The KISS Grammar Game -- Tech Prep Editions
Cybernetics and the Teaching of Grammar?
     Cybernetics deals in circular causalities in which A causes B, B causes C, and C causes A, so that A causes itself (Krippendorf 1989a, p. 443). An example of such circular causality is a speaker who modifies his or her presentation while monitoring audience reactions to it. 
    Everett Rogers, A History of Communication Study: A Biographical Approach (NY; The Free Press, 1997. 397.)
     As I prepared these editions, I wondered about what I might say to introduce them. My introduction has turned into a conclusion. The KISS approach has been a major project of mine for the last fifteen years -- I have written a book about it, published several articles, and designed at least two web sites, all of which discuss the KISS approach, if not the game. What could I say that I haven't said before? By chance, I happened to be reading Rogers' A History of Communication, and, as I read about Norbert Wiener's theory of cybernetics, I said to myself, "That applies to the KISS approach!" As I thought about it, I realized that it applies in two different ways -- the theory of grammar, and students' learning of it.

Cybernetics and the Theory of Grammar

     Although even many English teachers do not know it, there are many different grammars of English. Most people think of grammar as THE rules for speaking and writing English (or some other language). But as Webster's New Collegiate  Dictionary states, a grammar is "The elements or principles of any science or art."
There are, for example, "traditional" grammars. Then there are structural, transformational, systemic, tagmemic, and a number of other different grammars of English. Each of these grammars tends to use different terms (to describe the same things), and each was developed for a different purpose. The grammar that is taught in our schools is most often a derivative of ancient Latin grammar (a problem I have discussed elsewhere), but, more importantly, most often that grammar is taught in a highly analytical, impractical way. I find myself blushing as I write this, for normally I am constantly after my students to be more analytical. It was Rogers' explanation of cybernetics and system theory that made me see the problem.
     Rogers writes:

At the first (1990) conference of the NCTE Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, one of the common complaints of presenters was that they had to teach the parts of speech over and over again, grade after grade. Why, these presenters wondered, couldn't students learn them? Perhaps the problem in not in our students, but in our approach to teaching grammar. The parts of speech are the basic building blocks of all English sentence structure. But to teach them AS parts of speech is to take a very reductionist perspective. As Roger's notes, "Such reductionism removes the context of the behavior of study and also eliminates the interaction among the various parts."
      Language consists of a number of systems -- a sound system, a spelling system, a system for pronoun references, and, most important for teaching, a sentence structure system. Each "system is a grouping of parts that work together in order to accomplish a set of goals." Each system, moreover, is "living," in a number of senses. The sound system (accent) of someone born in Boston, for example, is different from that of someone who was born in Arizona. But if the Bostonite moves to Arizona, the odds are great that his or her accent will adapt to the new environment. Likewise, an individual's syntactic system grows -- a child's sentences are naturally shorter than they will be when that child becomes an adult. In fact, the entire language is alive and adapting. Should Shakespeare suddenly come alive today, he would find our English as difficult as my students find his in Hamlet.
     Unfortunately, the grammar taught in our schools tends to ignore all this. There have been a few interesting incursions, but on the whole the grammar taught in school focuses on individual parts of speech, individual constructions (clauses, etc.), and individual rules, all taught with some reference to "correctness," but almost never taught with reference to a purpose. As Rogers says, "Systems consist of sets of components related to each other interdependently that work toward the overall objective of the whole." The objective of language, for most people at least, is not "correctness," but rather the communication of meaning. School grammar rarely gets to questions of meaning.
      But the KISS approach not only has meaning as its central focus, it also treats sentence structure as a living system. It does this in several ways: And, on a more theoretical level, the KISS approach explores "the interaction among the various parts" of sentence structure. One way it can do this is statistically. By using the KISS approach, I have learned, for example, that in an average text written by an adult, one third of the words are in prepositional phrases. On the other hand, less than one percent of the words are in appositives. At first, this may not seem like a big deal, but when we look at what is taught in our schools, we find that prepositional phrases are usually ignored, and appositives are taught as early as fourth grade! If our objective is to teach the system of sentence structure, don't our schools have the situation backward?
     The KISS approach also focuses on "sets of components related to each other interdependently that work toward the overall objective of the whole." Consider the following two sentences from a student's essay: Traditional grammar would consider the word "underneath" in the second sentence as an adverb. Well, o.k., but what does it mean -- "Underneath what?" In the KISS approach, we look back to the preceding sentence, where we find "underneath the theater." And that's what it means. The "adverb," therefore, is really a partially ellipsed prepositional phrase.
     The KISS approach reveals a surprising number of such cases where one construction "slides into" another. For example, one can slide from simple prepositional phrase ("After supper, we played tennis.") to prepositional phrase with a gerundive ("After having supper,....") to subordinate clause ("After we had supper, ...."). Or one can slide back and forth between appositive and clause: "He is in Chicago, the meat capital of the world." "He is in Chicago, which is the meat capital of the world." And not only can they see that such "sliding" can be done, but students can also intelligently discuss why writers might do it. In general, the lengthier versions tend to slow the pace, whereas the shorter constructions move readers more rapidly through the information. (As some of the notes to these editions explain, there are sometimes more specific reasons for specific cases.)
      With an apology to Rogers (for the theft), I thus want to claim that the KISS approach "is holistic; it stresses the interrelationships among the parts of a whole." As it does so, it makes sentence structure both more comprehensible and more interesting for students.

