Otherwise, you can use a quick assessment quiz.


        We can lead students to knowledge, but we can't make them study. Don't grade homework. Once you feel that most students can recognize most phrases, give a short assessment quiz -- no longer than three sentences, using a passage that the students have not previously analyzed. (Remember that you have to grade these. The longer the quiz, the longer it will take you to grade it.)  If the passage includes phrases with advanced constructions in them, simply ignore these phrases. Count the number of simple phrases in the passage. Count the number of these that were identified correctly. Subtract one for each time in which the student marked as a phrase something that is not. Divide the result by the number of simple phrases. (This procedure sounds more difficult to do than it actually is.)  The results of the quiz will probably be an inverted bell curve, with most students getting either an A or an F.
        If instructional time permits, I would suggest that teachers give at least two, three would be better, such assessment quizzes. (This assumes that not all the students aced the first one.) If you need or want to give a formal grade for this work, you might want to drop each student's lowest quiz grade -- or just count the last or the highest grade. It is, after all, what the students have finally learned that should count.

Class Time Required:

       Enabling almost all of the students to identify almost all of the prepositional phrases in samples of their own or their peers' writing will probably require the equivalent of four or five 50-minute class sessions (or a total of 200 to 250 minutes)  The first session will probably require a full class period since the teacher will have to distribute the instructional material, explain the objectives, and demonstrate what is expected by going over a short passage in class. Following the initial class period of instruction, teachers will want to schedule instruction differently. Some may want to assign a single sentence to be reviewed in two or three minutes at the beginning of each class period.  Other teachers will prefer to give students longer passages (a half page, double spaced) as homework assignments, perhaps one a month. In estimating the total amount of time required, I'm predicting that four to six such assignments should suffice, with 25 minutes of class time spent on reviewing each.  In a subsequent class, devote five minutes to an assessment quiz. Once most of the students get most of the phrases correct, they have reached the objective.
       In the KISS Approach, prepositional phrases would be the only formal grammar studied in third grade. Even those teachers who are not particularly interested in teaching grammar shouldn't mind devoting four or five class hours to it (out of an entire year), since they would know that they would be sending their students into fourth grade well prepared to build on what they have learned. It is important that instruction be spread across the school year; otherwise, students have a tendency to forget. But once students have had the basic instruction, this can easily be done simply by asking the students, for example, to underline two or three prepositional phrases in something they are writing. Another way to do this would be to have the students discuss some particularly interesting prepositional phrases in something they are reading. Such review, which need not be time-consuming, would obviously extend beyond traditional textbook grammar to questions of writing and style.
       Obviously, teachers who have to start at Level One and who want to get students into Level Three will have to scheduled the four or five hours needed for prepositional phrases in the early part of the year. Teachers who want to go into some of the desired objectives will probably want to do likewise, perhaps by aiming for basic recognition at the end of the first half of the year so that students can devoted their "grammar time" in the second half to some of the desired objectives.

Desired Objectives

The Functions of Prepositional Phrases

        As they analyze passages, have students draw an arrow from the preposition to the word that the prepositional phrase chunks to (modifies). A further step is to have the students indicate the syntactic function of the phrase. They can do this by placing a "J" by the arrow for adjectival phrases, and a "V" by the arrow for adverbial phrases. This activity is helpful in that it teaches students that constructions, as well as single words, can function as adjectives or adverbs. Adding this step, however, will require an introduction to the concept of interjections. Most prepositional phrases function as adjectives or as adverbs, but in analyzing randomly selected texts (including their own writing), students will run across a few phrases, of course, that function as interjections.

Einarsson's Approach to Embedding

        Whereas the required objective is limited to identifying individual prepositional phrases, Robert Einarsson's approach to teaching prepositional phrases (See Chapter Seven.) introduces students to the important concept of embedding. If time permits, teachers might want to spend a class period or two using Einarsson's approach. Showing students how one construction can be embedded in another may improve some students' reading skills. I have been told by reading teachers that the basic problem of most poor readers is that they read words, not phrases. Thus, Einarsson's approach may help these students see and better comprehend the phrases in texts. It will also prepare students to more easily understand the embedding of clauses in Level Three.


         A fill-in-the-blank exercise such as the one discussed in Chapter Seven (based on Welty's "A Worn Path") can be an enjoyable change of pace. It can also help students recognize prepositional phrases, and, if shared and discussed in class, can help students see how important prepositional phrases (and adjectives and adverbs) are in establishing details of setting (both time and place) and of characterization.

