Open Letters from KISS Grammar
KISS Grammar—Clear, Testable Standards

—Dr. Ed Vavra

     Having criticized the Common Core for its lack of clear, testable standards, I should suggest at least one alternative. “KISS Grammar” is a free multi-year curriculum sequence for teaching grammar, including instructional materials, hundreds of exercises, and analysis keys for teachers. Its primary objective is to enable students to identify and intelligently discuss the function of almost every word in any sentence that they read or write. My objective here is not to explain KISS, but simply to suggest how KISS provides clear standards—and provides instructional material and exercises for helping all students meet them.

     KISS was originally designed around a series of sequential levels. Basically, students should master the materials in that sequence. New constructions are added at each level. Note that KISS is a model. Standards should be made by states, and the teachers (and parents) in each state should have significant input as to which standards are appropriate for each grade. Thus the following is simply a model that can be adapted in many different ways. 

     Because my focus here is assessment, I have not included everything that students could study at each grade level. An “Ideal?” KISS sequence is being developed on the KISS site. To see it, go to: 

First Grade?

     First graders can learn how to identify subject, verbs, complements, adjectives, adverbs, and simple prepositional phrases. They can also learn how to punctuate simple sentences. The following is currently a KISS assessment quiz and answer key for first graders. These are meant to be scored by hand, but they can easily be adapted to a fill-in-the bubble format.
Assessment Quiz 
based on 
Lesson Twenty-one 
adapted from 
1. Write in any understood words. 
2. Draw an arrow from each adjective and adverb to the word it modifies. 
3. Place parentheses ( ) around each prepositional phrase.  
4. Underline verbs twice, their subjects once. 
5. Label complements (“C”). 

The birds fly here and there.

They build nests in trees. 

Their little eggs are in the nests. 

The pretty birds perch on the branches of the flowers. 

How many birds can you name?

Assessment Key
     Note that these analysis keys give a complete analysis. At this point in their work, students will simply be labeling the types of complements as "C," and they will not be expected to include the vertical lines.
Suggested Scoring
  # Points each Total Points
Adjectives and Adverbs 12 1 12
Prepositional Phrases 4 2.5 10
Words in S/V/C Patterns 13 6 78
    Total Points 100
Deduct the point value for anything that is incorrectly marked as one of of these constructions. I would consider any grade below 90 as failing, and thus requiring more practice.
The birds fly here and there. |

They build nests (DO) {in trees}. |

Their little eggs are {in the nests}. |

The pretty birds perch {on the branches} {of the flowers}. |

How many birds (DO) can you name? |     

Students who can identify and regularly underline subjects and verbs will understand (and thus learn to avoid) problems such as “its” and “it’s.” First graders can also learn to recognize “you” as an understood subject in sentences like “Close the door.” This too can be easily tested by a question that includes five sentences, only one of which has an understood subject.

Second Grade?

     In second grade, students add the five specific types of complements. In KISS, a “complement” answers the question “whom or what?” after a verb:

Zero: When nothing answers the question, we have what many linguists call a “zero” complement: She runs every day.

Predicate Noun: If the verb in any way means “equals,” the complement is a predicate noun: Mike is my friend (PN).

Predicate Adjective: If the complement is an adjective that describes the subject, the complement is a predicate adjective: Our house is big (PA).

Indirect Object: If the complement tells to or for whom or what something was given or done, it is an indirect object: We gave our cat (IO) catnip (DO).

Direct Object: Any other complement has to be a direct object: “catnip” in the preceding example.

“Bubble” Assessment Question: Give a sentence comparable to any of the preceding examples. The choices are the five options for complements.

Third Grade?

     Every grade includes studies of punctuation. In third grade, among other things, students study the concepts of person, number, case, and tense. They also begin to distinguish the concepts of “modification” and “chunking.” Most textbooks deal with modification, but few consider “chunking.” “Chunking” describes how the words in sentences connect to each other to form phrases, larger phrases, clauses, and then sentences. Except for interjections, every word in any sentence chunks to another word of construction until every word ultimately connects to a subject/verb pattern in a main clause. (KISS has a psycholinguistic model that suggests how our brains do this.)

     The most important concept that is added in third grade is the clause. A clause is a subject / verb / complement pattern and all the words that chunk to it. The KISS “Ideal?” sequence adds two types of clauses in third grade.

