Chapter 6 When Should We Teach It?
The Ideal KISS Curriculum: Integrating Instruction with Natural Syntactic Development

       The research on natural syntactic development (Chapter Three) indicates that subordinate clauses blossom between seventh and ninth grades and that appositives and gerundives (when not formulaic) develop after the subordinate clause. Based on the research and theory, therefore, KISS proposes the following basic sequence for placing instruction in grammar into specific grade levels:

Grade 3 -- Prepositional Phrases and Compounding
Grades 4-6 -- Add Subjects, Verbs, and Complements; Adjectives & Adverbs; Ellipsis
Grades 7-9 -- Add Clauses (Main and Subordinate)
Grade 10 -- Add Verbals (Gerunds, Gerundives, and Infinitives)
Grade 11 -- Add Eight Additional Constructions (including Appositives)

More specific reasons for this sequence, and possible variations in it, are discussed in Part IV; here we are concerned with the overarching theoretical justification of the design.
       As Hake and Williams argue (See Chapter Two.), instruction is not helpful unless students are ready for it. Thus the most obvious justification for the design is that it puts subordinate clauses precisely in those grade levels in which the research shows that these constructions naturally develop. Likewise, it places gerundives and appositives after instruction in subordinate clauses.
       A second justification for the ideal KISS Curriculum is that it gives students time to assimilate and consciously apply basic grammatical constructions. Assimilation is a slow process. One needs lots of examples, including examples that are on the fringes of the concept. Consider, for example, "prepositional phrase." When they get to it, most textbooks define it as a preposition plus a noun, and they give several simple examples -- "in the house," "to the store," etc. They may, if they are better than average, give some examples of prepositional phrases with compound objects -- "with Sue and Sally." Students are usually given some exercises in which they are to identify such phrases, all of which are, as Mellon suggested, too simple. Then they go on to some other concept. For students, however, this approach probably gives the impression that the concept is a closed box -- with its dimensions clearly established.
        Thereafter, some students have trouble reopening (and resizing) the box to accommodate expansions of the concept. Some students will, for example, be confused by prepositional phrases in which the preposition is ellipsed. I have already discussed "Put on your thinking cap," but I am always saddened by the number of students who thoughtlessly mark "on your thinking cap" as a prepositional phrase. We can alleviate this problem if we spend more time on fewer concepts. In teaching prepositional phrases, for example, we could ask students why Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, said "of the people, by the people, and for the people." It would have been more in keeping with the brevity of his famous speech if he had said "of, by, and for the people." Such discussions of prepositional phrases in real texts not only extend basic grammatical concepts beyond the examples given in most textbooks, they can also lead to discussions of meaning and rhetoric.
        The previous example also illustrates a second requirement for assimilation -- what is assimilated must be meaningful to those doing the assimilating. Part of the problem here is the perception of the purpose of teaching grammar. The general public assumes that grammar should be taught so that students will speak and write "correctly." The "Traditional/Formalists" have taken that expectation as license to teach grammatical constructions. They suggest that the grammar learned will improve thinking and style, but they put such focus on masses of grammatical terms that they rarely get to discussions of style and meaning. When a teacher does attempt to apply grammatical concepts to questions of style, students are lost. As Amy Martinsen notes, "Adjectives? Clauses? Prepositional Phrases? No one know what I'm talking about . . . . " (122) A slower approach with fewer concepts would enable teachers to integrate identification (which is what most textbooks currently teach) with questions of style and meaning.
        A third requirement for assimilation of systematic knowledge (and syntax is a system) is that new knowledge should be based on previously assimilated knowledge. For example, the traditional definition of a simple sentence (or main clause) as expressing a "complete thought" is meaningless. If modern linguistics has taught us anything, it has taught us that "the blue house" is the surface equivalent of "The house is blue." And, if "The house is blue" is a complete thought, then isn't "the blue house" one also? Because "complete thought" is never clarified, the definition is totally useless to students. The KISS Approach, on the other hand, builds the students' conscious knowledge of clauses on their previously assimilated knowledge of subjects, finite verbs, and complements -- a clause is a subject / verb / complement pattern and all the words that modify it. But for the KISS Approach to be meaningful, the definition by itself is not sufficient -- students need to be able to identify the subjects, verbs and complements in real texts. And this requires practice.
       I have hammered on the definition of "assimilate" longer than I intended to, but its importance to the teaching of grammar may be even more important than I thought it is. One of the major reasons for the failure of traditional approaches is that they do not give students the time to assimilate new information. Remember that in the Harris study, one of the primary studies used to show the ineffectiveness of teaching grammar, Harris was disappointed to find that the majority of the students had "learned" fewer than half of the grammatical concepts that were taught. If they could not remember them at the end of the period of instruction, they certainly had not assimilated them. We need to remember that "Slow and steady wins the race."

