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
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
other grammar book or method of teaching, the teachers of those other
and books will surely believe that "stupid" is addressed to them. Under
circumstances the title would not be important at the review stage.
the case of KISS Grammar (You'll Love It), the uncharitable "stupid"
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
At the opening of Chapter 6, the author describes
the overall design of his
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
the students' own internal linguistic expertise.
curriculum as follows:
The research on natural syntactic development (Chapter Three)
Vavra bases this design
on two well-known research studies, both of which
that subordinate clauses blossom between seventh and ninth grades and
that appositives and gerundives [Vavra's term for participles] (when
formulaic) develop after the subordinate clause. Based on the research
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 &
Grades 7 -9-- Add Clauses (Main and Subordinate)
Grade 10--Add Verbals (Gerunds Gerundives, and Infinitives)
Grade 11--Add Eight Additional Constructions. (including
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
began with 338 kindergartners in Oakland, California, 211 of whom were
available twelve years later.) His subjects are divided into three
random, and high--based on various measures of oral communications
beginning in fourth grade, on teachers' ratings of the students' skill
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
"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
"sharp increase" (12 percent), Vavra maintains
that "the research indicates that
subordinate clauses normally start to develop in seventh grade"
However, as the charts that he reproduces on pages 4 and 5 show, even
graders are writing with subordinate clauses; in the fourth grade Loban's
group uses subordinate clauses in 38 percent of their communication
random group in 18 percent; and between third and fourth grades there's
increase of 11 percent in their use. However, because of that 12 percent
between seventh and eighth grades, Vavra jumps to the following conclusion:
[The only conclusive studies we have are those of Hunt, O'Donnell,
In other words, even though students at all levels use subordinate clauses
Loban, all of which clearly show that subordinate clauses naturally
blossom in seventh and eighth grades. Attempts to get entire
students to use more subordinate clauses in their writing before seventh
grade may, as Hake and Williams suggest, be counterproductive. [Vavra's
that includes noun, adjectival, and adverbial clauses), KISS Grammar
discuss them until seventh grade.
In Chapter 8, in discussing identification exercises, Vavra includes
written by a fourth grader. Here are the opening sentences, about half
My house is on a corner. It has red bricks and white trim.
If you go in the front
Vavra explains how the passage can be used:
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.
The first thing I want to suggest is that this passage is excellent
What he is suggesting to teachers here is to single out
words, parts of
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
clauses as their objects. In their own writing, fourth graders should
little difficulty in recognizing these constructions, and the study
KISS web site suggests that, once they can, they will have syntactically
"explained" 90% of the words in the texts.
speech--nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs--for identification.
clear, however, that the fourth-grader who wrote this description is
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
prepositional phrases and nouns and verbs; this writer should be getting
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
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):
In other words, the written sentences of second
preparation, consolidation, differentiation, and integration. In the
preparation phase, the child learns the physical aspects of handwriting
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,
can write independently using structures from speech in the same
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
spurts at ages nine, thirteen, and seventeen, followed by periods of
consolidation (Harpin, 1976; Loban, 1976; O'Donnell, Griffin, &
contain the same structures that they use in speech. Research shows
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
research to offer in support of his beginning level--the identification
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
finding the subjects, verbs, and complements, the subject matter of
But how do you teach students about subjects, verbs, and complements
out of the
context of clauses, which, remember, are delayed until seventh grade?
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
especially problematic because the students are encouraged to memorize
a list of
prepositions, which they will then learn to spot. Hunt, however, in
kinds of main verbs that students use in their writing (and certainly
speech), discovered frequent use of two-word verbs, which include words
memorized list. He notes that these verb-particle pairs are of two
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
Inseparable two-word verbs increased in frequency: 84, 97,113.
In other words, the separable two-word verbs are more frequent in the writing
These are numbers used at the three grade levels Hunt studied: fourth,
eighth, twelfth.] On the other hand separable two-word verbs decreased
frequency: 100,59,57. (127)
fourth graders than. in the writing of twelfth graders. The point here
Vavra's third graders, whose job it is to spot prepositions, are going
"for his glasses" as a prepositional phrase in the sentence "He looked
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
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"
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
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
verb. This issue will perhaps come up in their early high school years
discussion of verb choice, the difference in levels of formality and
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
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
noun phrase nor the various forms of adverbials that modify verbs.
curriculum is based on forms rather than functions. An obvious example
take on verbals (gerundives [participles], gerunds, and infinitives),
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:
going. We refrained from going. We expect to go. According to
The evidence of this study . . . indicates that complement
verbs [that is,
It's true, of
course, that verbals are also used in many nonformulaic ways.
infinitives and gerunds as direct objects] are fully mastered by the
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
the students in grade 12 (Hunt p. 125-26).
