The KISS Approach to Grammar in the Curriculum
-- A More Meaningful Design
Introduction -- The Students' Objective

Updated 2/27/98
      In the fourteen years that I have served as the editor of Syntax in the Schools, the newsletter of the NCTE Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, I have yet to see any article or book which addresses the fundamental question of how grammar should fit into the curriculum. The ATEG listserver often includes discussions of what grammar should be taught in our schools. Usually the contributions concern how to teach a particular construction, but rarely does anyone present any comments about where (at what grade level) that construction should be taught. There is, in other words, little discussion of grammar in the curriculum. Instead, most teachers focus exclusively on what they should be doing in their particular classes. This is extremely unfortunate because students are in school for twelve years, and what they need to know about grammar cannot be covered, much less learned, in one. As a result, the situation is similar to hundreds of horses trying to pull a wagon, with each horse headed in a different direction. The KISS Approach, on the other hand, has a specific objective for students -- every high school graduate should be able to explain how every word in any sentence grammatically (syntactically) connects to the main subject/verb pattern.

     Although the students' objective can be stated in the preceding single sentence, justifying that objective, explaining how to reach it, and exploring its implications are major questions. I have attempted to deal with the justification and the implications in Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art. In essence, the approach is based on a model of how the human brain processes language. At some point in their study, students should examine the model and discuss its implications. In effect, the model justifies everything they will be (or have been) learning. Once they understand the model, students can see not only why certain errors are indeed errors, but also why some writing is considered mature and stylistically superior. Thus, to a large degree, the justification of the KISS approach is based on its implications -- if students can understand how every word in any sentence syntactically connects to the main subject and verb, and if they have a model of how the brain processes sentences (by using these connections), then they will be able to judge the quality of the sentences that they read and write.

     Whereas Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art is primarily a discussion of the theory and research behind the KISS approach, these pages are devoted to a brief discussion of how the KISS approach should fit the school curriculum from grades three through twelve. It begins with third grade because I believe that before that grade students do not need formal, systematic instruction in grammar other than learning such things as to start sentences with captial letters and to end them with periods or question marks. (Further research -- and help from teachers -- may change my mind.) Third grade, however, is early enough to start.

     Four of the distinguishing characteristics of the KISS approach are that it aims to have students analyze entire short texts, it is cummulative, it is sequential, and students are expected to be able to recognize in a text ALL of the constructions that they have studied. Right from the beginning, students should be working with randomly selected texts (and not with carefully selected sentences, as is the case in most grammar textbooks). As they begin to study a new construction (such as subjects and verbs) students in a classroom should all be working on the same text, simply as a matter of practicality and the teacher's sanity. Having been introduced to subjects and verbs, the students in a class could all be assigned to identify the subjects and verbs in the same passage. This homework need not be checked by the teacher. Instead, it should be reviewed in class, using an overhead projector. Each student can check his or her own work, while learning in the process. Brief, two or three sentences quizzes, can let the teacher know when most of the class is ready to move on, at which time each student should select his or her own text for analysis. These assignments can be checked by the students themselves, with the teacher circulating around the room to help resolve problems. Near the end of their work on a now no-longer new construction, each member of the class should analyze a passage of his or her own writing.

     The KISS approach is cummulative in the sense that students begin by learning to identify prepositional phrases, but when they move on to subject / verb patterns, they continue to identify all the prepositional phrases in any passage they analyze. There are strategic reasons for this. For example, the subject of a verb cannot be located in a prepositional phrase. If the prepositional phrases are placed in parentheses first, students quickly learn that they cannot go inside those parentheses to find a subject. They are then forced to choose another word as the subject, and they quickly learn to identify the right word. But the cummulative nature of the approach not only means that students are constantly reviewing (and using) what they have already learned, but it also means that slower students are able to catch up.