Compound Main: Fire could not burn him (DO), | and swords could not cut him (DO). |
In KISS exercises, students put a vertical line after main clauses. Students who have been identifying subjects, verbs, and complements starting in first grade, should have few, if any, problems with compound main clauses.
Subordinate Clauses as Direct Objects: I think [DO it will be a good plan (DO)]. |
     Subordinate clauses are enclosed in brackets, and their functions are labeled. The “Ideal?” plan is a new direction for the KISS site. Instead of focusing on the various types of constructions, it focuses on what students need to know to analyze—and thus intelligently discuss—the sentences that they read and write. Third graders will find many subordinate clauses both in what they read, and in what they write. Of course, they will find other types of subordinate clauses as well, but we need to consider how much most students can master in a given year.

“Bubble” Assessment Questions: Give students a question such as “Which of the following sentences includes a subordinate clause that is a direct object?” Or, “Which of the following is a compound sentence?” Then give them five choices, only one of which is correct. Note that, unlike the Common Core, in KISS, students not only can do, they also know what they are learning and doing.

Fourth Grade?

     Among other things, fourth grade adds three important concepts. The first is the distinction between finite verbs and verbals. “Verbals” are verbs that function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. Grammar textbooks fail miserably with this—they teach students to underline subjects once and verbs twice, but students cannot effectively apply this. Consider the following sentence from Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Johnny Town Mouse:

Sometimes on Saturdays he went to look at the hamper lying by the gate.
Told to underline the verbs twice, most students would underline “went,” “look,” and “lying.” But that is not what the directions to underline verbs twice means. It really means to underline finite verbs twice. (The textbooks avoid the problem by excluding verbals in the exercises. But the result is that students cannot apply what they “learned” to their own reading and writing.)

     KISS provides students with three simple “tests” that they can use to distinguish finite verbs from verbals. Using them, students can tell that “to look” should not be underlined twice—it function as an adverb to “went.” Similarly, “lying” is a verbal because “the hamper lying by the gate” is not a complete sentence. Therefore, “went” is the only verb in that sentence that should be underlined twice. That means that there is only one clause in that sentence.

     The second major concept in fourth grade is the other simple subordinate clauses—adjectival, adverbial, and noun. The following sentences were written by fourth graders:

[Adv. to “asked” When my mother came in,] she asked us (IO) [DO if we got the hang (DO) {of it} yet] |.

The first time [Adj. to “time” I tried Mac and Cheese (DO) ] was [PN when I was five (PA) ]. |

Because new concepts are always added in KISS, fourth graders will have been working with the functions of adjectives, adverbs, and nouns since first grade. And having learned the difference between main clauses and subordinate clauses that function as direct objects in third, fourth grade simply extends what they have already learned.

     Over the years, several fourth grade teachers have asked me for help—many of their students simply could not understand subordinate clauses. But I really could not help. Subordinate clauses are relatively easy to understand—if one can identify subjects and finite verbs. 

     The third major concept that is introduced in fourth grade is the embedding of subordinate clauses. “Embedding” simply means that one subordinate clause is “in the bed” (inside) another. The following was also written by a fourth grader:

I had a feeling (DO) [Adj. to “feeling” they would ask [DO if I wanted to dive (DO) {off the diving board} ]]. |
When I had my college Freshmen analyze their own writing, several came up to me and meekly asked if a subordinate clause could be inside another subordinate clause. But if KISS is started early and spread over several years, fourth graders could easily not only see, but also understand this.

“Bubble” Assessment Questions: These could be in the same format as those suggested for third grade. There is, however, another format that could be used for either grade. Give the students a sentence and then five choices of which construction is included in it:

The following sentence is an example of which construction?
     When my dad held my bike, I got my balance.
a.) a compound sentence
b.) an adjectival clause
c.) an embedded clause within a subordinate clause
d.) an adverbial clause
e.) a noun clause
Fifth Grade and Beyond

     I hope that I have made my point about clear, testable standards—and instructional materials that will enable students to see clearly what they are learning. The table below lists the concepts and constructions that students need to know in order to identify—and intelligently discuss—how almost every word in any sentence chunks to a main S/V/C pattern. It also suggests that in adult writing 96% of the words are in constructions that have already been discussed. 
The Concepts and Constructions that Students Need to Know

Basic Concepts:
     Compounding, Chunking (Modification), Ellipsis, Embedding

Basic Constructions:
Prepositional Phrases                   (33% of the goal)
Pronouns, Adjectives, and Adverbs
S/V/C pattern                              (95% of the goal)

