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.
1. It provides "research" for those
who want it
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
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.
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.
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.
This border presents
Evelyn De Morgan's
Lux in Tenebris
1895; The De Morgan Foundation, Battersea, London, England