Hunt relates that fourth graders rarely use gerund nominals (presumably
means subjects), but the number increased by 40 percent in eighth grade
The frequency of participles and infinitives as noun modifiers doubles
grade to twelfth grade, but even at the fourth-grade level, the frequency
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
2,143 in the writing of eighth graders. Yet in Vavra's scheme, all verbals
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
learning to enrich. their descriptive writing, perhaps in ninth. or
tenth. grades. (The
KISS curriculum, of course, is not designed for the enhancement of
purpose is merely to identify.) However, there's no reason to avoid
restrictive modifiers--that clauses, participial phrases in
the noun phrase,
adverbial infinitives, common adverbial clauses. And, clearly, among
in most classes there will be avid readers who are probably good writers,
who could very well be using these more sophisticated structures before
accomplished classmates are ready for them. Certainly there was a wide
the writing ability of the high and low groups in Loban's research
Even though Vavra names Paul Roberts
as his favorite grammarian, there is
no evidence in KISS Grammar of any influence from Roberts or
structural linguist. Roberts built his grammar description on sentence
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
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,
adverbs--are identifiable on the basis of their form; their formal
students recognize their own linguistic ability (Can the word be made
and/or possessive? It must be a noun. Does it have both an -s and an
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
modifies a noun, including the determiners. The following explanation
Chapter 10, page 6, says a great deal about Vavra's attitude towards
Unlike many of the new linguistic grammars, KISS does not,
He does not seem to realize that the "new linguistic
grammars" include possessive
worry about whether "his" is an adjective or a possessive pronoun.
make a difference?) Nor does KISS treat determiners (a, an, the)
separate category. The linguists' argument, as I understand it, is
determiners function differently. But if we follow that logic, we will
with 10,000 different categories. It is true that ESL students have
with determiners, but there is nothing that says supplemental materials
cannot be added to the KISS Approach to meet special needs.
pronouns in the determiner category. And while there are more than
of speech in modem descriptions, most linguists discuss less than a
Vavra really not know that "determiners function differently" from
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
recognition of determiners can be to native speakers in their understanding
noun phrases--and thus their understanding of the various nominal functions.
determiner signals the beginning of a noun phrase. And nowhere does
to students that the parameters of any nominal slot can be determined
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
predicate, even with that verb phrase embedded as a modifier in the
subject--even with those two prepositional phrases cluttering it up.
substitute a personal pronoun:
He threw a rock at me.
In Vavra's curriculum the participial phrase "standing across the street"
presumably not come up until tenth grade. His third graders would isolate
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
My question on reading that goal is to ask why
it's necessary or important for
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
to discuss all the important questions about both errors and style.
.Approach bridges the gap between formal instruction and application.
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
grammar knowledge as a writing tool. And certainly in the materials
there is nothing that connects this analytical goal to writing. 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,
there is nothing in the curriculum about the effects that compounding
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
on--and now it is simply not used. And while it's true that we use
two senses--both to name the -ing and -en forms of verbs and also to
adjectival function--teachers and students have no problem make [sic]
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
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
outside of the sentence (Wow!. Look at that.), he makes the
leap that every
structure that functions independently of the main clause should be
interjection. As he points out, linguists call such structures sentence
He has decided, on his own, to rename them.
is the expansion of noun absolute to refer to any noun-plus-
participle combination. He opens his discussion (Chapter 16, p. 6)
Most texts define the noun absolute as a noun plus gerundive
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
construction that usually functions as an adverb but which may function
as a noun.
adverbial feel to them, in that they sometimes explain purpose, but
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
Vavra was pleased when a student identified
"one smoking" in the following
and "sitting" as a gerundive modifying it. But such an explanation,
although allowable, deflates the nexal connection of "him and "sitting,"
connection that can be seen if we rephrase it to the "portrait in which
sitting. " Some students, in other words, may prefer to chunk "Him"
"sitting" together first, and then explain the noun absolute as the
object of a
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
Why shouldn't we call "him sitting" and "one smoking" absolute phrases?
their adverbial function), why shouldn't we use the concept in cases
as this, where it creates a better fit between the syntactic explanation
the meaning of the sentence! Although I still accept the explanation
"one" as the direct object and "smoking" as a gerundive that modifies
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?
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
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.