Three Guiding Ideas

        Three ideas guide the KISS sequence of instruction. One is Jerome Bruner's idea of a "spiral curriculum." Another is a focus on the constructions that appear most frequently first. The third is the effectiveness of the process of elimination as a pedagogical tool.

Bruner's "Spiral Curriculum"

       Jerome Bruner, a well-known educational psychologist, has proposed what he calls a "spiral curriculum"

in which ideas are first presented in a form and language, honest though imprecise, which can be grasped by the child, ideas that can be revisited later with greater precision and power until, finally, the student has achieved the reward of mastery. (On-Knowing, 107-8)
The KISS Approach exemplifies Bruner's spiral curriculum. Students begin by learning to identify simple prepositional phrases. As they search for these phrases in real texts, they will find occasional "advanced" phrases. When they do so, the teacher should simply say,  "This is an advanced phrase. You will learn about it later." When students get to subordinate clauses, prepositional phrases with clauses as their objects expand the basic concept.  When they get to verbals, the concept expands to include phrases with infinitives as the object of the preposition. (Students usually have no trouble recognizing gerunds as objects of prepositions.) Later, when they get to noun absolutes, the concept of "prepositional phrase" can expand still more. Bruner's spiral curriculum means that we do not have to dump every advanced concept onto students at one time (or even in one year). We can lead students from the simple, into the complex.

Focus First on the most Frequently Occurring Constructions

        KISS is designed to focus on the most frequently occurring constructions first. Doing so not only makes the task easier, it can also be used to motivate students. Studies on the KISS web site indicate that approximately 23% of the words written by fourth graders are in simple prepositional phrases. At one point during fourth grade, the students could each analyze a short sample of their own writing. As part of this project, each student could count the total number of words, and the total number of words in prepositional phrases. By dividing one by the other, they could see how much of the text they have already been able to analyze. If, in addition to prepositional phrases, they count simple adjectives and adverbs, they will find themselves close to 42% of the way toward being able to understand and explain how every word functions. Such an exercise would demonstrate to the students how much progress they have already made -- they did the analysis, they did the counting. (Fourth graders might need some help with the math.)
       I currently do not have the comparable figures for seventh graders' writing, but if we add the words in S/V/C slots for fourth graders, they would find themselves 90% of the way toward the goal. If, once or twice at each level, students do such a project, they will clearly see for themselves the progress that they are making.