Cybernetics and Students' Learning of Grammar

     Perhaps we might begin with the question -- "Do students learn grammar?" One answer is a definite "Yes." In order to speak the language, students have mastered a massive amount of the grammar of the language. They learn this almost entirely on their own. (How can anyone teach a baby English unless the baby first figures out what those sounds mean?) It is often pointed out that, before they enter school, almost every child has mastered almost all of the normal constructions of English grammar.
     But mastery of individual constructions is not sufficient. Different grammar is appropriate for different situations, and the boy who says "Me and Billy went to the store" probably should be taught that, particularly among educated people (who tend to have more power and money), such a statement will be seen as a grammatical error and a breach of etiquette. But even more important, as children get older, their sentences NATURALLY become more complicated, and many people have troubles keeping the words in sentences aligned. Thus errors such as fragments, comma-splices, and dangling modifiers appear; and, even worse, students sometimes lose control of the structure (syntax) of their sentences and say (or write) things that they do not mean. For these reasons, we teach grammar in school. Do students learn this grammar? A few do, but for many, the answer is an almost unqualified "No." Although most people remember being taught grammar, other than a few English teachers and some grammarians, most people do not believe that they understand it. In fact, they fear it, which is why, when introduced to an English teacher, they think, if not say, "Oh, I'd better watch my grammar."

     Here again, perhaps Wiener's concept of cybernetics can help us understand the problem. According to Rogers, "Cybernetics as a communication theory is unique in several ways:

Let's consider the primary system we are interested in to be each students' intellectual system for understanding what it is they are learning -- and why. The system's performance, then, would be how well the student understands the grammar that is being taught. But because grammar is not normally taught as a system, there is no way for an individual student to be able to accurately describe his or her own performance. Internally, i.e., in the student's own mind, what is received as feedback is an unconnected string of a few Got its, usually buried in a buzz of question marks: "A subject must agree with its verb in number." --"I've got it, or at least remember it." "Number?" "Subject?" "Verb?" [Research shows that most high school graduates cannot identify the subjects and verbs in a typical short passage; hence, the "rule" is useless to them.] "A semicolon is used to join main clauses." --"I remember that." "Clause?" "Main clause?" Even those students who, in the short term, can remember what is going on in the classroom, and pass the homework assignments and/or tests, (thereby getting positive feedback from the teacher), generally get what we normally call negative internal feedback because they cannot understand what they are learning as a system, and they cannot see how well they are mastering that system. As a result, the normal attitude toward grammar classes in our schools, even among most English teachers, is a big "Ugh!"
     The KISS approach reverses that situation simply because it treats sentence structure as a relatively finite and closed system. In essence, this gives students a goal which they can clearly see: if they can understand and explain how every word in any English sentence is syntactically related to the subject / verb / complement pattern of a main clause, they have reached their goal. And, more than that, the KISS approach is designed as a series of steps or levels which enable students to see themselves making a lot of progress right from the start. The KISS approach, for example, begins with prepositional phrases. As noted above, in an average passage of an adult's writing, one-third of the words are connected within prepositional phrases. The student who understands and can identify prepositional phrases can thus see for him or herself that one-third of the goal has been reached. And this is INTERNAL feedback, or, as Rogers says, "the information conveyed describes the system's performance at a previous point in time to itself." As students progress through the levels of the KISS approach, they see themselves mastering more and more of their goal. (The answer keys for these editions of the game indicate how much of the goal has been mastered at each level for each sentence.)

