Burn the Grammar Textbooks!
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
(b. 1475, Caprese,
d. 1564, Roma)
| This essay was originally written in 2001. Since
then I have been asked by some teachers, who may or may not have read this
page, to write a textbook based on the KISS Approach. As I suggest below,
I don't think textbooks are needed, but I do understand the desire of teachers
to have a collection of materials to work with, especially if they are
not yet comfortable working with the KISS Approach.
The result has been the development of the
Grammar Workbooks. If you look at them, they do look like a series
of textbooks, but that is because most teachers are uncomfortable with
their own knowledge of grammar. If you study them, I think you will agree
that they consist of limited instructional material and a large number
of exercises and analysis keys. (See, for example, the early levels prepared
for students who are starting their formal study of grammar in sixth
grade.) Parents and teachers are encouraged to substitute their own
exercises for those offered in the free KISS Workbooks. The basic idea
is to introduce a concept such as prepositional
phrases and then have students do sufficient exercises on them so that
the students will be able to identify the prepositional phrases in any
sentence that they read or write.
-- E. V. 2/3/12
Most of my colleagues in ATEG
will probably react in horror to this essay, but I'm more than half serious.
Our textbooks are not only a waste of time and money, they are probably
the cause of the failure of grammar instruction in our schools. When I
mentioned my intention of writing this essay to one of my colleagues, he
brought to my attention an essay by Edgar H. Schuster -- "Reforming English
Language Arts: Let's Trash the Tradition (Phi Delta Kappan,
March 99, 518-524). Professor Schuster makes some major mistakes about
what we should teach, but his main point -- that the traditional approach
should be trashed -- is right on target. But what we need to trash are
the grammar books, not the teaching of grammar.
The Definition of Grammar
Professor Schuster will, I hope, forgive
me for following the organization of his essay, but he has put all the
stones in exactly the right order. Perhaps I can turn them into a better
path for teaching. He begins, for example, right where he should, with
the question of what is "grammar." He also quite rightly points out that
there are many different definitions and types of grammar, including the
major distinction between grammar as a set of formal, internalized rules
of language which we all learn without any formal training, and grammar
as "the description and analysis of these formal patterns" (519).
For most of his essay, Professor Schuster focuses on the former, the grammar
that is "built into our heads." (519) The fact that he did so is understandable
because many English teachers are still foolishly trying to teach students
just this grammar that is already built into their heads. But he begs the
entire question by focussing on grammar in this sense -- if grammar is
those rules which are already built into students' heads before they get
to school, then obviously there is no reason to teach it. In a sense, therefore,
Professor Schuster ends where he begins.
Although he makes some nice observations about
usage, Professor Schuster goes astray when he leaves behind the discussion
of grammar as a "description and analysis of ... formal patterns,"
of which he gives only two undeveloped examples -- "traditional school
grammar" and "transformational-generative grammar." Implied later in his
article, but not specifically discussed, is the fact that "traditional
school grammar" is a massive mixture of lots of different grammars, including
Latin, eighteenth-century prescriptive, and now structural, transformational,
systemic, tagmemic, and a lot more. All of these grammars have different
perspectives on, and different reasons for looking at, the English language.
But all these grammars -- and the grammarians who adhere to them -- often
act as if they are the only kid on the block. Unrealized both by the general
public and by many English teachers, our grammar textbooks are often an
unsystematic cacophony of concepts from different grammatical theories.
This accounts for much of the "Definitions That Do Not Define" and the
"Verbal Quagmire" that Schuster accurately and neatly explains later in
The problem, very simply, is that teachers
teach grammar by teaching what's in their grammar textbook. Instead of
having students use grammatical concepts to explore a living language,
teachers are stuck with, as Schuster explains, "DEAD" -- "Definition, Example,
And Drill." (520) The acronym is cute and catchy, and I have even heard
ATEG members use it as a term of scorn for traditional instruction. But
the admirers of the acronym have not put enough thought into their scorn.