The Process of Elimination as a Pedagogical Tool

        I have suggested elsewhere in this book that if students are taught to recognize prepositional phrases, and are then instructed to eliminate from consideration what is in them when they look for subjects and verbs, students will find subjects and verbs much easier to identify. Similarly, if students are taught the basic S/V/C clause pattern, they will find it much easier to identify the subjects of verbs in subordinate clauses because the complement of one verb cannot be the subject of another. The KISS Approach uses this "process of elimination" in several other contexts to make it much easier for students to build on what they have already learned.
        The traditional definition of a "direct object," for example, is not very helpful. What does "receives the action of the verb" mean? In the KISS Approach, students learn an "ostensive" definition of "direct object." First, they find the complement of a verb by asking a question (Verb + "what?"). If they find a complement, the first thing they should check for is a predicate adjective. If the complement is an adjective, and it modifies the subject, then it is a predicate adjective. If it is not, they check for a predicate noun. If it is not a predicate noun, they check for an indirect object (Verb + "to" or "for" whom?). If that doesn't work, the complement has to be a direct object. Students thus learn to recognize direct objects through a process of elimination.
        The process of elimination works at every KISS level. As noted in the previous chapter, students learn to identify verbals by eliminating finite verbs from consideration. They then find those infinitives that lack the "to" signal by eliminating gerunds and gerundives. Any verbal that is left unanalyzed has to be an infinitive. At the last KISS level, students follow the regular KISS procedure, beginning with prepositional phrases, through S/V/C patterns, clauses, and verbals. They then use the "Additional" concepts to analyze what remains. In almost twenty years of using this approach, I have had only one student who never could master it. He refused to follow the sequence and use the process of elimination. As a result, he would consider "going" in "They were going to the store" as a gerundive. (And note that this single failure is really a failure to follow simple directions.) The process of elimination is an extremely helpful tool for students who learn to use it.

The KISS Sequence vs. the Ideal KISS Curriculum

       The ideal KISS Curriculum is, of course, just that, ideal. It is solidly based on theory and research, but most teachers and school systems are not aware of its existence. Implementing it (or any other curriculum design based on the theory and research) will require a lot of coordination and some experimentation. To look at how we might proceed, we need to distinguish the KISS sequence from the KISS Curriculum. The sequence is simply the order in which constructions should be taught, without reference to grade levels. Four questions that have frequently been asked about the KISS sequence and curriculum.

1. Can the KISS Curriculum be taught in two or three years?

        Three is much better than two, but either is possible, assuming, of course, that we are talking about middle or high school students. It would require a more time each year, but, for example, students could learn to recognize prepositional phrases and S/V/C patterns in eighth grade, clauses in ninth, and the remaining constructions in tenth. The students would not have the mastery that they would have if the sequence is spread out more. Within such a limited time span, a better objective would be to get students just through Level Three (Clauses). Students who have a good conscious command of clauses can understand not only what is wrong with fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons, but they can also do substantial work with questions of style -- clause length, subordination, etc. A focus on these questions of errors and style would be much more fruitful than attempting to give students a conscious knowledge of verbals and the eight additional constructions.
       The only real problem here is getting all the teachers to agree to coordinate instruction. (See #2, below.)

2. I like the KISS Approach, and I would like to get the sequence used across several grade levels at my school. But even many of the English teachers still claim that teaching grammar doesn't help. What should I do?

        Give the teachers print-outs from the KISS web site (or a copy of this book). Remember that many teachers may refer to the research simply because they themselves feel uncomfortable with their own knowledge of grammar. In attempting to convince teachers, therefore, be sure to refer to the KISS description of the teacher's basic responsibility and response -- "I don't know." In addition, you might also want to address the school board and the general public. In doing so, don't forget that the KISS Approach requires no expensive textbooks. Everything needed for the approach is free.