     Rogers goes on to claim that:

One of the projects that made Wiener and cybernetics famous was his work on improving the effectiveness of antiaircraft guns. As Rogers puts it: The KISS approach requires "a dynamic, processual view of [learning] over time." It would be nice if the time required were only the few minutes that an antiaircraft gun would be firing, but in reality the conscious mastery of sentence structure may require years.
     The approach is based on the research into NATURAL syntactic development by educators such as Kellogg Hunt, Roy O'Donnell, and Walter Loban. Among other things, these researchers have shown that students do not develop UNCONSCIOUS and natural mastery of the subordinate clause until sometime between seventh and ninth grades. Constructions such as the appositive and the gerundive are probably mastered a few years after subordinate clauses. If they are right, and they seem to be, it simply does not make sense to try to teach subordinate clauses to fifth graders or appositives to ninth graders. [It's not only not nice, it may be damaging to fool with Mother Nature.] If instruction in the KISS approach is begun in third grade, it is then simply a matter of common sense, not to rush it and to spread it across grades at least into grade ten.

     Older students, of course, already have unconscious mastery even of the advanced constructions, but even with them, conscious mastery requires time. I have crammed the entire approach into a single college semester. Better students can get all of it; average students can get almost all; a few less-prepared students have had to repeat the course. The KISS approach is NOT something that one can sit down and master in a single evening. The reason for this may be explained by using the developmental theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, and the Short-Term Memory theory of George Miller.
     Piaget and Vygotsky both contend that conceptual learning is a matter of mastering a basic concept, digesting it, and then expanding or building upon it. Piaget visualizes his theory as a line graph with what he calls "plateaus," or levels at which no apparent learning is taking place, but at which the learner is in fact digesting and consolidating the recently learned concept(s). Vygotsky, on the other hand, pictures learning by using two concentric circles. The inner circle represents concepts previously mastered. The area beyond the outer circle represents concepts that are beyond the learner's current possible comprehension. (One cannot understand the theory of relativity without some prior understanding of physics.) The area between the two circles is what Vygotsky calls the "zone of proximal development." In this area lie the concepts which the learner can currently master.
If students already have an unconscious mastery of these constructions, why are the plateaus (or zones) relevant to their conscious mastery?
     Making the unconscious into the consciously conceptual is not simply a matter of turning a switch from "off" to "on." Each level of the KISS approach requires students to memorize and learn to apply a limited, but significant number of constructions and concepts. In learning to recognize prepositional phrases, for example, students must"

