Last Revised: 6/7/98
The Kiss Grammar Game
by Dr. Ed Vavra
Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Pennsylvania College of Technology,
& Editor of Syntax in the Schools, the newsletter of ATEG

The Quicker Classroom Version

A Basic Description of the Game
Defining a "Turn" in the Game
Suggested Point Values
Using the Game
Making Teams
Making Your Own Editions


     The objective of KISS Grammar is to enable students to understand -- and explain -- the function of any word in any English sentence. The objective of the KISS Grammar Game is both to motivate students and to turn some of the necessary drills into thrills. I don't blame you if you don't believe the preceding statement. I would not have believed it myself a few months ago. Having prepared an edition of the Advanced version of the game, I tested it in some of my classes with college Freshmen. It was men against women, with one member of each team up front at a time, competing at analyzing sentences. I was shocked when one of the men came up to the front of the room and started rubbing the back and shoulders of the man who was about to compete. He was "warming him up" so that he would be in shape to get as many points as possible. Since then, many students have commented favorably about the game, and one noted that she did not realize how much grammar she did understand until we played the game. As I have often suggested, one of the problems in traditional teaching of grammar is that we rarely focus students' attention on what they DO know. Apparently, the KISS Grammar Game does that.

     The rules of the KISS Grammar Game may seem complex at first, but they simply follow the sequence that I teach students to use in analyzing sentences. If students begin by analyzing all of the prepositional phrases, then go to S/V/C patterns, then to clauses, and then to the more complex constructions, everything falls into place a lot easier. The game simply follows this sequence, awarding points along the way. The Formal version of the Game has its advantages, but although it deals with KISS Grammar, the game itself is not so simple to prepare. Two copies of each sentence (in sheet protectors) plus the Answer Keys -- that is a lot of stuff to make and carry around. The Quicker Classroom Version is much simpler. All it requires is that the sentences to be analyzed be on overheads and that the instructor has a washable ink pen.

A Basic Description of the Game

     The class is divided into two or more teams, and a sentence to be analyzed is on the overhead projector. The first member of the first team has five seconds to identify a prepositional phrase in the sentence. If he or she gets one correct, the team gets a point and the instructor puts parentheses around the prepositional phrase. The first member of the next team then has the same opportunity. This process continues until all the prepositional phrases in the sentence have been identified. The person who identifies the last prepositional phrase ("last" meaning last to be identified, not last in the sentence) gets a bonus point for stating that there are no more prepositional phrases. If he or she does not make this statement, the next team may get the bonus point by beginning their turn by making the statement. Once this statement is made, the team whose turn it is identifies a finite verb, its subject, etc. , or, if the class is only working on prepositional phrases, it starts on a new sentence. Whereas an incorrect answer simply results in the next team's turn, an incorrect bonus attempt results in the team's losing a point.

     I strongly suggest that the analysis always follow the sequence:

    all prepositional phrases first,
    then all subject / verb / complement patterns,
    then all clauses,
    then all verbals,
    and, finally, the seven other constructions.
Failure to follow this sequence will result in students identifying the object of a preposition as the subject of a verb, a gerundive as a noun absolute, and numerous other errors.

Defining a "Turn" in the Game

     There are numerous ways to define when a team's turn ends, and obviously teachers can do so any way they choose. But to make the game pedagogically effective, turns should be kept as short as possible. One could, for example, define a "turn" as continuing until the competitor makes a mistake. The problem with this is that weaker students will tune out. When it is their turn, they will make a mistake and get no points. Then they will have to wait forever as Sam and Suzzie each rack up twenty points. BORING! It is much better to keep turns limited to one correct answer with possible bonus points. (See the discussion of point values.)

Suggested Point Values

(Feel free to modify these in any way that works.)
Click here for a summary sheet which you can ditto and give to students.

Level One: Prepositional Phrases

An Entire Prepositional Phrase* = 1

    The word that the phrase modifies = 1
    * Bonus if identified as last remaining phrase = 1 (If incorrect = -1)
     The entire phrase, first word to last, must be identified. Identification of a phrase equals a turn. The next member of the next team must identify the word that that phrase modifies. The teacher can then draw an arrow from the opening parenthesis to the word modified. This process continues until all the prepositional phrases in the sentence have been identified.