3. Can the KISS Approach be compressed into one year so that I can use it with my students?

        The answer to this question is "Yes and No."  Part of the answer depends on which grade level one is teaching at. The research and theory suggest that you will not be able to get seventh graders effectively through noun absolutes and appositives -- the constructions are beyond their "zone." It is possible to get students through any of the levels that correspond to their grade level (as described above). Doing so, however, will probably require a fair amount of time.
        In Part IV, I have divided the practical suggestions into two parts for each level -- the "Required" and the "Desired." The "Required" is limited to what students need to go to the next level. Subordinate clauses (Level Three) are most easily mastered if students can recognize all the words in S/V/C patterns (Level Two). Teachers who have to start at Level One, but who want to get to level Three in one year, will probably want to limit what they do in Levels One and Two to the "Required." It's possible.
        There are, however, a couple of obstacles. For one, our students are not accustomed to systematic instruction in grammar that builds on previous knowledge. Where they do get it the most is in math, and one need simply talk to math instructors to become aware of the problem. Why do math instructors, after all, almost always require students to "show their work"?  The answer, of course, is that the work shown reveals the steps (or sequence) that the student used, or didn't use, to solve the problem. It takes a while for my students, for example, to believe me when I tell them that they should work through a passage, sentence by sentence, first identifying all the prepositional phrases, and only then looking for S/V/C patterns. Numerous students work haphazardly, marking an S/V/C pattern here, a prepositional phrase there, etc., often making many mistakes as a result. One of the reasons I like to use the KISS Grammar Game (See Part IV.) to check homework is that the game emphasizes (and Petes and Repeats) the analytical sequence.
        The other obstacle is related to the first, but relates specifically to the students' previous instruction in grammar. Currently students are accustomed to being asked to learn useless (often senseless) rules and definitions. As a result, many students simply ignore them. These students know that they are not going to fail the course simply because they failed the quizzes or tests on these rules. So why bother? One of the very few things I ask my students to memorize is the definition of a clause -- "A clause is a subject/verb/complement pattern and all the words that chunk to it." By the time I assign this definition, the students have already learned to recognize prepositional phrases. I tell them that they will need the definition in order to understand clauses, and I even give them an example of how they will use it. I tell them that they will be quizzed on the definition, all or nothing, and that "chunk to," "go to," or 'modify" must be included in their definition. Still, on the first quiz, about half of the students fail to give me the definition. They learn it only after we have spent two, three, four, or more classes analyzing sentences by using the definition. The "Traditional/Formal" approach (Memorize the definition and then forget it.) has turned off many students. As a result, they need to see for themselves that memorizing a definition can really be useful. Of course, the fact that they don't memorize it means that it takes the class as a whole a lot longer to get through clauses.
        On the positive side, the KISS Approach can certainly be improved. As more teachers become aware of it and contribute to the KISS web site (and to other books and websites that I hope will spring up with KISS-like approaches), more and better ideas for helping students will be forthcoming.