Depending on one's intellectual perspective, I suppose, the preceding set of "rules" may be either extremely simple, or extremely complex. But for someone who cannot recognize prepositional phrases, learning to apply these rules -- and internalizing (or mastering) them -- requires a fair amount of time and practice. Depending on the amount and frequency of study and practice, (as well as of motivation, intellectual ability, previous knowledge, etc.) it make take days, or it may take as long as a year. Eventually, however, these rules can be internalized -- which means that the learner can identify most (if not all) prepositional phrases in a passage without consciously calling the rules to mind. If at all possible, this internalization should occur before the student moves on to the next level of KISS grammar.
      Miller's theory of Short-Term Memory explains why. Miller argues that Short-Term Memory is, in effect, a bottleneck at the entrance of the human mind that limits incoming and currently active information to seven (plus or minus two) bits (or pieces) of information at a time. We remember, for example, a telephone number not as seven (or ten) individual digits, but rather as two (or three) "chunks" of information. If we did not do so, the seven digits would completely occupy Short-Term Memory -- and we would forget whom we were calling and why. In effect, we would suffer from a form of information overload -- and not be able to make telephone calls.
     Applied to the KISS approach to learning sentence structure, Miller's theory suggests that the student who is learning to recognize prepositional phrases has his or her STM fairly full. If the "list" of words that can function as prepositional phrases has not already been internalized, the student's mind must be shifting through it to see if a particular word is on it. Once that has been decided, the student must then apply the three following rules (above). Often, additional questions have to be answered -- is "love" in "to love," a verb or not? What does it mean in this particular sentence? (That question, in itself, may strain a person's STM.) Although it seems easy to people who already know how to do it, identify prepositional phrases is not that simple. It appears simple to people who know how to do it because they have internalized all the relevant rules. Those who do not know how to do it need time and practice -- and no distractions.
     Moving them on to the next level too fast may cause disastrous distractions. Once the concept of prepositional phrases has been assimilated, a student can mark them off in a sentence with no problem: ZIP, ZIP; ZIP, ZIP; ZIP, ZIP. Prepositional phrases have been placed in parentheses -- no problems, no worries; -- out of mind, out of Short-Term Memory. But the student who has not assimilated the concept must now contend, not only with the rules for identifying prepositional phrases, but also with the rules for finding finite verbs, their subjects, and their complements.
     Again, for those who can already do this, it appears easy. But for those who can't, the task is plenty to fill Short-Term Memory. The first task, of course, is to find a verb (or verb phrase) in the sentence. [Easily repeatable research has shown that many college Freshmen consider "of" to be a verb, and are surprised to learn that "is" is a verb.] Students who cannot identify verbs may have to call into STM a wide range of "instructions," from the old and still useful "A verb names an action or a state of being," to "A verb can fill the blank in "[She / they]  ____ (something) every day." It is not my intention here to delve into all the possible suggestions given to students to help them identify verbs, and the preceding should be enough to indicate that this task by itself can challenge any student's STM.
     Having identified a verb, the student still has several things to do. Is it a finite verb (one of those underlined twice in traditional grammar), or is it a verbal (a verb functioning as a noun, adjective, or adverb). If it is finite, what is its subject (Who or what + verb? -- Ignore words in prepositional phrases). What is its complement (Verb + whom or what?). If it has a complement, what kind of complement is it (Predicate Adjective, Predicate Noun, Indirect Object, or Direct Object)?
     The preceding should suggest that a student's STM is heavily occupied as the student learns to master S/V/C patterns. [Fortunately, these rules themselves can be chunked into three groups: 1) Verb? Finite? 2) S/V/C (S = Who or what + verb?; C = Verb + whom or what?) 3) Type of complement (PA, PN, IO, DO).] But for the student who has not yet mastered prepositional phrases, these rules are almost impossible. Such a student often finds him or herself shuffling the rules for S/V/C patterns out of STM to bring in the rules for prepositional phrases. This back and forth shuffling overloads STM and causes frequent crashes -- and lots of frustration. Don't rush Mother Nature.

     The KISS approach "implies a dynamic, processual view of [learning] over time." Don't rush it. Fortunately, not every high school graduate needs to master the entire approach. (It would be nice if they could, but let's be realistic.) It is very important that every student understands the goal of the approach, i.e., that they will be able to explain the grammatical connection between every word in any sentence and the subject / verb pattern in main clauses. Understanding this, students can monitor their own progress. Beyond that, I would suggest that every high school graduate should master through Level 4 (clauses) and gerundives (in Level 5). Not only does an understanding of clauses enable students to understand (and thus avoid) fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons, it also provides a solid control of subordination and some basic elements of style. And once students understand gerundives, they will be able to avoid almost all problems with misplaced modifiers. But even levels 4 and 5 should be sacrificed if rushing to them will mean that students do not have a firm grasp of the lower levels.
     These Tech Prep editions, unlike the commercial editions, include separate answer keys for each sentence at each level. These will better enable instructors to focus students' attention on the level they are working on without distracting them with answers to more advanced levels.

