Teaching Grammar with the
"I Don't Know"
-- Dr. Ed Vavra
Our educational elite is so tied-up in fancy
theories that they actually refuse to teach future teachers how to identify
basic subjects, verbs, and prepositional phrases in real texts. As a result,
many teachers enter their classrooms horrified by the very idea of having
to teach something that they themselves were never taught. The KISS site
tries to help teachers in this situation by providing hundreds of age-appropriate
exercises with analysis keys. Once they have worked with some of these
materials, teachers will feel much more comfortable teaching grammar.
But there is a major difference between using
canned exercises with analysis keys and asking students to analyze randomly
selected sentences and short passages from anything that they read or write.
Questions are sure to arise, questions for which the teacher will have
no ready answer. Looking at themselves in this situation, many teachers
will see fear personified. I would like to suggest, however, that one simple
response -- "I don't know." -- will not only evaporate the fear, it will
also make teaching grammar one of the most enjoyable, and most productive
parts of their professional lives.
To tell the truth, working with students on
the introductory exercises for any new concept can be a pain. Our educational
system has failed to teach students how to learn. Suppose, for example,
that the students are learning to identify complements. The instructional
material for this is very simple -- "Make a question with 'whom' or 'what'
after the verb. Whatever answers that question is a complement." You may
find that three-quarters (or more) of your students will not be able to
use this instruction. Asked to identify complements, they will complain
that they do not understand. Some will accuse you of being a bad teacher
because you will not give them the answer. These students are suffering
from "learned helplessness," learned in part from their former teachers.
Don't go over to the Dark Side. As Jane Healy explains in Endangered
Poor learners are poor problem solvers; they have difficulty
taking internal responsibility and coming up with effective strategies
to cope with new or difficult types of learning. In classrooms now, the
term "learned helplessness" is increasingly heard as a description of typical
forms of behavior. One major theory even argues that "learned helplessness"
and weakness in problem-solving strategies may be fundamental causes of
learning disability. (187)
In my experience, the problem is worse than Healy suggests. KISS gives
students a strategy for finding complements. And it gives them strategies
for identifying the types of complements, for identifying prepositional
phrases, for distinguishing finite verbs from verbals, for identifying
clauses, etc., etc., etc.
But even when given a specific strategy that
actually will work, many students will refuse to use it. (Elsewhere in
her book, Healy suggests that for many students, the very idea of a strategy,
of a process for finding an answer, is totally foreign and essentially
incomprehensible to many students.) One of the major advantages of KISS
is that you can use grammar to teach students how to think -- how to use
effective strategies. The way to do this is "I don't know."
In reviewing an exercise in class, randomly
call on students. When a student responds with "I don't know" (or with
that withering glare that says "Why are you picking on me?"), respond with
"Well, I don't know either. What is the method for identifying complements
(or whatever)?" This answers the student's serve and puts the ball back
on his side of the court. The student has two possible returns. For one,
the student might not know. This, of course, raises the question of why
the student did not memorize such a simple technique for identifying complements.
Here, it is not a question of the student being incapable. It is simply
a matter of the student didn't do it. Whose fault is that?
The other possibility, of course, is that the student
does know the rule for identifying complements -- but has not applied it.
The teacher simply has to ask the student to apply the rule to the verb
in question. In applying it, some students do need to take a little time.
For many of us, the time they need to take seems strange -- to us the answer
is outrageously obvious. But as Healy (and others) note, analytical thought
processes are in themselves strange to many of our students.
As noted above, for teachers, this process
can be very painful. It still seems to me as if I am wasting valuable classroom
time. But I am not. Not only am I teaching the entire class how to identify
complements, I am also giving them directed experience in using a strategy
to arrive at an answer. I must also confess, however, that this rather
painful classroom use of time has another benefit. I do not collect and
grade any homework. Sometimes we will go over an entire assignment in class;
more frequently, I'll ask if there are any sentences in the assignment
that students want to go over. Very short quizzes are all I need to assess
what the students have learned. Those students who have learned the strategies
and how to use them easily pass the quizzes; those who have not, don't.
(To those who have, much is given. To those who have not, much is taken
| Note, by the way, the implications of this
for assessment, local or national. Far too much emphasis is currently placed
on what the teachers do or do not do. But as Healy also notes, "One of
our favorite adult conceits is that just because we teach children something,
they learn it. Perpetuation of this myth by people who have little contact
with real life in the classroom puts the quality of our entire educational
system at risk." (272)
Obviously, teachers share responsibility for
what goes on in the classroom, but students should have their share of
In the KISS Approach, the real fun begins
when the teacher has no answer keys and the students are beyond the introductory
exercises. A sentence goes up on the board (or on an overhead) and the
STUDENTS do the analyzing. The teacher's job is mainly to act as moderator.
When the students get stuck, the teacher's response, generally speaking,
should again be "I don't know."
I learned this many years ago, when I was
first working out the fundamentals of the KISS Approach. I regularly took
into the classroom randomly selected passages that I myself had not yet
analyzed. The students, who were working at Level Five, got stuck on "Bill"
in a sentence such as "Bill, close the door." At the time, I had not included
Direct Address among the additional constructions. I was seated in the
middle of the room, and the students all turned to me for an answer. Stuck
myself, I, as bravely and as calmly as I could, said "I don't know" while
I frantically searched for an explanation. A minute or two passed, and
then a student said, "'Bill' is an appositive to the implied subject, 'you'."
"Brilliant!" I said. And then all the students turned to me and said, "You
knew all along. You just wanted us to figure it out for ourselves."
I lucked out, of course, but I also learned
two things. First, Direct Address was added to the additional constructions.
Since that time, I have used the constructions and concepts of the KISS
Approach to analyze hundreds of passages. In the process a few additions
and changes have been made, such that you will probably not meet a word
in a sentence for which KISS does not offer an explanation. (For more about
this, see below.)
Second, and more importantly, I learned that
students do not believe me when I claim ignorance, and thus I learned to
claim to be ignorant even when I am not. Doing so forces students to think
-- and they actually enjoy it. I have, over the years, made many mistakes
in front of students. I have, for example, accepted infinitives as prepositional
phrases, dutifully marking them off in parentheses, only to be told by
students that that answer is wrong. "Whoops, missed that one, didn't I?"
Some students think I do it intentionally; others simply realize that teachers
are human and, like all humans, can make mistakes. Sometimes I even leave
a question unresolved at the end of class -- "Think about it 'til next
class." This gives me time to think and/or consult colleagues. Now, of
course, we have the KISS List where teachers (and others) can submit such
questions and usually get a sensible response quickly and easily.
Sometimes a student will offer -- and insist
on -- an explanation that I don't like. I'll try to explain my reasons,
but my ultimate response is to turn to the class with two questions. First,
do the members of the class understand the explanation? If they do not,
then it's not an effective explanation. (It is, after all, that simple.)
If members of the class do claim to understand, then I ask if they like
the explanation -- and why. This procedure leads to what we're after in
the first place -- an intelligent discussion of the structure of English
grammar. Such cases, by the way, are extremely rare. They have never occurred
in relation to something that was graded, but if such a case should occur,
I would put the question to the class, letting the class vote on whether
or not the student should get the points. Respect for students earns students'
respect. And it makes teaching grammar a lot of fun.