Reviewer  #3

KISS Grammar (You'll Love it)

     Ed Vavra describes his KISS curriculum, a five-level sequence of instruction
from grades three through eleven, as firmly grounded in theory and research; the
goal of the curriculum is to enable students "to explain and discuss the syntax of
any sentence they read or write."

Before looking at those claims and objectives, I must comment on the title.
The author may have meant "Keep it simple, stupid," as simply a joke of sorts, but
with his constant reference to the superiority of the KISS approach over every
other grammar book or method of teaching, the teachers of those other methods
and books will surely believe that "stupid" is addressed to them. Under most
circumstances the title would not be important at the review stage. However, in
the case of KISS Grammar (You'll Love It), the uncharitable "stupid" and its
patronizing tone pervade the whole book.

     Far more serious than tone, however, is the content, three main points of
which I shall cover in the discussion that follows:

Claiming that his curriculum is based on research, Vavra takes unjustified
and unsupported leaps from the descriptions of student writing in that
research to unwarranted conclusions about the scope and sequence of
teaching grammatical structures.

The narrow objective of the KISS approach--grammar knowledge as an
analytical tool--minimizes, if not ignores, the application of grammar
knowledge in the writing classroom, grammar as a writing tool.

.The KISS Approach not only ignores the past six decades of linguistic
research, it includes errors and misinterpretations; and it makes no use of
the students' own internal linguistic expertise.

     At the opening of Chapter 6, the author describes the overall design of his
curriculum as follows:
The research on natural syntactic development (Chapter Three) indicates
that subordinate clauses blossom between seventh and ninth grades and
that appositives and gerundives [Vavra's term for participles] (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
     Vavra bases this design on two well-known research studies, both of which
were published by NCTE. The most comprehensive is that of Walter Loban's
Language Development: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve (1976). The other is
Kellogg W. Hunt's Grammatical Structures Written at Three Grade Levels (1965). He
also quotes an article by Hunt in which he discusses natural syntactic

     By far the most useful research on language development is that of Loban, who
followed 211 school children from kindergarten through grade 12. (His study
began with 338 kindergartners in Oakland, California, 211 of whom were still
available twelve years later.) His subjects are divided into three groups--low,
random, and high--based on various measures of oral communications skills and,
beginning in fourth grade, on teachers' ratings of the students' skill and
proficiency in reading and the quality of their writing.

     Hunt's data come from two studies. In one, the data comprised in-class
writing (1,000 words) of eighteen students at each of three levels--grades 4, 8, and
12; in the other study, data were drawn from 50 students each in grades 4, 6, 8, 10,
and 12, along with a group of 50 skilled adults, all of whom had rewritten the
"Aluminum" passage, which Vavra included in his Appendix. Vavra also
refers to a study by O'Donnell that corroborates Hunt's findings.

     As Vavra details in Chapter 3, all the data show a "sharp increase in
subordinate clauses between seventh and eighth grades." On the basis of this
"sharp increase" (12 percent), Vavra maintains that "the research indicates that
subordinate clauses normally start to develop in seventh grade" [my emphasis].
However, as the charts that he reproduces on pages 4 and 5 show, even third
graders are writing with subordinate clauses; in the fourth grade Loban's high
group uses subordinate clauses in 38 percent of their communication units; the
random group in 18 percent; and between third and fourth grades there's an
increase of 11 percent in their use. However, because of that 12 percent jump
between seventh and eighth grades, Vavra jumps to the following conclusion:

[The only conclusive studies we have are those of Hunt, O'Donnell, and
Loban, all of which clearly show that subordinate clauses naturally
blossom in seventh and eighth grades. Attempts to get entire classes of
students to use more subordinate clauses in their writing before seventh
grade may, as Hake and Williams suggest, be counterproductive. [Vavra's
In other words, even though students at all levels use subordinate clauses (a term
that includes noun, adjectival, and adverbial clauses), KISS Grammar does not
discuss them until seventh grade.

In Chapter 8, in discussing identification exercises, Vavra includes a paragraph
written by a fourth grader. Here are the opening sentences, about half of the

My house is on a corner. It has red bricks and white trim. If you go in the front
door you go down the hall and turn left you come to my brothers room. If you go
straight again and turn right is my room. If you go across the hall is a bathroom.
Vavra explains how the passage can be used:
The first thing I want to suggest is that this passage is excellent material for
fourth graders to expand their concepts of nouns, verbs, adjectives,
adverbs, and prepositional phrases. The nouns and verbs are all relatively
simple and concrete. The prepositional phrases do not include gerunds or
clauses as their objects. In their own writing, fourth graders should have
little difficulty in recognizing these constructions, and the study on the
KISS web site suggests that, once they can, they will have syntactically
"explained" 90% of the words in the texts.
What he is suggesting to teachers here is to single out words, parts of
speech--nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs--for identification. It seems
clear, however, that the fourth-grader who wrote this description is trying very
hard to use subordinate if-clauses, a structure that children use with no difficulty
in speech. This student's teacher should not be asking the writer to look for
prepositional phrases and nouns and verbs; this writer should be getting help
with those if-clauses. And of course that discussion will require the student to
think about the concept of subjects and predicates, of the structure of clauses.

