Open Letters from KISS Grammar
The Fearful Common Core

—Dr. Ed Vavra

     Throughout this series I have been arguing that the Common Core expects students to “do,” but not to “know.” A reason for this may be that the writers are afraid to address a major problem in English instruction—the confusing terminology, and the probable academic reaction to clarifying it. Perhaps more than any other academic discipline, English uses different meanings for the same word and multiple terms for the same thing. Textbook publishers—and especially college professors—will almost certainly rise in protest against the use of specific terms.

For example, a search of the ELA Core ( ) for “clause” returned twenty hits, all of which involved “Use” or a synonym (“Place”). And only two of these name specific types—“clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial).” As usual, nowhere do the standards state that students should be able to identify such clauses. In other words, students do not need to know that they are (or are not) doing this. (Rare, by the way, is the fourth grade student who cannot use these clauses correctly—without instruction.) “Independent and dependent” are the terms used in some books, but other books use “main and subordinate.”

     At a grammar conference, I asked a group of teachers to underline the “main” clause in the sentence “He said she would be a good president.” Half of the participants underlined the entire sentence; the other half underlined only “He said.” In other words, even when they are using the same term, English teachers are often talking about different things. This is rarely explained to students, so it’s not surprising that students find “grammar” to be confusing.

     Another area of confusion (and thus disagreement) is the “Writing Process.” There is general agreement that English teachers should teach this process, but what is it? Google (under “images”) “writing process” and you will find dozens of pretty images, but if you look through some, you will find that what is included in the process differs significantly. I don’t have room for details here, but what I teach as the process is:

1. brainstorm for details—what specific examples will you include (the details are the “beef” of the paper)
2. outline—organize those details to support a thesis (the main idea of the paper)
3. draft—write the paper in sentences and paragraphs
4. revise—look at what you have written and consider (and change) its organization, details, and interest for your intended audience
5. repeat step four (including more storming for better examples) until you are satisfied with the content of the paper
6. edit—check for grammar and spelling errors and for the required format of the paper
I have included the preceding because many of my college students are not familiar with “the process” in the first place. And some who are, believe that “revising” means fixing grammar errors. A search of the ELA standards found nothing for “writing process” or for “writing as a process.”

     As noted above, the process is more complicated than my list, but if we are going to have students take high stake tests, should not the writers of the core at least discuss and basically define this process? Individual teachers could modify it—without changing the meaning of basic terms—“revision” means revising the content—thesis, organization, and details. Rewriting and fixing errors in sentences could be defined as “editing.” If we are going to have standards, should we not also have standardized terms?

     I’ll close with a personal peeve. I was into my sixth year of college, and still got C’s on most of my papers. I thought that they meant that I was an average writer. In that year, a friend of mine, Bruce Chaddock, read my papers and said, “Ed, you don’t have a thesis.” He sent me to a chapter in a book. A “thesis” is very simple—it is the main idea of the paper, the idea that the entire paper should develop. It is usually stated at the end of the introduction. No one had ever taught me that. But after I started including a thesis in my papers, they started coming back with A’s. But a search of the ELA core for “thesis” returned “Phrase not found.” 

     My point here is that the writers of the Common Core may be afraid to give specifics because some teachers (and many professors) would object to not being able to teach their favorite terms. But is that fair to the students? Is that fair to the taxpayers who are paying for the schools?

Dr. Vavra has been teaching writing at the college level for almost forty years. He is also the developer of the free KISS Grammar site, a curriculum design and instructional materials that present clear objectives and standards. Additional open letters on the Core are available at You may publish or share them in any way you like.