The "traditional" problem with DEAD is not the systematic definition, example,
and drill, but rather the isolated way in which it has been used -- to
teach, not grammar, but what is in the grammar textbooks. Thus, in the
traditional approach, students do DEAD with subjects and verbs, or with
clauses, etc., and having done what was in the grammar textbook, both teachers
and students leave it to DIE. The educational path is strewn with half-learned,
isolated grammatical concepts for which neither many teachers nor students
see any purpose.
But let's change the focus. Instead of having
students study grammar textbooks, let's have them focus on learning how
to analyze real texts -- from newspapers, novels, essays, letters, etc.,
including their own writing -- so that they can understand how language
works, and, if they wish, improve their own ability to read and write.
We do not, of course, have to put them into the position of the first grammarians,
starting from scratch. We know that there are many frequently occurring
and widely agreed upon grammatical constructions -- prepositional phrases,
subjects and verbs, clauses. In this situation, what should teachers do?
I would suggest that DEAD is precisely the
way to begin. Well, we can't simply give them a text and say "Find the
prepositional phrases." They wouldn't know what we were talking about.
So we give them some sort of definition -- it doesn't have to be extremely
accurate, and we give them some examples. Then we drill. Believe me, as
teachers, we want to drill. But our drills should consist of randomly
chosen passages from texts, NOT from the isolated sentences in the exercises
in a grammar textbook. Imagine yourself teaching prepositional phrases
to a class of twenty-five third graders. As Professor Schuster would, I'm
sure, agree, prepositional phrases are already in these students' heads.
They use them all the time. All we want to do is to make a connection between
what is in their heads and the term "prepositional phrase." To make that
connection, all students really need is practice, i.e., drill. And, to
begin, we want all the students doing the same drill, i.e., analyzing the
same passage. No teacher, at this point in the instruction, wants to check
twenty-five different passages (from the twenty-five students) to see what
is right and what is not. In fact, the best way to go over such homework
is not to grade it, but simply to go over it in class with each student
checking his or her own work. (You can't do that, of course, unless all
of the students have been working on the same passage, i.e., doing a "drill.")
Because prepositional phrases are part of the grammar that is already in
their heads, it does not take a lot of such drilling before most students
will be able to identify most prepositional phrases in any text. At this
point, students can begin to choose their own texts to analyze, including
samples of their own writing, and checking their work in small groups --
no grammar textbooks needed.
For those who are new to this site, what I
have been describing is the essence of the KISS Approach. The focus of
the approach is on analyzing texts. Grammatical concepts are introduced
by means of DEAD (which could also stand for Define, Examine, Analyze ,
and Do). But because it focuses on analyzing texts, unlike the traditional
approach, KISS adds new concepts to the inventory that students have already
learned so that, as they progress, what students see is their growing,
living analytical ability -- their own increased comprehension, rather
than a trail of dry skeletons of apparently useless and frustrating grammatical
Implied with the KISS approach is a special
perspective on the definition of grammar as "description and analysis of
... formal patterns." The question is "whose description and analysis,
and for what purpose?" Some grammars, for example, get into questions such
as why we generally would say "I saw the three big American trucks" rather
than "I saw American big the three trucks." This is, of course, the grammar
that is already in our heads, and because explaining it requires a number
of concepts, most of us -- including me -- are not interested. (For non-native
speakers and their teachers, on the other hand, this is a question of major
interest -- precisely because it is NOT already in non-native speakers'
heads.) KISS grammar is much more limited in scope. All we want is
a general, and generally agreed upon, way of describing how words syntactically
connect to each other within sentences. In the KISS approach, we can explain
"the," "three," "big," and "American" by simply saying that they are adjectives
The descriptions of KISS grammar are limited
because its purpose is to enable everyone (i.e., every student) to explain
and intelligently discuss how any word in any sentence works with other
words in that sentence to convey meaning. But if we want a descriptive
grammar, we need to address a question that is too rarely discussed --
What makes a grammatical concept valid? I have been told, for example,
by at least two grammarians, that my definition of a clause as basically
an S/V/C pattern is simply "wrong." A clause, I have been informed, is
bi-, not tri-partite. A clause consists of a subject and predicate. In
response to my childish question "Why?", I was informed "Because it is."