Vision and Revision

        Give students a complete short passage -- a fable, a joke, etc -- and ask them to revise it by eliminating as many prepositional phrases as they can. Have the students discuss their revisions, including the effects of the omissions. Then have students revise the same initial passage by adding as many prepositional phrases as they can without creating nonsense. Again, have the class discuss the results of their work.
        Repeat the preceding exercise, but have each student select his or her own passage for revision. Have the students explain to the class the effects of their revisions.
        Introduce students to the continuum of abstract and concrete words. In class, give students five minutes to review a piece of their own writing to see if they can replace abstract objects of prepositions (with the animals) with words that are more concrete (with the lions, tigers, and apes). At the end of the five minutes, have the students report to their classmates any changes that they were able to make.

Analysis of their Own Writing

       Once most students can recognize most prepositional phrases, have them select a short sample of their own writing and make a double-spaced, ink copy. Tell them to use a pencil to analyze it for prepositional phrases. Have them work in groups of three or four to check each other's work while you circulate to answer any questions that may arise. Once they have done this, you might want to extend the exercise into a statistical one. Have the students count the number of words in the prepositional phrases and divide it by the total number of words in their respective passages. In addition to showing them how much they can already analyze, the statistics can lead into discussions of details and quality. You may want to follow the statistical analysis by asking the students to revise their passages by adding prepositional phrases.  In class, have the students discuss the effects of this revision.


       Send students on a "Treasure Hunt" to find two published sentences that begin with prepositional phrases and two that do not. Have them discuss what they found, including how often, on average, sentences begin with prepositional phrases.
       Show students how some phrases can be moved in a sentence: "On Sundays they went to the park." "They went to the park on Sundays." Have the students write two or three sentences (twice) with the same phrase in different positions.
       Have the students write their own examples of Einarsson's aligned and embedded phrases.


       Third graders are not ready for advanced study of logic, but Hume's three categories -- identity, extension, and cause/effect --  (See Chapter Nine) can easily be used with third graders. The best way to do this would probably be to show them a short paragraph on an overhead, and, as they identify the prepositional phrases, discuss the "logical" function of the phrase. Does it emphasize identity (the man in the green shirt, the house on the corner)? Does it reflect extension in time or space (for six miles, after three days)?  Or does it reflect cause/effect (because of his accident)?
       After this introduction, give them all a copy of another short paragraph and have them identify the phrases and their logical functions. Review (and discuss) this assignment briefly in class. Then ask the students to identify such phrases in their own writing. (Or you can ask them to add phrases that express identity, extension, and/or cause/effect to something that they have already written.) Have them work in small groups to discuss the effects of these phrases.

My Instructional Handouts

       The following are the handouts I give students for prepositional phrases and for adjectives and adverbs. You can use or adapt them in any way you wish.

Level 1. Prepositional Phrases (Compounding and Ellipsis)

Objective: To be able to recognize all of the simple prepositional phrases in any text.
Rationale: In adults' writing, approximately one third of the words are in prepositional phrases. The ability to recognize prepositional phrases will thus put you one-third of the way toward understanding how all the words in any sentence function.

Directions for exercises: Put parentheses (  ) around each prepositional phrase in the text.

       Prepositional phrases are relatively easy to learn. Simply put, a prepositional phrase is a preposition plus whatever answers the question "What?" after it. The following list includes most of the words that can function as prepositions:

about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, as, at, before, behind, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, despite, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, outside, over, since, through, to*, toward, under, until, up, upon, with, within, without, aside from, as to, because of, instead of, out of, regardless of, "but" when it means "except," "past" when it means "by."
*"to" plus a noun or pronoun is a prepositional phrase; "to" plus a verb is not. This difference is expected to cause you some problems, but as you review exercises in class, the difference will become clear.