     Other researchers who have looked at the question of writing development
have come up with conclusions far different from Vavra's. The following
summary of research is by Robert L. Owens in his book Language Development
(Allyn & Bacon, 1996):

     Four phases in the development of writing are probable (Kroll, 1981):
preparation, consolidation, differentiation, and integration. In the
preparation phase, the child learns the physical aspects of handwriting by
copying words written by adults.
     At around age seven, the child enters the consolidation phase (Harpin,
1976; Wilkinson, Barnsley, Hanna, & Swan, 1979). In this phase, the child
can write independently using structures from speech in the same proportion as
they appear in speech. [my emphasis]
     In the differentiation phase, the child's writing begins to take on its
own grammatical characteristics. Speech and writing become
differentiated. This occurs at about age ten.
     Finally, a minority of mature writers enter the integration phase. In
this phase, writing has become sufficiently differentiated and integrated
that the personality of the writer can come through when desired and
appropriate. Change is not smooth but appears to occur in a series of
spurts at ages nine, thirteen, and seventeen, followed by periods of
consolidation (Harpin, 1976; Loban, 1976; O'Donnell, Griffin, & Norris,
1967). (396)
     In other words, the written sentences of second graders (seven-year-olds)
contain the same structures that they use in speech. Research shows that they
have been using adjective clauses--who and that clauses--since age four. And
while these and other subordinate clauses may not have "blossomed" as yet in
their writing, there is certainly nothing that supports the isolated lessons in KISS

     Vavra's entire five-level curriculum relies on unwarranted conclusions that he
claims are based on research--but which clearly are not. He certainly has no
research to offer in support of his beginning level--the identification of
prepositional phrases in grade three. It's clear that students are to find them in 
sentences in order to, as he puts it, "get them out of the way." In other words, if
the prepositional phrases are removed, the students will have an easier time 
finding the subjects, verbs, and complements, the subject matter of grade four.
But how do you teach students about subjects, verbs, and complements out of the
context of clauses, which, remember, are delayed until seventh grade? And why
would you want to? Terms like subject and complement get their meaning from the
roles they fill in clauses. They have no meaning outside of clauses.

Such a method is surely no better than beginning with the parts of speech, the
traditional textbook method that Vavra decries. This third-grade curriculum is
especially problematic because the students are encouraged to memorize a list of
prepositions, which they will then learn to spot. Hunt, however, in describing the
kinds of main verbs that students use in their writing (and certainly in their
speech), discovered frequent use of two-word verbs, which include words on that
memorized list. He notes that these verb-particle pairs are of two kinds--those
that are inseparable, such as look for (we do not say, "He looked his glasses for") and
those that are separable, such as look up ("He looked the word up"):

Inseparable two-word verbs increased in frequency: 84, 97,113. [Note:
These are numbers used at the three grade levels Hunt studied: fourth,
eighth, twelfth.] On the other hand separable two-word verbs decreased in
frequency: 100,59,57. (127)
In other words, the separable two-word verbs are more frequent in the writing of
fourth graders than. in the writing of twelfth graders. The point here is that
Vavra's third graders, whose job it is to spot prepositions, are going to identify
"for his glasses" as a prepositional phrase in the sentence "He looked for his
glasses." In the fifth grade they will have to correct their error when they study
the whole sentence. Vavra himself makes that error in the extended example he
analyzes in Chapter 10, page 5. The first step he illustrates is the parentheses to set [sic]
identify and set off the prepositional phrases:
They agreed that each would ask his superior (for permission).
In this sentence, however, ask for is a two-word verb meaning "request" with
permission as its direct object. Many verb-particle combinations can be identified 
in this way: Is there a single verb that can be substituted? Another test that
identifies permission as a direct object is to transform the sentence into the passive
voice; "Permission was asked for."

     I am not suggesting that third-graders be confronted with this issue--that is,
whether or not a particular sentence has a prepositional phrase or a two-word
verb. This issue will perhaps come up in their early high school years in the
discussion of verb choice, the difference in levels of formality and tone between
ask for and request. What I am suggesting is that prepositional phrases should be
studied in their roles as modifiers, within the context of clauses, not as a method of
clearing away words from the sentence so that the subjects and verbs and
complements are easier to find.