Apparently, they think God made it so. But I have not seen any reference
to that "fact" in the Bible, and my definition not only makes sense to
me, but also to all of my students.
The Validity of a Grammatical Concept
The validity of a grammatical concept (definition)
does not reside in the grammar books (especially not in the grammar textbooks).
Instead, it rests on two things: 1) Does it make sense to the user? 2)
Can the user use the concept to get that same sense into the heads of other
people? Although the first point is very important, the second may be more
so. Every semester, after we have worked with prepositional phrases and
S/V/C patterns, we get to clauses. I warn my students that I expect them
to memorize the definition of a clause - "A clause is a subject/verb/complement
pattern and all the words that chunk to it." As we do our drills, those
students who memorized the definition have almost no trouble with clauses
-- what is consciously in my head is now also in their heads. Those students
who have not memorized the definition (probably because they have been
frustrated by the confusing definitions that Professor Schuster discusses)
She wanted to read the book.
When we get to infinitives, some students prefer to consider "wanted to
read" as the finite verb phrase, but others prefer to consider "wanted"
as the finite verb and "to read" as an infinitive functioning as the direct
object of "wanted." Both groups understand the explanation of the other,
and although various linguists may have good reasons for preferring one
explanation over the other, our K-Freshman college classrooms are not the
place to get into such technical discussions.
But validity based on the ability to communicate
serves another important function. We can all define anything in any way
we want. And we all see things in different ways, some of which are very
strange. What makes my definitions, my explanations, more valid than those
sometimes proposed by students? Very simply, the ability to communicate
them. When a student offers a new concept, or a different explanation in
a sentence, I ask for an explanation, and then I ask the class how many
people agree or at least understand. KISS grammar has actually been modified
by concepts proposed by students, but usually the student finds him or
herself alone. A grammar is a description, which means that something has
to be described TO someone. If most people don't understand, I guess it
There are, we need to remember, cases in which
groups of people disagree, even within the KISS framework, about which
description works best. This results in alternative
explanations which should always be accepted for the simple reason
that they meet our criteria for validity -- they make sense to the user,
and a group of people have communicated and share the concept or explanation.
In almost every case, these alternatives fall into two easily understood
by all options, some people preferring to see it one way; some, the other.
For example, consider the fundamental question of the finite verb phrase
The Problem of the Textbooks
In addition to the isolated exercises, the
basic problem of most textbooks is that they are far too complicated and
big. In many texts, the index consumes more pages than would be needed
to explain to students everything they need. There are two main reasons
for the bulk. First, the people who write them tend to love grammar. They
are fascinated by questions such as the sequence of adjectives ("the three
big American trucks"), and they inappropriately bring their enthusiasm
into their textbooks with little regard to what students actually need.
Because there are hundreds of such questions, the textbooks bulge. They
bulge even more because publishers, in an attempt to please everyone and
thus sell more books, include materials, concepts, exercises, etc. from
grammarians with radically different perspectives on grammar. Too many
cooks spoil the soup. The result, in other words, is big, expensive, spoiled
textbooks. It is no wonder that students don't learn from them. As Professor
Schuster observes, traditional school grammar has become "a verbal quagmire."
The Reasons for Teaching Grammar
Professor Schuster makes some valid points
in his discussion of the reasons for teaching grammar, but ultimately his
perspective is too limited and literally enslaving -- no students who learned
only what Professor Schuster wants to teach would be able to read and understand
his article! Not only that, they would be unable to judge the grammatical
validity of what they read and write. This site, for example, includes
discussions of errors and stylistic
questions for each of the constructions presented. Very very little of
this would be accessible to students who had studied only what Professor
Schuster wants to teach. Knowledge IS power. Does Professor Schuster, like
the many educators who do not want students to be taught grammar, want
to deny students that power, thereby making the students perpetual "slaves"
of grammarians and grammar textbooks?
