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KISS Grammar: Why the Statistics?

     Many English teachers will either scorn or just ignore statistical research, considering it nothing more than bean counting. Their attitude is somewhat understandable, but it is ironic that many of these same teachers refer to "the research" when claiming that teaching grammar is ineffective or harmful. They don't seem to realize that the very research to which they refer is primarily based on statistical analysis. My own first efforts in statistical research on sentence structure were an attempt to explore the nature and validity of much of that previous research. Since then, I have come to understand some of both the disadvantages and advantages of such research.
     The primary disadvantage of much of this research has been  that the texts that were analyzed were not available for others to see and check. As I suggest in "Definitions of the 'T-Unit'," different researchers have defined the same term very differently. These differences in definition have major effects on the results of their studies, but there is no way to measure these effects because the original data has been unavailable.
     KISS Research eliminates most of this problem by providing transcripts of all the texts that are analyzed. Additional files provide, for each text, the coding that was used to arrive at the statistics. Thus, anyone who is interested can see what was counted as a clause, prepositional phrase, etc. The best way to see all of these files is to begin at "An Overview of KISS Research Projects." The menu in the table of that document leads to summaries of all the various statistics that KISS considers. For example, if you click on "Basic Summary of Data and Words per Main Clause," you will be taken to a summary sheet which lists all KISS research projects. From this menu, you can click on a group, and be taken to a page that lists the individual statistics for each passage in that group. This page also included links to the coded version of each passage. (See, for example, the summary on Aesop's Fables. Each group summary page also includes a link to a "Menu of Analysis by Levels." These menus contain links to the unanalyzed versions, plus, in some cases, links to "Answer Keys" for each of the KISS levels of instruction.
     This arrangement may seem cumbersome, and it requires a lot of work, but I think it is worth it. If understood for what it can offer, statistical research is important for a number of reasons.

1. It provides "research" for those who want it 
(or at least think they do).

     Simply put, I am tired of hearing about the "research" that supposedly proves that teaching grammar is ineffective or even harmful. Most of the people who refer to such research have never read it, and some people who have, and who claim that it is valid, have not noted the problems in it. By providing both coded versions of each text and summaries, KISS research will not silence those people who make this claim, but it should show why they are wrong.

2. It explores and provides support for the KISS Approach

     It is not easy to get people to understand the KISS Approach. (See The KISS Difference.) Most people who want to teach grammar want to teach grammatical constructions (clauses, phrases, appositives, absolutes). They don't seem to realize that this approach has been, and will continue to be, ineffective because most students never learn to identify basic subjects and verbs. Even if students learn the material, when they turn to real texts (including their own writing), what they have "learned" is lost in a mass of incomprehensible grammatical constructions. The students, therefore, cannot really use what they have learned, and it is soon forgotten.1
     The KISS Approach aims to clarify that incomprehensible mass of grammatical constructions. Its objective is to enable students to be able to identify, and thus intelligently discuss, the grammatical function of any word in any sentence. To do that, it makes sense to start with the constructions that appear most frequently. Statistical analysis can help us decide what should be taught before what. If subordinate clauses are sixty times more frequent than appositives, then doesn't it make sense to have students master subordinate clauses first? (See the summary.)

3. Style and Statistical Norms

     Somewhere in Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art, I relate the story of a retired gentleman who wanted to write a book about the oil crisis in the 1980's. He was taking an advanced essay course with me because, he said, he had problems writing. I couldn't find anything wrong with his writing, and as we discussed his problem, it turned out that, many years previously, one of his teachers had told him that his sentences were "too long." We took some samples of his writing, analyzed them, and compared them to the studies of Kellogg Hunt. His sentences were fine -- they were not "too long." But to this day teachers are still making subjective judgments about students' writing, thereby crippling many of the students in our classrooms.
     KISS Research provides statistical norms, but it also suggests that teachers should have students make statistical analyses of their own writing. Within a class, these statistics can be averaged, reported to the students, and then the class can discuss the implications of sentences that are "too long" or "too short," filled with subordinate clauses, or almost void of them. My experience has been that such discussions not only free students from the subjective authority of teachers, it also motivates them to learn more about grammar.2
     In addition to sentence length and complexity, KISS Research explores the frequency of sentences that begin with prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, and "But." I recently received an e-mail from someone who complained that his child was being taught to begin sentences with prepositional phrases. The writer claimed that he was taught not to. (All kinds of strange things are being taught as grammar.) As I told my inquirer, he should not rely on what he was taught, he should look at texts -- newspapers, magazines, etc., to see if practicing writers open sentences with prepositional phrases. KISS Research addresses this question, not only to show that many writers do, but also to explore the need for teaching it. If most writers naturally do this, then why are teachers wasting time teaching it?3

4. Forcing a Closer Look

     People who  denigrate bean counters have either forgotten, or never realized, that counting and categorizing forces one to look closely at details. How, exactly, is the sentence under consideration constructed? Is that a prepositional phrase? Or a reduced clause? There are often different, but equally valid grammatical explanations for some sentences, and some grammatical constructions slide into each other. Because they teach grammatical constructions, rather than analyze students' writing, most grammar teachers are not even aware of the problems involved here. But if we want to provide students with a descriptive grammar that they can use to analyze and discuss their own writing, then such questions become important.

     As I write this, the research section is ambitiously planned, but largely empty. The studies of fourth graders' writing and of Aesop's fables have been completed (minus the introductory essays). The other studies are in various degrees of completion. Some are simply waiting to be transferred to the web; others have yet to be analyzed. I am sure that there are some errors, both in the coding, and in the copying to the web. Your corrections and comments are welcome.

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1. Many middle and high school teachers who do like to teach grammar don't see this and will claim that their students "get it." They think the students "get it" because the students are tested, either by being asked to produce a construction (subordinate clause) in a sentence, or to identify the construction in a relatively uncomplicated sentence. If, however, students really did "get it," then shouldn't they still have it when they enter college? Ask any college English teacher how much students know about grammar.

2. One publisher would probably have published Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art more than a decade ago, if I had agreed to leave out the section on statistics. He was afraid that the statistics would turn competitive. The KISS Approach, however, stresses the statistics as norms, and urges teachers to discuss their implications. A high average sentence length results in texts that are difficult to read; a short average length may make a text sound childish. For students (for everyone, for that matter), the sentences that they write seem normal. Only by comparing their sentences to those of other writers can students really see that their writing is too simple, too complex, or just right. I believe that students have a right to this information.

3. Those students who don't could be encourage to do so in the process of statistical analysis and group discussions of their own writing.

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Evelyn De Morgan's
(British, 1850-1919)
Lux in Tenebris
1895; The De Morgan Foundation, Battersea, London, England
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