Unfortunately, Vavra's curriculum does not lend itself to the systematic study
of modification or subordination, neither the various forms of modifiers in the
noun phrase nor the various forms of adverbials that modify verbs. His
curriculum is based on forms rather than functions. An obvious example is his
take on verbals (gerundives [participles], gerunds, and infinitives), the
identification of which. is postponed until the tenth grade, in spite of their common
usage in the speech of little children and even, as the statistics in Hunt's study
show, in the writing of fourth graders.

     One of the most common uses of gerunds and infinitives is that of
complements to certain common verbs, the structures that are probably
considered "formulaic."  Here are some that Hunt lists as examples: We avoid
going. We refrained from going. We expect to go. According to Hunt,

The evidence of this study . . . indicates that complement verbs [that is,
infinitives and gerunds as direct objects] are fully mastered by the fourth
grade. There is no convincing evidence that any other verb complements
have not been mastered by the average fourth grader. This is one point
then, at which older students do not lengthen their clauses by expansion.
In other words, students in grade four used these structures as often as
the students in grade 12 (Hunt p. 125-26).
     It's true, of course, that verbals are also used in many nonformulaic ways.
Hunt relates that fourth graders rarely use gerund nominals (presumably he
means subjects), but the number increased by 40 percent in eighth grade (p. 110).
The frequency of participles and infinitives as noun modifiers doubles from fourth
grade to twelfth grade, but even at the fourth-grade level, the frequency is fairly
impressive. Hunt reports that the "running total of noun clause modifiers
[infinitives, past participles, present participles] now stands at 1,576,  2,143, 2,363"
(105). In other words, the researchers found 1,576 in the writing of fourth graders;
2,143 in the writing of eighth graders. Yet in Vavra's scheme, all verbals as a
group are labeled late-blooming structures; and all are taken up as a group on the
basis of their form, in spite of the variety of roles they perform.

One of the problems with the research--and with Vavra's interpretation of
it--is that the data do not distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive
modifiers. Some nonrestrictive modifiers are rarely used in speech--the
nonrestrictive adjectival clauses, appositives, participial phrases as free modifiers,
absolute phrases; these are the ones that should be delayed until the students are
learning to enrich. their descriptive writing, perhaps in ninth. or tenth. grades. (The
KISS curriculum, of course, is not designed for the enhancement of writing; it's
purpose is merely to identify.) However, there's no reason to avoid common
restrictive modifiers--that clauses, participial phrases in the noun phrase,
adverbial infinitives, common adverbial clauses. And, clearly, among the students
in most classes there will be avid readers who are probably good writers, students
who could very well be using these more sophisticated structures before their less
accomplished classmates are ready for them. Certainly there was a wide gap in
the writing ability of the high and low groups in Loban's research study.

     Even though Vavra names Paul Roberts as his favorite grammarian, there is
no evidence in KISS Grammar of any influence from Roberts or any other
structural linguist. Roberts built his grammar description on sentence patterns,
recognizing that differences in the predicates are determined by the class of the
verb; he classified words--as all modem linguists do--not into the traditional
eight parts of speech based on Latin but rather into classes based on English: form
and structure classes. The large, open classes--the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and
adverbs--are identifiable on the basis of their form; their formal properties help
students recognize their own linguistic ability (Can the word be made plural
and/or possessive? It must be a noun. Does it have both an -s and an -ing form?
It must be a verb.). Vavra appears to claim that the function determines the part of
speech; if it's a subject, it's a noun.

     Vavra dismisses entirely the notion of "determiner," one of the structure
classes (a class of noun signalers that includes possessive and demonstrative
pronouns, numbers, and articles). He labels as an adjective any structure that
modifies a noun, including the determiners. The following explanation from
Chapter 10, page 6, says a great deal about Vavra's attitude towards linguistics:

Unlike many of the new linguistic grammars, KISS does not, for example,
worry about whether "his" is an adjective or a possessive pronoun. (Does it
make a difference?) Nor does KISS treat determiners (a, an, the) as a
separate category. The linguists' argument, as I understand it, is that
determiners function differently. But if we follow that logic, we will end up
with 10,000 different categories. It is true that ESL students have problems
with determiners, but there is nothing that says supplemental materials
cannot be added to the KISS Approach to meet special needs.
He does not seem to realize that the "new linguistic grammars" include possessive
pronouns in the determiner category. And while there are more than eight parts
of speech in modem descriptions, most linguists discuss less than a dozen. Does
Vavra really not know that "determiners function differently" from adjectives?
And does he understand the concept of known and new information, the
importance of the as a signal that the noun is already known to the reader, of a as a
signal that the information is new?