So Should We Trash the Tradition and Burn the
Traditions are very complicated things. Professor
Schuster is definitely right when he argues that our current traditional
approach is confusing and ineffective. But he has put himself in the position
of the French and Russian revolutionaries who wanted to destroy without
having a solid idea of what would follow the destruction. Instead of trashing
the tradition, we need to reexamine and simplify what we teach. We need
to focus not on grammar itself, but on grammar as a means of describing
how language works. And we need to replace the confusing, repetitive, intimidating,
several-hundred-page grammar textbooks with a few one to three page handouts
like those in the KISS Workbooks.
We also need to spend a lot more effort helping
the teachers whom we expect to teach grammar. Currently, if we prepare
teachers at all, we put them in a grammar course where they learn hundreds
of terms (different terms, depending on the theoretical perspectives of
their professors). But when these teachers enter the classroom, most of
them cannot identify something as basic as the clauses in their own or
their students' writing. (If you doubt this, take any of the exercises
from the Level 3 KISS Workbooks,
and give it to teachers as a test. You can use the appropriate answer key
to see how they do.) What teachers have been taught, in other words, is
useless. The KISS Approach may not be the ultimate answer, but at least
it shifts the focus of instruction from learning the terms to using the
terms and concepts to analyze and discuss texts. Teachers are going to
need some help in mastering this new approach.
Can We Change the Tradition?
Professor Schuster notes that it will be extremely
difficult to trash a tradition that dates back to 1762 (524). Once again,
he is right, but he has made his task greater than it needs to be. The
general public (as well as Corporate America) wants grammar to be taught.
Ultimately, therefore, Schuster's position opposes the objectives of both
the general public and the grammarians. If, on the other hand, our objective
is simply to improve the way in which grammar is taught, the general public
-- if we can get its attention -- will support us.
That does not mean that the task will be easy.
Textbook publishers have a lot of political power, and they will not be
happy with the idea of burning their textbooks. Likewise, the writers of
those textbooks, some of whom are members of ATEG, will not be pleased.
And many of the college professors who teach teachers will not be pleased
-- instead of teaching their pet grammatical theory, they may ultimately
be forced to teach something that teachers can use in their classrooms.
And then there are the state Departments of Education, with their often
nonsensical "standards" for the teaching of grammar. The opposition is
strong, and it is entrenched.
But it can be defeated. Thomas Jefferson believed
that the American public, having been clearly given the facts, would make
the right decisions. I believe in Jefferson's idea. The problem, therefore,
is in getting the facts clearly before the American public. Any individual
school system that wants to can adopt the KISS Curriculum. The entire curriculum
is set out on this site, as well as materials for helping teachers learn
to use it. Some people will object that they have to meet state standards,
but those standards are available on the web. Anyone who reads them will
see that either the KISS Curriculum meets them, or the standards are so
vague that they do not preclude the adoption of the KISS Curriculum. The
only thing stopping the adoption of the Curriculum (or something like it)
is the lack of public awareness and support.
The questions, actually, are very simple:
1. Do you want your children and the other students in our schools to
continue to be confused and frustrated by the grammar that they are being
2. Do you want your school system to continue to spend thousands of
dollars on expensive books that are ineffective?
3. Is there a better way?
4. Are you willing to become involved?
What can you do?
1. Send a copy of this page to everyone you know who is (or should be)
interested in the problem, including members of your local School Board
and your local newspaper.
2. Read through the other Essays on Grammar,
especially "On Learning Those Pesky Parts of Speech."
Print out a copy of it, take it to the local schools, or even better, to
your children's teacher(s), and ask them how they are handling the problem.
Ask a few specific questions -- how do they define a "clause," a "main
3. Use the materials on this site to teach your own children, even if
they are in public schools.
4. Write to some of the other educational organizations, local and national,
tell them about this site, and urge their support in solving this problem.
For additional reasons for burning the textbooks, see the essay on
"The Definition of 'Clause'."