4. How can we teach the KISS Approach when we have to worry about our state's educational standards?

        This is an important question, but it is relatively easy to answer. When I get it, it seems to come from teachers who are 1) not very comfortable with their own conscious command of grammar, and 2) more harassed by administrators and consultants, telling them what to do, than by the standards themselves. I do not claim to be an expert in every state's educational standards, but from what I have seen of them, the standards themselves are basically repetitive and meaningless when it comes to grammar. Perhaps because I do not focus on a particular state, they also seem to change mysteriously. As a result, the standards do not conflict with a KISS Approach.
        When I say that they are repetitive, I mean that many of them are like Pennsylvania's. Pennsylvania, at least, lays them out in a single chart such that one can easily compare standards across grade levels. The following discussion is based on the file "Reading.pdf" downloaded from on August 8, 2001. 22 Pennsylvania Code, Chapter 4, Appendix A, "Academic Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening . . . ." A search of the document for the words "grammar," "appositive," "apposition," "participle," and "participial" turned up a blank. The words "clause" and "syntax" show up only in the glossary (which is strange), where "syntax" is defined as "The pattern or structure of word order in sentences, clauses and phrases." The closest I could find to anything relevant to grammar is in section "1.5 Quality of Writing." Subsection F states "Edit writing using the conventions of language." The standards are divided into four columns, for grades 3, 5, 8, and 11, and there are five items in each column. The first item concerns spelling; the second, capitalization.
       I was going to spare you the third, punctuation, but in looking at it again, I noted something. Third graders are expected to "[p]unctuate correctly (periods, exclamation points, question marks, commas in a series)." For fifth grade, students are expected to to "[p]unctuate correctly (periods, exclamation points, question marks, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes)." For eighth grade, we find to "[p]unctuate correctly (periods, exclamation points, question marks, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, parentheses)." In twelfth -- "[p]unctuate correctly (periods, exclamation points, question marks, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, parentheses, hyphens, brackets, ellipses)."  To an extent, this suggests what I mean by repetitive, but what I really find interesting is that the dash is apparently not an acceptable punctuation mark in Pennsylvania. (I hope that using them is not against the law?!)
       A better example of both repetition and meaninglessness is the next item, which is the same for all grade levels: "Use nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections properly." If this statement is to have any meaning, I have to assume that the writers meant that students are not supposed to use cuss-words, no matter what part of speech the words fall into. If I do not interpret the statement in this way, it is meaningless. All children use all the parts of speech "properly" (in a linguistic sense) well before they enter school. We might as well look at the last item, which is also the same for all grade levels -- "Use complete sentences (simple, compound, complex, declarative, interrogative, exclamatory and imperative)." Is the Pennsylvania Department of Education trying to tell us that there are preschool children who do not use all of these sentence types, usually as "complete" sentences?
       I have picked on Pennsylvania because I live in the state, and because I have challenged these standards before. [See:] In one of their drafts of the standards, for third grade they had "Write with proper usage of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions." I wrote, " It is especially perplexing in that 'prepositions and interjections' are added for grade five. Would the writers of the standards care to show us some examples of the writing of third graders in which prepositions are NOT used?"  They couldn't, so they added prepositions and interjections to the list for third graders. They couldn't take the other tack -- and eliminate the entire item. If they did that, the entire house of cards would fall flat. (By the way, in that draft, they included dashes -- and they also gave examples. I noted that the examples for the hyphen and dash were identical -- and they took out the dash.) As far as grammar is concerned, Pennsylvania's state standards are so vague that they are meaningless. Such standards in no way obstruct the implementation of the KISS Approach.
       There are, however, some state standards that may cause some trouble. I looked at California's standards because California has a major effect on the textbooks. In order to get their textbooks accepted for use in California, publishers have to follow the state's standards. The rest of the country is then affected by the decisions of California. Although they are probably as repetitive as the standards for Pennsylvania, California hides this by presenting standards for each grade separately. It is quite clear that the writers of California's standards have no knowledge of the work of Hunt, O'Donnell, and Loban. Under "1.0 Written and Oral English Language Conventions," in the sub-section on "Sentence Structure," for fourth graders they have:

1.1 Use simple and compound sentences in writing and speaking.
1.2  Combine short, related sentences with appositives, participial phrases, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases."
Hunt, as noted in Chapter Three, showed that fourth graders naturally love to write compound sentences. They can -- and this includes all of them -- also write simple sentences.
        Ironically, the sentence immediately preceding those quoted states, "Students write and speak with a command of standard English conventions appropriate to this grade level."
Yet they expect fourth graders to combine sentences with appositives and participial phrases, both of which Hunt specifically shows as "late-blooming" -- probably after eighth grade. (Remember that Hunt claimed that the participial phrase blossoms between high school and college!) Here, we have a state imposing a standard that is clearly at odds with the KISS Approach -- and with all the research that we have about natural syntactic development. The teachers in California (and the rest of us, since California affects the textbooks) may have a problem. Further study of the standards, however, suggests that the problem is not as serious as it first appears.
        The California standards include a "Glossary" which defines the word "Appositive":
A word or phrase that restates or modifies an immediately preceding noun. Note: An appositive is often useful as a context clue for determining or refining the meaning of the word or words to which it refers.
Example: My son Enrico (appositive) is twelve years old.
This is a very interesting and juvenile definition and example. At the tine I read it, I happened to be preparing a KISS analysis, by levels, of Shakespeare's "That time of year." It contains two appositives:
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
I wondered if most people would consider "boughs" as "immediately preceding" "choirs," and "night" as immediately preceding "self." Because there is no noun, in either case, between the appositive and its antecedent, I decided to give the California State Board the benefit of the doubt here, but, my curiosity aroused, I also decided to look for some other examples.
        I found an interesting one in the opening of "Daisy Miller," by Henry James:
But at the "Trois Couronnes," it must be added, there are other features that are much at variance with these suggestions: neat German waiters, who look like secretaries of legation; Russian princesses sitting in the garden; little Polish boys walking about held by the hand, with their governors; a view of the sunny crest of the Dent du Midi and the picturesque towers of the Castle of Chillon.
If we apply the California definition to this, instead of all being appositives to "features," "waiters" is an appositive to "suggestions"; "princesses," to "legation"; "boys," to "garden"; and "view," to "governors." Defenders of the California definition might object that the semicolons in James' sentence separate these words from each other such that one cannot be the antecedent for the other. Nothing in the definition states this, but if we allow the objection, then each of the appositives ends up being in apposition to "suggestions."
       Because the California definition is so simplistic, we need to look at the example, "My son Enrico. Such kinship appositives (Uncle Bob, sister Sue, cousin Sam) are in all probability examples of O'Donnell's "formulas." Fourth graders are past-masters of them. If this is what the standard means, then we have another example of state standards setting as an objective something that the students already know. We need to remember, moreover, that the standard states  " Combine short, related sentences with appositives, participial phrases, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases."  Fourth graders do not need to be able to identify appositives and participial phrases," they just need to "combine" them.
       Because California has such a limited definition of the appositive, and because fourth graders have already mastered the kinship appositives as formulas, teachers in California can abide by the standards without violating what we know about natural syntactic development. All they have to do is to limit the exercises to kinship appositives:
My uncle's name is Bob. He is a fisherman. (My uncle Bob is a fisherman.)
These will be very easy to teach because the students will very quickly "learn" them. And the California Department of Education should be happy. A problem remains, of course. The textbook publishers read the word "appositive" and included exercises such as "Mary is a biologist. She studies animals." The research, as well as my own experience, suggests that such exercises confuse some fourth graders, but what California wants, California usually gets.
        California, as noted, also requires fourth graders to combine short sentences with participial phrases, another advanced construction. (Interestingly, the standards contain no definition or examples of such phrases.)  Because fourth graders, as a whole, do not use formulaic participial phrases (gerundives), this will cause some problems. The research clearly suggests that such phrases are beyond fourth graders' "zone of proximal development." It is true, of course that one can give fourth graders some simple examples and simple exercises and that most students will be able to do most of the exercises correctly. But both the research and theory suggest that such instruction does not "stick" -- and that it may confuse some students. If I were teaching in California, I would obey the law, but I would also be screaming about the ignorance demonstrated in the standards for fourth grade students. (The research, after all, has been around since the sixties and seventies.)
        There are other problems with the California standards. For example, they require seventh graders to "[I]dentify and use infinitives and participles." Children, of course use infinitives before they enter school. On the other hand, participial phrases are far and few between in their writing, and those that appear are probably formulaic. The writers of the standards, however, appear to be unaware of these differences between the two constructions. It is interesting to note that California students are expected to be able to identify participial phrases only when they get to ninth and tenth grades. The standards for those grades state, "Identify and correctly use clauses (e.g., main and subordinate), phrases (e.g., gerund, infinitive, and participial), and mechanics of punctuation (e.g., semicolons, colons, ellipses, and hyphens)." The poor dash got left out again. In treating the gerund, infinitive, and participial equally, the writers appear to have no sense that students rarely use gerunds or infinitives incorrectly, whereas participles cause numerous misplaced modifiers. The writers of California's standards, like the writers of the standards of most states, have little understanding of grammar, and even less of natural syntactic development.
       Instead of bowing to the standards, we ought to be pointing out the specific weaknesses in them. As a profession, of course, we have a problem in doing that. The "anti-grammar" tidal wave has left many of our teachers, teachers who might otherwise provide strong and experienced voices, unprepared to discuss what grammar to teach and when to teach it.