    It's obvious that Vavra does not recognize how helpful the conscious
recognition of determiners can be to native speakers in their understanding of
noun phrases--and thus their understanding of the various nominal functions. A
determiner signals the beginning of a noun phrase. And nowhere does he suggest
to students that the parameters of any nominal slot can be determined by
substituting a pronoun. In a sentence such as

The little boy standing across the street threw a rock at me,
the student will have no problem identifying the line between the subject and the
predicate, even with that verb phrase embedded as a modifier in the
subject--even with those two prepositional phrases cluttering it up. Simply
substitute a personal pronoun:
He threw a rock at me.
In Vavra's curriculum the participial phrase "standing across the street" would
presumably not come up until tenth grade. His third graders would isolate the
prepositional phrases and end up with
The little boy standing threw a rock.
     Vavra's goal for the KISS approach is to teach students to analyze every word
and structure in their own writing:
Their ultimate objective is to be able to explain how any word in any
sentence that they read or write is syntactically connected to a main
subject/ verb pattern. As they learn to do this, they gain a conscious
understanding of the logic of sentence structure, and they can use this logic
to discuss all the important questions about both errors and style. The KISS
.Approach bridges the gap between formal instruction and application. [his
     My question on reading that goal is to ask why it's necessary or important for
a student to be able to discuss every word. Even if they could do that, what would
be the purpose? And certainly their lessons here have not equipped them to do
so. But more important, nowhere in KISS Grammar do we see an emphasis on
grammar knowledge as a writing tool. And certainly in the materials for teachers,
there is nothing that connects this analytical goal to writing. The exercises, the
games, the activities are isolated grammar lessons.

     For example, the curriculum includes the identification of compounds right
from the start--one of the goals for third grade. (Based on research, perhaps?) But
there is nothing in the curriculum about the effects that compounding can have;
nothing about parallelism and its stylistic and rhetorical possibilities, its effect on
cohesion. In fact, the concept of cohesion is never mentioned, in spite of its many
grammatical connections, including the cohesive force of pronouns.

     In my opening I noted also that the KISS curriculum includes factual errors
and misinterpretations. Vavra s term gerundive is certainly one of these. This term
was used early in the last century by perhaps only one linguist. It never caught
on--and now it is simply not used. And while it's true that we use participle in
two senses--both to name the -ing and -en forms of verbs and also to name their
adjectival function--teachers and students have no problem make [sic] the distinction.

     Another term Vavra misuses here is that ofinterjection. This term names one
of the eight parts of speech in traditional grammar--in other words, the name of a
word class. And that is the only application it has, the only way that grammar
books and linguists use it. Vavra uses the term in that traditional way, but he
adds another: the name of a function. Because the traditional interjection stands
outside of the sentence (Wow!. Look at that.), he makes the leap that every
structure that functions independently of the main clause should be called an
interjection. As he points out, linguists call such structures sentence modifiers.
He has decided, on his own, to rename them.

     Another misuse is the expansion of noun absolute to refer to any noun-plus-
participle combination. He opens his discussion (Chapter 16, p. 6) with the
following statement:

Most texts define the noun absolute as a noun plus gerundive
construction that usually functions as an adverb but which may function
as a noun.
I have never read a description that defines an absolute phrase as anything other than a sentence modifier, a structure that makes a comment on the sentence as a whole. Absolutes may have an
adverbial feel to them, in that they sometimes explain purpose, but they certainly
do not function as either nouns or adverbs. He cites the following sentence as an
example of an absolute phrase used as a noun:
He wears a top hat in that fine portrait of him sitting in his garden. ...
He explains the so-called absolute in this way:
You could, of course, explain "him" as the object of the preposition "of"
and "sitting" as a gerundive modifying it. But such an explanation,
although allowable, deflates the nexal connection of "him and "sitting," a
connection that can be seen if we rephrase it to the "portrait in which  he is
sitting. " Some students, in other words, may prefer to chunk "Him" and
"sitting" together first, and then explain the noun absolute as the object of a
Vavra was pleased when a student identified "one smoking" in the following
sentence as a noun absolute:
The first one returned to find the second one smoking.
Here is his discussion of the student's analysis:
Since students have to learn about noun absolutes anyway (because of
their adverbial function), why shouldn't we use the concept in cases such
as this, where it creates a better fit between the syntactic explanation and
the meaning of the sentence! Although I still accept the explanation of
"one" as the direct object and "smoking" as a gerundive that modifies it, I
wouldn't dare tell this student that she is wrong. She has taken the
descriptive syntactic rules of KISS Grammar and made them meaningful.
What more could we ask for?
Why shouldn't we call "him sitting" and "one smoking" absolute phrases?
Because they are not absolute phrases! The phrase "the second one smoking" is a
direct object followed by an object complement. I should mention that throughout
these pages Vavra makes a point of disregarding all object complements, so it's no
surprise to find they are being given a creative explanation by students.

    There is a great deal of creativity throughout KISS Grammar, the most serious
element of which is the claim that its plan for scope and sequence is backed by
research. There is simply no basis for that claim.