The Purpose of the KISS Approach to Grammar

     When most people think of grammar, they think of avoiding errors. But grammar includes much more than that, and is more important than that. Generally speaking, grammar can be divided into two areas -- usage and syntax (sentence structure). Usage includes "rules of etiquette" -- "Don't write ain't." "Don't use a double comparative (such as more better)." Most of these rules are in the negative imperative ("Don't"), and they make people, especially students, worry about and hate grammar. Syntax, on the other hand, concerns the basic  building blocks of sentences -- prepositional phrases, subjects and verbs, clauses. This distinction, unfortunately, is not understood even by many of the people who teach English grammar in our schools. But the distinction is vital.
     The KISS approach concerns syntax, and if you study it, you will be surprised at how few building blocks are needed to understand how any sentence in English is put together -- how it conveys (or fails to convey) intended meaning. Etiquette (usage) may be important, but meaning (syntax) is more so. Some students naturally develop an excellent command of syntax, especially if they do a lot of reading. But many students do not. They write short, weak sentences that are simply not capable of expressing the complex thoughts required both in college and in the workplace. And not only do they write poorly, but their reading skills are very weak as well. Such students suffer in college and in the workplace, and they will continue to do so because our schools never properly address the teaching of syntax.
     The closest our schools have ever come to doing a decent job of teaching syntax was when they taught sentence diagramming. Sentence diagrams show how the various words in a sentence meaningfully relate to each other. (And, as I will attempt to show below, it is a matter of the syntax affecting the meaning.) In our schools, however, diagramming generally failed for at least five reasons. First, the rules for which lines go where on the diagram are cumbersome. Second, diagramming a complicated sentence takes a lot of time, effort, and paper. Third, the sentences used in the classroom were almost all too simplistic. Fourth, teachers often did not understand how to diagram, and therefore only used "safe" sentences for which they had answer keys. Fifth, students were rarely told why they were learning to diagram.
     Although some schools continue to teach diagramming, most have abandoned it. Here is not the place to examine all of the things that have been tried in its place, but the most common is to teach students to identify specific constructions. For example, students will study and then do an exercise on subordinate clauses. The exercise usually contains from ten to twenty carefully selected (and thus overly simplistic) sentences. For years, teachers have been mystified by the fact that most students can do these exercises, but the exercises have no effect on the students' ability to read or write. Perhaps the mystery can be explained by an analogy. Suppose I were to teach you about computers. First, I'll teach you about disk drives. I'll show you, and teach you to identify, several types of drives. I'll even have you look inside computers and point to the drives (which is comparable to having students identify clauses in a sentence). Then we'll work on mother boards; then video cards, then modems, then audio cards. When we are finished, I'll give you all the parts you need -- plus some extras -- and ask you to put together some computers. Do you think you could do it?
     If you think you could, you might want to try it. I have been working with computers for almost two decades, but I still hate to have to go inside one. And I'll probably never try to put one together from scratch. I know all the parts, but the connections among them get very confusing. Which chip goes in which socket? Which cable plugs into what? It's the connections that cause the problem. And it's the connections that cause many students problems with sentence structure. Learning to identify parts is a first step, but unless one has had some practice with the connections -- in real computers, or in real sentences -- the ability to identify the parts is practically useless.
     The KISS approach teaches students to identify the parts and the connections in real sentences. The students' objective is to be able to explain how every word in every sentence is syntactically connected to a main subject / verb / complement pattern. To my knowledge, no approach to teaching grammar has ever done this before. The sentences in these editions of the KISS Grammar Game, for example, were written by a Professor of Biology and by a nursing student. Although they were aware that their writing would be used in a grammar game, neither writer was aware of how the game works, or how they might want to edit their writing for the game. They simply wrote as they normally would. The editions therefore present real sentences in real contexts, and the game deals with each and every sentence, in sequence.
     Because the game deals with real sentences in context, students can see themselves making progress toward their objective of understanding all of the connections in any sentence. They can literally measure their progress. The following chart is an example:

% of Total Words Analysed
Level  Biology Edition Nursing Edition
 1.  Prepositional Phrases
 2. + Adjectivves, Adverbs, & CConj.
