The Kiss Grammar Game -- Tech Prep Editions


A General Description of the Game

     Few English teachers will disagree when I say that, for most students, the study of grammar is not fun. In fact, most English teachers don't enjoy teaching it. I had been working on the problems in teaching grammar for fifteen years, when I finally remembered my high school experiences with the Mathletes. (I'm a slow thinker with a weak memory.) The Mathletes consisted of competitive teams, eight to ten team members from each of the area high schools, who met once a month to compete at solving math problems. At the competitions, team members took turns going to the center of the room where math problems were set up, face-down on tables. At the signal to start, the competitors would turn over the papers and have a specific number of minutes to solve their problem. Those who did, got the points for their team for that round. The competitions were both educational and enjoyable, and I wondered if I could devise something similar for analyzing sentence structure.

     My first attempt resulted in the basic "Formal" version of the game. Because the KISS approach to grammar is based on analyzing all of the sentences in a randomly selected passage, I chose a description of Penn College from the catalog. Each sentence was put, in big bold type, on the center of a separate page, thereby creating a sequence of "rounds." On the back of each of these pages, again in fairly large type, I put the round number and the edition name. Two copies of these "question sheets" were made, one for each of two teams. Each was put in a clear, smooth sheet-protector so that students could use erasable ink markers to do their analysis on the sheet protectors. This way, the sheet protectors can simply be wiped clean and the game is ready for another competition. Next I made two copies of the "Point Values" sheets -- the directions for the competitors. Then I made a colored answer key for each round. Finally, I made an overhead transparency of each question sheet and each answer key. The game was ready.

     It was near the end of a semester, and the students in my college Freshman composition course had basically finished our work with prepositional phrases, subject / verb / complement patterns, and clauses. I divided the class into men against women, and we tested the game. In turn, one member of each team would come to desks at the front of the room. At the signal to start, they would turn over their question sheets, and I would put the corresponding overhead on the projector. Time limits on each round ranged from thirty seconds to three minutes. I was happy to see that while the actual competitors were analyzing their sentences, most of the rest of the class was looking at the overheads, apparently trying to analyze them. When the round ended, the two competitors took their sheets to a scoring area. I briefly put up the overhead of the answer sheet, and the next two competitors came to the front of the room. The students enjoyed the game much more than I thought they would, and, overall, I felt that it was certainly not only enjoyable, but also a much better use of class time than are most lectures or exercises on grammar.

     There were, however, a few problems. The primary one was that I myself was too busy. I was able to turn over the "timer's" job to a student, but while one round of competition was going on, I found that I often had to help the previous group with their scoring. I also had to put rounds away and get the next rounds ready. This wasn't too bad if the current round had a time limit of three minutes and the previous, simpler round had only lasted thirty seconds, but when the reverse was the case I found that students were waiting for me to finish helping the scorers (and then post the totals). Also, because the rounds lasted so long, and because there were ten members on a team, students actively participated only once every twenty to thirty minutes. For the classroom, I needed a quicker, less cumbersome version of the game.

     During the semester, syntax homework assignments consisted of analyzing the sentences in short passages, first for prepositional phrases, then, on the next one, also for S/V/C patterns, etc. If I collect these, I do so simply to see if students have tried to do them. We "correct" them by going over them in class. The passage is on an overhead, and I had simply been asking students to identify the phrases, etc. and I would mark them on the overhead. Like many teachers, I suffer from the "Who do I call on next?" syndrome. I have used a method of one of my professors -- putting each student's name on a note card, shuffling them, and then turning them over one at a time. But that gave me a set of note cards to deal with.
     It finally struck me (slow thinker) that I could turn these reviews of homework into a game. Because the students don't need question sheets, the class can easily be divided into two to four teams. Each team sits in its own row, and the members take turns simply by going down the row. I put up the overhead, turn to the first member of the first team, and we're off. That person has five seconds to identify a prepositional phrase in the first sentence. I can keep score on a simple sheet of paper divided into areas for each team. If the answer is correct, I put a hash mark in the team's section of the scoring sheet and turn to the next team. I am always liberal with the five-second rule, but if a student takes too long, I start with "Five, four, three, two, one," and then turn to the next team's next competitor. After I do this a couple times, if a competitor takes too long, members of the other teams start doing the counting for me.
     More specific directions for this quick classroom version are described elsewhere, but the general idea is that we work through a passage, sentence by sentence, with each competitor required to do the next step in the analysis. A major part of the game's purpose is to reinforce the procedure or sequence that students should  use in analyzing sentences -- prepositional phrases first, then S/V/C patterns, then clauses, etc. The procedural part is rewarded with bonus points. Thus, when there is only one prepositional phrase in a sentence that has not been identified, the person whose turn it is can get a bonus point by stating "Last prepositional phrase." [This tells the class that it is time to move to S/V/C patterns.] If the phrase is identified but the competitor did not note that it was the last, then the next person whose turn it is can get the bonus point by making that statement.

     In the classroom, the quick version has several advantages. Because turns last about five seconds, every student is actively involved at least once every two to three minutes. Feedback is also better and directed at the entire class. For example, if the next person is supposed to identify a finite verb, but gives an incorrect answer, I simply don't mark it on the overhead and turn to the next competitor. Everyone needs to pay attention, because there have been times when we have gone through the entire class and no one has gotten the right answer. This does not usually take five seconds per student -- some students simply shake their heads, "no." On the other hand, students are usually embarrassed if they give me an incorrect answer that has already been rejected. Thus, they need to pay attention. The quick version also allows for time-outs. Because we analyze randomly selected entire texts, the texts not infrequently include a construction or combination of constructions that the students have not seen before. When we get to one of these, I call a time-out, explain the construction, and then resume the game.

     Although the quick version is better for classroom instruction, some teachers may still prefer the formal version, especially for competitions between different classes or teams from different schools. In such competitions, more teachers would be involved so that the tasks of scoring, timing, etc. could be shared and easily handled. Someday, perhaps, we will have not only competitions within classes, but also a system of school district, area, state, and even an annual national competition. An understanding of sentence structure is certainly as important as is the ability to spell.