Open Letters from KISS Grammar
The Unarticulated Common Core

—Dr. Ed Vavra

     I was trying to explain to my college Freshmen why I could not effectively teach them about clauses. A student in the back popped up and said that she had had a course about clauses, but she didn’t understand any of it. She was immediately seconded by another student. Their problem results from grammar being taught as isolated definitions (facts) that have no goal. Indeed, from the students’ perspective, the only goal of education is to get through it. The Common Core totally ignores this problem. 

     In their article in Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (2014) [Free pdf at: ], John Hattie and Gregory Yates explain the importance of “clearly articulated goals.” As they state, “The student can be expected to be sensitive to experienced feedback only once there is a clearly known objective in place. This has to be seen as the necessary starting point.” (48) The goals, moreover, have to be short-term. Students have to be able to see what they are learning.

     The Common Core’s failure here is illustrated by the “Conventions of Standard English,” standard 2.c for fourth graders. It states, “Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence.” But a “compound sentence” consists of two or more “main” clauses, and, as my college students indicated, they have no idea of what clauses are. Neither do fourth graders; and the Core does not state that students (at any grade level) should be able to identify main clauses. If they could identify main clauses, they would be able to identify compound sentences—and thus see for themselves if they are using a comma before a coordinating conjunction. (By the way, not all professional writers always do this.)

     A clause is a subject/verb pattern and all the words that connect to the subject and verb. In other words, in order to really understand clauses, one has to be able to identify subjects and verbs. The Core nowhere requires this. In the KISS Grammar instructional design, on the other hand, first graders can begin to learn to identify the subjects and verbs in the sentences they read and write. KISS analytical exercises are cumulative, so students will continue to identify the subjects and verbs in later grades, thereby extending what they previously learned into the much more complex sentences of adult writing. And once they can identify the subjects and verbs, they can learn how to identify clauses rather easily. KISS gives the students regular short term goals (as they add new constructions to their analytical toolboxes) and a long term goal—the ability to identify and intelligently discuss the function of almost every word in every sentence.

     From this perspective, the Core’s “Language Progressive Skills, by Grade” (56) are particularly interesting. L.3.1f., for example, states “Ensure subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement.” Nice objective, but for students, it needs to be “articulated.” And that means that the students need to be able to identify the subjects and verbs in what they write. But the latter is not an objective.

     The table on this page also mentions “frequently confused words (e.g., to/too/two; there/their).” Interestingly, it does not mention “it’s/its.” Students who regularly identify the subjects and verbs in sentences can easily learn these distinctions—“it’s” is always a subject and verb; “its” is not. (By regularly, I mean two five-minute assignments a week.) 

     Our students are not stupid, but, as Hattie and Yates argue, our instructional materials are poorly designed and don’t give students the ability to see short-term objectives—and to understand that they are indeed making progress. The Core, of course, does not address instructional materials.

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.