Learning to Recognize Prepositions

        As the list above should suggest, only a limited number of words can function as prepositions. Your brain already knows what prepositions are. It has to, since you use these words correctly day in and day out. What you are trying to do is to make that unconscious knowledge conscious so you can understand how prepositional phrases fit within sentence patterns. The sooner you learn to recognize prepositions, the easier your task will be. Different students find different approaches to this task to be most helpful.
        Some students prefer to memorize the list. Some of these students find that copying the list (by hand) several times is the best way to start remembering it. Others simply make one copy (or print-out) and take it with them wherever they go. They then study it several times throughout the day -- while waiting for a class to begin, while waiting for a red light, while brushing their teeth, etc.
        Because most of the prepositions can denote relationships of place and time, some students prefer a more conceptual approach. They visualize a house or plane, and then think about the fact that something can be in, inside, out of, outside, on, under, above, before, in front of it, etc. If you take this approach, don't forget the temporal relationships -- something can happen before, after, during, until, or since something else, etc. Sheila Harper, who teaches developmental English and math at Colorado Northwestern Community College, has noted that

In eighth grade, Miss Morganstern, my English teacher, taught me how to identify prepositions in a short lesson: "of" and any words that fit into the blank in one of these sentences are prepositions (or words that explain the relative position of two objects in space or time): "The squirrel ran __________ the log(s)," or "I dropped my books __________ class(es)." For me, that simple explanation and quick rule-of-thumb took away the mystery of prepositions.
Solving the mystery of prepositions is not difficult, and you will save yourself a lot of time if you begin by becoming familiar with the words that can function as prepositions. Some students choose not to do this. Instead, they either guess, or constantly have to look up words on the list while they are doing the homework.

Identifying Prepositional Phrases

       Having found in a text a word that can function as a preposition, form a question with that word followed by "what," i.e., "since what?" If whatever in the sentence answers that question forms a sentence of its own, the construction is not a prepositional phrase:

The sun hasnít shone since we arrived.
Otherwise, it is:
The sun hasnít shone {since our arrival.}
Remember that "to" plus a verb (to walk, to read, to get, to have, to do) is not a prepositional phrase.
       You will, of course, make some mistakes, but you are expected to. Prepositional phrases can become complicated when they involve other constructions. As you learn about these constructions, the prepositional phrases that involve them will become clearer. The majority of prepositional phrases, however, are easy to recognize.

Some Final Advice

       Work systematically. Begin with the first sentence in the assigned text. Do the best you can to find all the prepositional phrases in it. Then continue, sentence by sentence, until you have completed the assignment. Students who ignore this advice roam all over the text, marking a phrase in the middle, then one at the end, etc. As a result, they are never sure when they are finished, and they generally miss many phrases.
       Don't give up. The exercises in most grammar textbooks are designed such that the early problems are easy, with the sentences getting a little more difficult near the end. But even the most difficult sentences in the typical grammar books don't approach the complexity of the sentences that you yourself already write. Since you will be working with randomly selected texts, you will be dealing with some difficult sentences, and they may appear early in the text. Don't give up. When you find a difficult sentence, do the best you can with it and then move on to the next sentence. (Remember that you are expected to make some mistakes.) In most cases you will find later sentences that are much easier to analyze.

Level 1.A. Adding Adjectives and Adverbs

1. Put parentheses (   ) around each prepositional phrase in the text.
2. Draw an arrow from each adjective and adverb to the word it modifies.

       Adjectives and adverbs are words that modify (or change) the meaning of other words in a sentence. The sentence Boys are silly. applies to all boys, but we can change the meaning, for example, by saying The boys are silly. The addition of the adjective "The" changes the meaning, limiting it to only certain boys whom both the speaker and the listeners recognize. English contains thousands of adjectives and adverbs that you already know and use, most often correctly. The easiest way to learn to recognize adjectives and adverbs is to learn to recognize nouns, pronouns, and verbs, and then use your knowledge of English and the following rules:

Adjectives: Whatever modifies a noun or pronoun is an adjective.
       Consider the sentence The pretty little puppy jumped gleefully around the yard. A little though should lead you to the conclusion that "The," "pretty," and "little" describe (or modify) the noun "puppy." Thus they are adjectives.
Adverbs: Whatever modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb is an adverb.
       Further thought about the sentence The pretty little puppy jumped gleefully around the yard. should lead you to see that "gleefully" and "around the yard" modify the verb "jumped." "Gleefully" describes how it jumped, and "around the yard" explains where it jumped. Thus "gleefully" and "around the yard" are adverbs. Note that both adjectives and adverbs need not be a single word.
       Prepositional phrases (and other constructions that you will learn later) can function as adjectives and/or adverbs. Words or constructions that modify adjectives and adverbs are also called adverbs. In the sentence That is a very pretty dog. "pretty" is an adjective that modifies "dog," and "very" is an adverb because it modifies "pretty." (Note that it is not a "very dog.") Occasionally, adverbs are used to modify other adverbs, as in Do you have to run so quickly? In that sentence, "quickly" is an adverb that modifies the verb "run," and "so" modifies "quickly."