 3. + words in S/V/C slots
 4. + Clauses
 5. + Verbals (Gerund, gerundive, infinitive)
 6. + 8 other constructions
Students can, in other words, count the words in a passage they are analyzing, count the words they can explain, and see how far toward the goal they have already reached. And note that in both of these editions, the student who can identify all the prepositional phrases, simple adjectives, adverbs, coordinate conjunctions, and all the words that function as subjects, finite verbs and complements (PA, PN, DO, IO) has already reached over 80 % of the goal. Instead of being an endless forest of rules and exceptions, grammar becomes a specific, clearly obtainable objective.
     In the process of reaching that objective, students will learn to avoid many common errors -- without even knowing that they are doing so! Current attempts to teach students to avoid fragments, comma-splices, run-ons and misplaced modifiers all fail because students have never been taught how sentences are supposed to work, i.e., that every word in every sentence is supposed to have a grammatical connection to another word in the sentence. The KISS approach, right from prepositional phrases in Level 1, accustoms students to looking for those grammatical connections. Level 4 is particularly important because once students have learned how clauses work, they will understand what is wrong with fragments, comma-splices and run-ons, even without knowing the names of these errors.
     Because, in the KISS approach, students must use the meaning of sentences to figure out the grammar, they cannot help but learn to focus more on meaning. The following sentence, for example, is from a student's essay: "My faith in her spiritual strength is incredible and very admirable, as I observe her day to day." When asked what the subject of "is" is, even many students who have studied grammar will say that the subject is "spiritual strength." But in the KISS approach, prepositional phrases are marked off first, and one can NEVER go inside a prepositional phrase to find a subject for a verb that is outside the phrase. Thus "in her spiritual strength" is marked off limits, and the student has no choice but to select "faith" as the subject. But that is not what the writer meant [I asked.] -- and that is why the sentence is very poorly written.
     The KISS approach deals with meaning in numerous other ways. Consider, for example, the following sentences: Sentence 1 simply states two facts. Sentence 2 adds a temporal relationship between these two facts and also, I suggest, emphasizes the women doing the dishes. (Otherwise the sentence would probably be written "While the women were doing the dishes, the men were playing cards." i.e., the "men" would be in the subject slot of the main clause.) In sentence 3, the semicolon indicates contrast. It asks the reader to consider the differences in these two "facts." It probably won't take most women long to realize that the sentence suggests that once again, the women are doing the work; the men are having fun. Sentence 4, on the other hand, includes a direct statement of cause -- if the men were not playing cards, the women would not be doing the dishes. Exploring differences in the meaning of clausal connections such as these should be a regular part of work in Level 4 of the KISS approach to grammar.
     Finally, the KISS approach should lead students to an understanding of some basic elements of style -- including their own. Unfortunately, even many English teachers, when they think of style, think of parallel constructions, appositives, etc. Even a college teacher has been quoted as saying, "I don't think we have students who are ready to work on style." (Roos, Michael E. "Syntactic Maturity and Grading," ERIC 207 071 July 81) But students can begin serious studies of style -- including their own -- as early as seventh grade. Statistical research suggests that seventh grade is the time when students should begin Level 4 -- Clauses. As they do so, they can count and average the number of words per main clause, and subordinate clauses per main clause. These are two major factors in writing style, and the students can calculate class averages. As they do so, especially if they work in small groups, they will see that some students use very few subordinate clauses, whereas others use a lot. Some students write very short sentences; others average a much higher number of words per main clause. The implications of these differences can be discussed, and, if teachers want to push the math a little further, students could even get into simple statistical studies of variety in main clause length -- another major factor in style.
     My experience has been that students find the KISS approach to grammar very interesting, especially when it incorporates the psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes sentences. No longer are they studying those prohibitive, prescriptive, endless, incomprehensible rules of grammar. Instead, they are exploring how their own minds process language and how they can control their own sentences so that other people will understand them better. And, they can clearly see themselves making progress toward a clearly defined, finite goal.