The KISS Approach to Grammar in the Curriculum
4th, 5th, & 6th Grades
-- Add Subjects, Verbs, and Complements; Adjectives & Adverbs; Ellipsis


     By the end of sixth grade, in addition to all the prepositional phrases, students should be able to identify all the subjects, finite verbs, complements, adjectives, and adverbs. They should also understand the concept of ellipsis, particularly the cases of the omitted "you" in commands such as "Close the door."


     The subject/verb/complement pattern is the core of English sentence structure, and with prepositional phrases tucked away in parentheses, students are ready to look for these basic patterns. Two rules need to be introduced as students begin: The traditional curriculum never deals with either of these rules, which is one reason why the traditional curriculum doesn't work. These rules help students with common sentences such as "They were talking about Bob, who isn't here." In the traditional approach, students are taught to find a verb ("is"), and then to find its subject by making a question with "Who" or "What" -- "Who or what is?" This naturally leads the students to "Bob," which, they are then told, is the wrong answer. In the KISS approach, "about Bob" gets put into parentheses first, and thus, following Rule # 1 above, "Bob" is not available to be a subject. Similarly, in "They saw the airplane that flew overhead," students make a question with "flew" ("Who or what flew?") and arrive at "airplane" as its subject, only to be told that this answer is wrong. In the KISS approach, Rule # 2 above not only teaches students how to avoid the error, but it also usually forces them to find the right answer. [If "airplane" cannot be the subject of "flew" because it is the complement of "saw," then the only possible choice is "that," the only word left.]

     Rule # 2 also partially explains why subjects and complements should be taught simultaneously. Unlike the traditional approach, which has students study individual constructions and then do exercises based on carefully selected sentences, the KISS Approach immediately and almost always has students working with real texts. As a result, students will run across sentences in which they could mistake the complement of one verb for the subject of another. [My experience with students has been that the traditional approach never gets students to the point where they realize that the complement of one verb cannot be the subject of another. It is no wonder, therefore, that students have difficulty applying what they have learned about grammar to their own reading and writing.]

     Another reason for teaching subjects and complements simultaneously is simply that it makes sense. Students find subjects by making a question with "Who" or "What" before the verb; they find complements by making a question with "whom" or "what" after the verb. Once they identify a complement, they should learn to identify which type of complement it is by using the following sequence:

As they learn to identify subjects and complements, students should also be taught to distinguish nouns from pronouns. The KISS Approach does not require students to learn lists of linking verbs, etc. The students' job is simply to find the finite verbs, find their subjects, and find their complements. Students will run into a few problem in distinguishing finite verbs from verbals (verbs that function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs), but the research shows that the older students get, the more they use verbals. Beginning with finite verbs in fourth grade thus presents students with less initial confusion.      The traditional approach to grammar has been to focus on individual words. Thus students are taught to identify isolated words as adjectives or adverbs. No one has noticed that this is the long way to the objective. After having been taught to identify individual words as adjectives or adverbs, students are then shown how these words modify nouns and verbs to form phrases. The KISS approach focuses on sentences, not isolated words, and because it relies on the students' command of their native language, it is able to start from the phrase and reduce almost all work with adjectives and adverbs to two sentences:

If a word modifies a noun or pronoun, it is an adjective;
if it modifies a verb, it is an adverb.

Teaching students the concept of modification is crucial, and not very difficult -- if instruction begins with the students previous competence with the language. The students, for example, could be given the following sentence and be asked to break it into three pieces.

The young children slowly walked across the lawn.

Is any child going to break this into:

The young   /   children slowly   /   walked across the lawn.

No, their understanding of English will probably result in all of them breaking the sentences as:

The young children   /  slowly walked   /  across the lawn.

The concept of modification can now be explained by showing the students that the words that ("go with," "describe," "chunk to," or "modify") nouns, such as "children," we call adjectives. Words that go to verbs, like "slowly," we call adverbs. The primary reason for teaching students to identify adjectives and adverbs is simply to give them terms with which to look at and explain syntactic connections. Note that with these terms, fourth graders can explain how all the words in our sample sentence are connected. "The" and "young" function as adjectives to "children"; "slowly" is an adverb to "walked"; "the" is an adjective to "lawn" within the prepositional phrase "across the lawn." The prepositional phrase, in turn, is an adverb to "walked," and the subject "children" goes with the verb "walked."

     The objective of the KISS approach is to get students analyzing and explaining the grammatical connections among the words in sentences. Prepositional phrases, subjects, verbs, complements, adjectives, and adverbs account for about 95% of the connections! As they analyze and discuss short texts by using the KISS approach, students will see how much they already understand and can explain. Grammar is no longer a jungle of meaningless definitions, rules, and exceptions to those rules.

     Ellipsis is simply the omission of understood words. The concept is very important in the later stages of the approach, but it should be introduced at this level simply to explain the missing "You" in sentences such as "Give me a drink."


