The KISS Approach to Grammar

Suggestions for Teaching Prepositional Phrases and Compounding

     The primary difficulty in getting students to recognize prepositional phrases is, of course, getting them to recognize prepositions. Some teachers may want to have students memorize a list of words that can function as prepositions, but memorization is not much fun and is really not necessary. Everyone who speaks English, including pre-schoolers, already has a perfectly good unconscious knowledge of prepositional phrases. Our objective, therefore, should simply be to make this unconscious knowledge conscious. There are several ways to do this.

Teaching Prepositional Phrases

     If instruction is begun in third grade, I have suggested that, during most of the year, the walls of the room be decorated with 4" high, paper prepositions. When the students are working to identify prepositions in a passage, they could simply look around the room to find the prepositions. Later in the year, to test their mastery, the paper prepositions could be removed (or the students could be tested in another room).

     One trick for helping students to recognize many prepositions is to tell them to think of a house (or plane, or any other thing) which something else can be "under," "over," "in," "by", etc.

    At some point, students should find the prepositional phrases in a few short passages, preferably randomly selected and written by their peers or taken from their other reading materials. The easiest way to do this is to use dittoes, double or triple spaced. DO NOT COLLECT AND CORRECT THESE, OR YOU WILL GO NUTS. The best way to review such homework is by playing the KISS Grammar Game in class. The game puts pressure on students to be prepared, and it also reviews the homework, thereby helping students who are having problems. Very short passages (one or two sentences) can be used as quizzes or for assessment. In evaluating such passages, simply ignore any prepositional phrases that include constructions which the students have not yet seen (such as prepositional phrases that have clauses as their objects).
     At the end of their work on prepositional phrases, students should be required to identify all the prepositional phrases in a short passage from their own writing. They can work in small groups to check their work, with the teacher circulating to answer any questions. To make this exercise more interesting, students can be asked to count the number of words in their passage, the number of words in prepositional phrases, and then to divide the number of words in phrases by the total number of words. This will give them the percentage of words in the passage that are in prepositional phrases. Teachers can then average those averages, and report the class's average to the class. If there is time, teachers might also want to have students examine and discuss some texts (from previous years) at the two extremes. -- What difference(s) do the prepositional phrases make? If students have been told that their ultimate objective is to be able to explain the grammatical function of every word in every sentence, the results of these calculations will most likely also help motivate students to further study (because they will probably find themselves already 20 to 33% of the way toward their objective).

     For my college Freshmen, I developed CASA (Computer Assisted Syntactic Analysis). This is now a public domain computer program which you can download and use if your students have access to a computer with Windows 3.1 or higher. In the program, students click on words in randomly selected sentences to place parentheses around prepositional phrases. When they think they have found all the phrases in the sentence, they click on a "Check" button, and the program checks their answers.
     The first floor of CASA consists of four rooms, all devoted to prepositional phrases. In order to get a pass from one room to the next, students must get 25 phrases correct with only one mistake. If they make a second mistake, the program resets the counter to zero and they must continue working. The program, which includes instructional material,  keeps track of their mistakes and their time on task. (Students can keep a data file on disk so that they can leave and come back to where they left off.) When they are finished, students can make a print-out to give to their teacher.
     The sentences in CASA are from the writing of college Freshmen, and are therefore probably too advanced for primary or middle school students, but if you are working with high school or college students, the program can be VERY helpful. Before I created it, my students marked prepositional phrases on hand-outs. Many students did the homework in two or three minutes, handed it in, got a low grade, and then were lost when we moved on to subjects and verbs, and then to clauses. CASA changed that. The entire program consists of six rooms, and I grade on how many rooms the student has completed. If a student's print-out indicates that the student completed only three of the six, the student gets a fifty; if the student completed six of six, the student gets a 100, no matter how many mistakes the student made or how long the student took. (Depending on their previous education, etc., students take anywhere from 45 minutes to twelve hours to complete the six rooms.) Given these grading criteria, all but a few students complete all six rooms and, as a result, the majority of students can easily identify all the prepositional phrases as we move on to add subjects, verbs, etc.
     I have considered making a new version of CASA, a version which would allow teachers to replace the original sentences with their own (or better, with those of their students).

     Passages in which students are required to fill-in-the-blanks are also useful and interesting. Some teachers have an involuntary, knee-jerk, negative reaction to "fill-in-the-blanks" because they automatically think of those exericises in which students are required to fill the blanks with "was / were," "who / whom," etc. Here, however, "fill-in-the-blanks" simply means that the words in an original text that were in prepositional phrases have been replaced by blanks. In an elemntary form, these exercises can be used to help students learn to identify prepositions -- replace only the prepositions with blanks. It is much more interesting, however, to replace entire phrases and then to read some of the responses to the class.

I am hoping that other teachers will submit more passages (and examples of responses) so that we can have a good collection of these exercises here.      Instruction on prepositional phrases should be integrated with instruction in writing. Some teachers like to have students write isolated sentences that contain two, three, etc. prepositional phrases. Personally, I prefer having students add (or subtract) prepositional phrases in the act of revising their writing. Most college instructors of Freshman composition will probably agree that most college Freshmen, when asked to reivse, simply edit for errors (or just correct those errors that have been pointed out by the instructor). Asking students to add three, four, or five prepositional phrases to a paper they have already written forces the student to deal not just with grammar, but with revision. Adding prepositional phrases automatically adds details. (Students can be asked to underline the added phrases so the instructor can identify and comment on them.) For some students, sentence variety can be improved if the instructor requires that one or more of the additional phrases be used as a sentence-opener.
     Another interesting exercise is to have students revise a short passage by eliminating as many prepositional phrases as possible -- without subtracting from (or otherwise changing) the meaning of the passage. Many students do not see any possibilities for changing a sentence once they have written it, and thus such an exercise will force them to explore sentence manipulation as they change "with instruction in writing" to "writing instruction," or "forces the student to deal not just with grammar, but with revision" to "forces students to master not just grammar, but also revision."      The key to helping students master syntax is in making as many connections for the students as possible, connections to their writing, and to language in general. Speech is rather difficult to catch and analyze in the classroom, but teachers should, from time to time, simply point out a particularly appropriate (informative, artistic, etc.) prepositional phrase in things that their students are reading. One of the problems with traditional grammar is that it has generally lived at the extremes -- either no connection was made to students' reading and writing, or students were required to parse everything. As with virtue, effectiveness probably exists in the middle.

Teaching Compounding

     In the course of identifying prepositional phrases, students will run across phrases with compound objects ("with Bill and Sherrie"). Students should be taught to recognize such phrases by looking for meaning -- it doesn't mean ":with Bill," it means "with Bill and Sherrie." This is, however, a good time to introduce the concept of compounding, i.e., "Compounding is the joining of two equal things (in this case the two objects of the preposition) by means of a conjunction. It certainly doesn't hurt to tell students that the main conjunctions used are "and," "or," and "but," even though, at this level, the students will rarely find "but" used in this way. At this level, I would not introduce the term "coordinating conjunction"; I would save that until students have to distinguish coordinating from subordinating conjunctions.
     Students may also discover "as well as," which KISS Grammar treats as the equivalent of "and." Students normally have little problem with this if they have been taught to look at grammar in relation to meaning -- "with Bill as well as Sherrie."

Suggestions from Other Teachers