     The sequential nature of the KISS approach makes sentence structure easier to learn, and it is more comprehensive and effective than most traditional instruction. The theory behind this sequence is discussed in detail in Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art. Here, however, we can note, for example, that the sequence makes the process of learning sentence structure easier because it enables students to use the principle of elimination. A primary rule of syntax, for example, is that the object of a preposition cannot be the subject of a verb. Once students have learned to identify all the prepositional phrases in a passage by placing them in parentheses (their first step), they can automatically eliminate any words in parentheses when they are looking for subjects of verbs. (In these pages, the rationale of the sequence will be discussed as each new level is examined.)
     The sequential nature of the KISS approach is extremely important in considering how instruction in grammar should fit into the English curriculum in our schools. Through these pages, I will be suggesting how the approach can be spread across grades three through eleven. It is, of course, possible to squeeze the approach into a lot less time. Most college students can master the entire sequence in one fifteen-week college course. At that pace, however, they cannot really appreciate and understand the implications of what they are learning. Not only does learning take time, but the psycholinguistic model of how the mind process language (presented on this web site) also suggests the problems that students will have if they are rushed through the approach.
     George Miller's theory of Short-Term Memory (STM, the basis of the psycholinguistic model) suggests that the human brain can handle only a limited amount of information at a time. If students are still learning to recognize prepositional phrases, they will have "prepositional phrase questions" in STM. If they have not studied prepositional phrases to the point at which recognition of them becomes automatic, the students will still have these questions in STM if they are asked to go on to identify subjects and verbs (whch require a different set of quesitons). As a result, STM will be overloaded -- and the students will be confused. Haste makes waste -- slow and steady wins the race. Ideally, the KISS approach should be spread over the grades I have indicated. In implementing the sequence, of course, older students will have to begin at the beginning. For example, if the approach is started in ninth grade, students could cover prepositional phrases, subject/verb patterns, and clauses. Obviously, they will not attain the mastery they would have attained if they had started in third grade. At the other end, there is no reason to rush students ahead. The KISS sequence has been designed to follow the natural development of syntactic maturity. (See TGLA.) Rushing fifth and sixth graders into the study of clauses, although it may appear to be effective, will probably result in more harm than good.

     The fourth distinguishing characteristic of the KISS approach is that students are expected to identify in a text ALL of the instances of the constructions that they have studied. There is a pedagogical reason for this -- the sequence and the principle of elimination are effective only if one can eliminate, for example, all of the prepositional phrases in a sentence. If, in analyzing the sentence "One of the boys is here," the student cannot identify "of the boys" as a prepositional phrase, then that student is likely to view "boys" as the subject of "is." (Such a student is also prone to making errors such as "One of the boys are here.") If you study the KISS approach, you will see that the prinicple of elimination is used frequently. Students who cannot identify all of the constructions at an earlier level will have problems with later levels. [In almost fifteen years of using this approach, I have met only one student who never was able to master it. His problem was that he would not follow the sequence, and, as a result, he could not use the principle of elimination.]
     There is, however, also a philosophical reason for expecting students to identify all of the constructions. Mediocrity in unacceptable. Do you want a surgeon to remove 70% of your cancer? Do you want your bank to be 70% accurate in its records of your accounts? Subconsciously, the brain of anyone who knows English already knows the syntax studied in the KISS approach. To speak or write in English, one must use prepositional phrases, subjects, verbs, etc., and most people use them very well most of the time. The KISS approach simply makes the subconscious conscious so that the learner can understand what is going on and gain greater control of the language. My students often report "clicks," i.e., moments in which a connection is made between the construction they are studying and their previously unconscious knowledge of that construction. Once that click occurs, they find it very easy to identify all of the instances of that construction. Under these circumstances, 70% accuracy means 30% sloppiness.

    The discussions of what should be studied at which grade level(s) each include the following format:


Rationale Methods Time Required Assessment

     Currently, the KISS approach does not address a few basic questions such as when and how capitalization should be taught, or when and how the use of the apostrophe should be taught. Although I can by no means claim to be an expert in these two questions, it appears to me that the current method of teaching capitalization, particularly the capitalizaiton of the first word in a sentence, is working. The apostrophe, however, presents a problem. Many college Freshmen are still unsure of when to use apostrophes. As more teachers of K-12 become involved with the KISS approach, I hope that they will help address these two areas.