     Finally, Rogers observes that:

We began with the assumption that "the primary system we are interested in [is] each students' intellectual system for understanding what it is they are learning -- and why." "Control of [the] system lies mainly within the" students themselves. My experience with the KISS approach is that, once students begin to see their own progress for themselves, they no longer need the teacher's external motivation. Their own actions provide new information by which they modify their subsequent behavior. Even more interesting, "information about changes in the environment [their fellow students] affect the system [them] only as they [so as to] necessitate adjustment to feedback."
     This occurs in at least two different areas. For one, within the study of sentence structure, they see their own success and that of their classmates. Nothing breeds success like success. To my surprise, the Grammar Game, especially the quick classroom version, provides even more initial motivation. In the quick version, the class is divided into teams, and every student has to respond every few minutes. The combination of team pressure and the fact that most of the rest of the class is getting this stuff pulls most, if not all, of the non-participators into paying attention. Once they start paying attention, they start learning, and the self-feedback mechanism kicks in.
     Even more important, the KISS approach pulls students into wanting to take control of the sentence structure in their own writing. Although the game, for obvious reasons, does not involve the students analyzing passages of their own writing, the approach does. And, as the class works in groups, or calculates statistical averages, students begin to see how what they are learning can be applied to their own writing. For example, once students can identify main clauses, they can count the number of words in a passage, and the number of main clauses, divide the first by the second, and get their own average number of words per main clause. In addition to the background statistical information provided in various KISS materials, students see for themselves, for example, that the class is averaging 15 words per main clause whereas they are averaging only nine (or, at the other extreme, twenty-four). The implications of this can quickly -- and comprehensibly -- be discussed in class, and students can easily learn how to either increase or decrease their average count.  Control of the writing system now resides in the students.

Implications for Teachers

    The KISS Grammar Game and the KISS approach change the teacher's role in the teaching of grammar. When students are playing the game, the teacher's role will probably be that of scorer and judge. Fourteen years as editor of Syntax in the Schools have taught me that many teachers are themselves very uncomfortable with grammatical analysis. For that reason, the editions include answer keys. Each edition also contains notes on the answer keys -- additional explanations, should they be needed. Although these notes are at times detailed, teachers should try not to get bogged down in them. A wrong call on the part of the teacher is better than a long discussion of an obscure point.
     The implications outside the game are even more important. The teacher is no longer the policeman or the source of all answers. The students are exploring how sentence structure works and how their own minds process language. The teacher is an important guide, but only a guide. Teachers who feel uncomfortable with grammar should let the students teach them. (That's what I did when I started.) One way to do this is to have students themselves work in groups to create new editions of the game. Then have each group present its edition, sentence by sentence, to the class, and let the class, not the teacher, be the authorities. (If the group cannot explain something to the class's satisfaction, then the explanation has not been successful, no matter what the teacher thinks.)

     Freed from the roles of policeman and of source of all answers, teachers will probably find that the KISS approach is not only rewarding, but also a lot of fun. The first time I tried the game in a class, we used the long version -- two people up front, one from each team, to analyze a complete sentence. I had hoped that pitting the men against the women would raise a sense of competitiveness and enjoyment, but I wasn't expecting much enthusiasm from my college Freshmen. I thought they would consider it a "kid's game." I was stunned when one of the usually bored men came up from the back of the room to rub the shoulders and "warm up" the man who was next to compete for his team. And, to my surprise, everyone paid attention. When a round was over, they wanted to know the answers. Their motive, of course, was to count the points, but still, they wanted to know the answers. How often, after a teacher has given and graded a test, do almost all students want to know not just what they got, but also what the answers were?