C=Zero (She runs every day.)
C=Predicate Adjective (The house is empty.)
C=Predicate Noun (Faulkner was a novelist.)
C=Direct Object (I like Ike.)
C=Indirect Object (Our cat brought us a mouse.)
Clauses:                                   (96% of the goal)
             Subordinate (functions as a part of a main clause
             Main (the S/V/C pattern to which everything else is chunked)

Verbals:                                   (97% of the goal)
        Gerunds (function as nouns)
        Gerundives (function as adjectives)
        Infinitives (function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs)

Eight Additional Constructions:    (99.9% of the goal)

Direct Address
Nouns Used as Adverbs
Post-Positioned Adjectives
Passive Voice (& Retained Complements)
Delayed Subjects
Noun Absolutes

     Instruction should continue beyond fifth grade, even through high school. Students’ sentences naturally become longer and more complex, and I suggest that students should at least analyze one sample of their own writing at least once a year. How much time older students should spend on it should depend on the students and their teachers. I stated above that most students can master the concepts by doing two five-to-ten minute exercises a week. Obviously some students will need more practice; others, less. But KISS enables students to delve deeply into questions of errors, punctuation, logic, and style, and I’d like to say a few words about that now.

Applications of KISS Grammar

Statistical Stylistics

     Teachers often tell their students that their sentences are too long or too short. Unfortunately, these are often very subjective judgments. In the 70’s and 80’s some important statistical research was done on sentence length. The most important of this research was on average words per main clause. In KISS, students can do similar research—on their own writing. The KISS site has tables of the results of this research, but in any class, students can count the number of words in a selection of their own writing, analyze the selection for main clauses, and divide the number of words by the number of main clauses. The results will be comparable to the professional research, but more importantly, the students can see for themselves if their sentences are either too long or too short. The KISS “official” objective is to be near the group average. Students who write very long main clauses often lose control of them; students who write short ones sound immature.

Sentence Combining, De-combing, and Models

     For students who write short main clauses, KISS includes many sentence-combining exercises. But is also includes de-combing exercises for those whose main clauses become too long. The site also includes sentence models—passages from professional writing that illustrate a variety of constructions, including parallel constructions and prozeugma. Prozeugma is a rhetorical device in which verbs that restate previous verbs are ellipsed. One of my favorite examples is from “How Brave Walter Hunted Wolves” in Andrew Lang’s The Lilac Fairy Book. I have added the ellipsed verbs in asterisks:

Caro lives {in the dog house}, | Bravo *lives* {in the stable}, | Putte *lives* {with the stableman}, | Murre *lives* a little here and a little there, | and Kuckeliku lives {in the hen house}, | that is his kingdom (PN). |
Fourth graders could probably understand this very easily.


     Previously I noted that the S/V/PN pattern is based on “equality” between the subject and the complement. This is basic same/different logic, perhaps the most basic of all logical concepts. KISS also puts a heavy emphasis on the logic of subordinate clauses. Professors in a variety of fields have complained to me that too many students answer every question as if it were a “what” question. For example, when asked why or under what conditions something happens, students often answer by telling what happens. The conjunctions that introduce adverbial clauses in particular are, in essence, logical operators that students simply miss. KISS teaches them not to.

Punctuation and Errors

     Three of the most common grammatical complaints about students writing are “fragments,” “run-ons,” and “comma-splices.” “Fragments” are parts of sentences that are not attached (chunked) to a main clause pattern. Students who regularly analyze real, randomly selected sentences, learn how to recognize them. They can also learn when fragments are and are not acceptable. In a “run-on,” two sentences are run together with no punctuation that separates them. This confuses readers. In a “comma-splice,” two sentences are joined by just a comma. This also confuses readers.

     The KISS site includes a study of these errors in the writing of 31 seventh graders. ( It suggests that most of the run-ons and comma-splices appear where professionals would use a semicolon, colon, or dash to join the sentences (main clauses). Currently, our schools cannot teach students how to use these punctuation marks for this purpose because students are not taught how to identify main clauses in the first place. KISS not only teaches this; it includes (for upper grades) some very sophisticated model passages, including how to use semicolons in comparison contrast writing.

     My main objective in this letter has been to show that KISS proposes clear, testable standards—and provides instructional materials for enabling students to meet those standards. In closing, however, I’d like to emphasize the major difference of KISS—it enables students to know what they know. Instead of simply “using” constructions (as the Common Core calls for), KISS enables students to identify what those constructions are. As a simply example, they can identify a comma-splice—and know how to fix it. Put differently, KISS enables students to accurately assess their own writing.

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.