[The KISS approach is cumulative, and the following discussion presupposes that whenever students analyze sentences, they will begin by placing parentheses around each prepositional phrase.]

     These objectives can be spread over the three years in a variety of ways, but the best is probably to begin with the subject/verb/complement pattern in fourth grade. The trick is to get students to recognize the finite verbs. But in reality, they already know finite verbs -- they use them, usually correctly, all the time. The trick is thus to get the students to consciously recognize the finite verbs. This is a matter of attaching the label "finite verb" to the knowledge that is already in students' heads.
     There are numerous methods, exercises, etc. for doing this. One that generally hasn't been used would be to follow up on those four-inch high prepositions that decorate the walls of third grade classrooms by having some four-inch high finite verbs on the walls in fourth grade. A small number of commonly used words ("is," "are," "was," "were," "has") are always finite and thus will always be underlined twice. Although grammarians generally deride the old definition of a verb as "a word that names an action or state of being," the definition is very helpful to some students. [Remember that the grammarians' objective is to get an exact definition of verb (and after two thousand years of trying, they still haven't been able to come up with a definition that they all agree on). The students' objective, on the other hand, is to use that simplistic definition as a tool to identify a lot of verbs so that they can attach that label to the category already in their heads. Still another approach is to point out that verbs have variable forms ("work," "working," "worked").
     What is most important, however, is practice. Students should analyze five to ten sentences a week -- one or two a day, or all five to ten at one time. The sentences should not be isolated, i.e., they should be, one after another, the sentences in a short passage, either from the students reading or from students' writing. It is important that students see that they are not just learning to analyze sentences; they are learning to analyze texts!
     Imagine, for example, a fourth grade classroom. The students are beginning work on a new passage which has been posted on a bulletin board (where anyone can look at it at any time) and which is shown to the students on an overhead. Having read the passage to the students (or, better, had a student read it out loud for the class), the teacher replaces the passage with an overhead (in larger letters) of the first sentence. The first question, of course, is "Are there any prepositional phrases?" Because these students have used the KISS approach in third grade, identifying the prepositional phrases is both easy and rewarding. Students simply call out the phrases, and the teacher, using a washable ink pen, marks them with parentheses on the overhead. The next question is "Where is the finite verb?" If the students are just beginning to work with S/V patterns, the teacher may have to give a few hints, but the verb will be identified, and the teacher can underline it twice.
     The very first time the students do an exercise, the teacher will tell them, "We can find the subject of the verb by making a question with "who" or "what." The teacher can make the appropriate question. The students will give the answer, and the teacher will underline the subject once. The next question is "Does this verb have a complement?" "If so, what is it?" "What kind is it (PA, PN, IO, DO)"? [Some schools might want to introduce subjects and finite verbs in the first half of fourth grade and add complements in the last half.] If there are two or more finite verbs in the sentence, the class would go on to identify each finite verb, its subject, and its complement.
     The grammar lesson for the day is over, but teachers might want to continue discussing the sentence for several reasons. At the sentence level, there are questions of vocabulary and sentence structure: "Are there other words (more accurate, more interesting, etc.) that could have been used as the subject of the sentence?" "Are there other verbs?" [Currently, instructors at the college level tell students to "use stronger verbs." Most college students, however, find this instruction useless because they cannot identify the verbs in their writing.] "What about the complement? Could a better word have been found? Could more specific words be found?" [The latter question introduces students to the continuum of general/specific. Frequently students will write something such as "He likes games." when they really mean "He likes baseball and football."]
     In some cases, instead of focussing on vocabulary, the teacher might want to ask, "Are there other ways in which to arrange the words in this sentence?" At the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade levels, this will probably be a matter of moving prepositional phrases within a sentence, or in some cases, moving a word from a prepositional phrase to a different slot ("One of the important points is ....; One important point is ....) [Another common complaint of college writing instructors is that most students appear to be unable to revise the structure of a sentence once they have written it. If students, beginning in fourth grade -- and continuing through their high school education -- analyzed a sentence a day, and three or four times a month considered how to revise a sentence, every high school graduate would have this skill.]
     Because the KISS approach works with sentences in context, there is another extremely important question that teachers could ask: "Why is this sentence in the text?" Currently, when I ask my College Freshmen this question, they give me blank stares. The very idea that every sentence in a paragraph has a purpose seems new to them. At the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade levels, these purposes might simply be to describe a person, to describe the place the person is at, to state what "they" did next, etc., but as the students get into higher grades, these purposes will include topic sentences, definitions of terms, examples of previously stated ideas, etc. In the KISS approach, the study of sentence structure should lead into these reading skills, which will then be transferable to students' writing skills.
     One sentence a day, or five sentences a week, should be analyzed and discussed in class.

Fourth Grade:

     If students are having problems identifying finite verbs, try the fill-in-the-blanks exercise. Take a passage from a story, and replace the finite verbs with blank lines. Make an overhead of it. Go around the room and have each student in turn offer a word (or phrase) to fill in a blank. As each student responds, write in the words. When the passage is complete, show students the original. Discuss the differences. [A variation of this is to have the students work in small groups with dittoes of the exercise. Then have each group read its version before showing them the original.]

Fifth Grade:

     Have students analyze (parentheses, underlining, labeling) ONE sentence in a paper they are to hand in.

Time Required

     One sentence a day, five days a week, for three years. If students do this, is it unrealistic to expect that, as they near the end of sixth grade, every student will be able to identify the prepositional phrases and S/V/C patterns in most sentences in their reading and writing? Because the sentences in a passage vary in length and complexity, the class time required to analyze them just for grammar (excluding the questions of vocabulary, etc. discussed above) would probably range from one to ten minutes. If we assume an average of five minutes, that would be twenty-five minutes a week. As noted in the discussion of time required for prepositional phrases, it is impossible to compare this to the time currently spent because there are no good statistics on the time currently spent. But if students have five 40-minute English classes a week, then the five minutes spent on grammar would be 13% of class time. In view of the current complaints about students' inability to write clear, grammatically correct sentences, doesn't 13% of class time sound more than reasonable?
     The 13% of class time devoted to the KISS approach should not be strictly rationed out at five or ten minutes a day. The objective is to have all the students, by the end of sixth grade, be able to identify all the prepositional phrases, S/V/C patterns, adjectives and adverbs in a typical passage written by a sixth grade student. It would, for example, create a total disaster if students learned all of this in fourth grade and then did nothing with the KISS approach in fifth and sixth grades. The two-year gap would result in their having forgotten most of what they learned, and they will need what they learned when they begin to deal with clauses in seventh grade. The approach needs to be spread across the entire three years, with students analyzing at least one sentence every two weeks. This will help the slower learners and keep everyone from forgetting.
     In fourth grade, a sentence a day is probably the best way to start. As students begin to recognize the patterns, this can be reduced to two or three days a week, and later to one. The time saved by the reduction should probably be devoted to the KISS Grammar Game. Once or twice a month the entire class period could be devoted to the game, and students would analyze five to fifteen sentences in one day. Playing the KISS Grammar Game regularly, once a month, or even once every two months, is more important than I thought it would be when I developed the game. What I found was that sullen male college Freshmen, who otherwise had no interest in studying grammar, began to pay attention when they realized that the class would be split into teams and that they would have to play. They did not like the idea of being the one to lose points for their team. [Currently peer-pressure works against the teaching of grammar -- even teachers respond to it with "Ugh. Grammar." Students therefore take pride in their refusal to learn it because "nobody really understands that stuff anyway." But the simplicity and design of the KISS approach make grammar easier to learn -- most students pick it up fairly quickly. The critical mass has now turned, and the rebels primary support is destroyed. Because most of the class DOES understand what is going on, the rebels feel pressured to learn because otherwise they look like dummies in the eyes of their classmates.]
     In sixth grade, perhaps even in fifth, students should analyze a short passage of their own writing. They can check this by working in small groups in class, with the teacher circulating to answer questions. Beyond the game and self-analysis, the only other thing that will require time would be the occasional assessment.


     As with prepositional phrases, primary assessment is simple: give the students a two or three sentence passage, triple-spaced, and have them analyze it in class (10 minutes): parentheses around prepositional phrases, subjects underlined once, their finite verbs twice, and complements labeled. Arrows can be drawn from adjectives and adverbs to the word they modify. Scores could be derived by dividing the number of possible errors minus any real errors by the number of possible errors. A two or three sentence passage can be evaluated in a minute or two, particularly since all the students would be doing the same sentences.
     Teachers could, of course, assess their students' mastery any time they want, and more formal assessment could occur near the end of each grade level. By the end of sixth grade, every student should be scoring 100%!

Did you notice something missing?

     Some people are sure to raise questions about teaching students to avoid errors such as in subject / verb agreement. The KISS approach is to avoid, as much as possible, discussing errors such as this in class. Doing so simply spreads the disease. And there are several other reasons for discussing such errors as little as possible. First, there are often general disagreements among grammarians about what is, and what is not, an error. Second, several studies have shown that not all errors are noticed as such. We see what we are looking for. Some English teachers (and other people) will find errors in students' writing, for example, but they will totally miss identical errors in published writing. Is it really that important, then, to focus a class's attention on errors, many of which the students will learn to fix by themselves? For the KISS approach does help students to fix most, if not all, of these errors. The KISS approach takes longer, but that is because the approach does it the RIGHT way -- by teaching them to understand how the language works.

Q & A

     [You are invited to send questions about this document to Dr. Vavra. Your questions may result in revisions of the text, or they may be answered separately here.]