Level Two: Subject / Verb / Complement Patterns

A Finite Verb Phrase = 1 per word in the phrase

    Its Subject(s) = 1 each (if compounds)

    Its Complement(s) (excluding clauses) = 1 each (if compounds)

      Kind of Complement = 1 each (if compounds)
    * Bonus if identified as last remaining pattern = 1
     If the student who identified the last prepositional phrase did not state that it was the last, the next team to compete can get the bonus point by so stating. Otherwise, the next team can simply identify a word or words in a finite verb phrase. The next turn consists of identifying the subject (in the case of compounds, subjects) of the identified finite verb. The next turn is complements, followed by kind of complement (predicate adjective, predicate noun, indirect and direct objects). 
     Additional Bonus Points: Once part of a construction has been identified, the remaining parts may be identified in subsequent turns for bonus points. For example, suppose a verb phrase were "has been found," and a student identified "found" as the verb. The student's team would get a point, but the next team (or the team after it, etc.) could get two bonus points for identifying "has" and "been" as part of that phrase. The same holds for compound subjects and complements. Such bonus opportunities remain on the overhead until the sentence has been completed, at which point the instructor can point them out. 
     In the case of compound finite verbs in a pattern, no bonus point is awarded for identifying part of the second, etc. verb phrase. However, instead of identifying subjects or complements of the already identified verb phrase, teams may opt to identify part or all of a second, third, etc. finite verb phrase in the same pattern. For example, in the sentence 

Students love playing the game and learn a lot by doing so.

suppose that a team had identified "love" as a finite verb, but not "learn." The next team could identify "students" as the subject of "love" or it could identify "learn" as a compound finite verb. If it identified "students," then the next team could identify "playing" as the complement of "love," or it could identify "learn." Once the subjects and complements of the first finite verb phrase have been identified, then, if there are unidentified compound verbs in the pattern, the next turn consists of identifying them, i.e., the next team must identify "learn" as a compound verb. 
     The Bonus Point for "last remaining pattern" may be earned as soon as the first finite verb in that pattern is identified. In other words, the student who identifies part or all of the finite verb in that pattern may claim the point. If he or she doesn't, the next team may, etc.

Level Three: Clauses -- Subordinate and Main

A Subordinate Clause = 1

    Function of Clause = 1
* Bonus if identified as last remaining SC or as main clause = 1
      Once the last S/V/C pattern has been identified, the next turn consists of identifying a subordinate clause, if there are any. If there are none, the next turn -- for one point -- consists of stating that there is only a main clause, and the instructor puts a vertical line at the end of the sentence. Once a subordinate clause has been identified, the instructor puts brackets around it. The following turn consists of identifying its function. If the clause is adjectival or adverbial, this consists simply of indicating the word which the clause modifies. 
     If the clause functions as a complement, the player who identifies the word the clause chunks to can earn a bonus point by stating the type of complement (PN, DO, IO). If this bonus point is not earned. The instructor should ask the next player of the next team to identify the type of complement , i.e., the next turn consists of identifying the type of complement. 
     The student who identifies the last subordinate clause can earn a bonus point by stating that it is the last. If the student fails to do so, the player who identifies the function of the clause can earn the bonus. If neither player earns the bonus, then the next player's turn consists of making this identification. If there is only one main clause in the sentence, the instructor should then put a vertical line after the sentence, and the game moves on to the next sentence. If there are compound main clauses, however, the next turn consists of identifying where one ends and the next begins. The last turn in dealing with a sentence consists of stating that the analysis is complete and a vertical line should be put at the end.

Bonus Points for Infinitives

     In playing the game, my students became confused by infinitives. Some students lost their turn by referring to infinitives when they were supposed to be identifying prepositional phrases. Others tried to identify infinitives as finite verbs. Students therefore asked if there were some way to "get those infinitives marked and out of the way." We resolved this problem by making the identification of infinitives bonus points. The first player to start identifying prepositional phrases in a sentence can earn bonus points by identifying any infinitives. Any infinitives not identified remain as potential bonus points until the analysis of the sentence is finished. Infinitives are "marked" by putting an oval around them.

Levels Four and Five

      Should a class be ready for them, Levels Four and Five would continue in the same basic manner. In Level Four, a point would be awarded for identifying a verbal (gerund, gerundive, or infinitive). The next turn would consist of identifying the verbal's function. The next, identifying its complement. Level Five consists of identifying the Eight Additional Constructions (Nouns Used as Adverbs, Appositives, Interjections, Delayed Subjects, Direct Address, Noun Absolutes, Retained Complements, and Post-Positioned Adjectives).
     I would strongly suggest that teachers and students not rush to Levels Four and Five. As I imply in Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art, students need to spend time assimilating S/V/C patterns and clause structure. Rather than rushing on to verbals and the additional constructions, teachers and students should spend time in the classroom discussing the differences, for example, in the use of subordinate clauses by different writers.

Using the Game

      Obviously, the game can be played just for the fun of it. I have, however, found the game to be a real motivator, not only for homework, but also for attention in the classroom. In my college Freshman composition classes, I usually give students four or five passages which they are supposed to analyze for homework. (Click here to link to this section of that course.) We would review that homework in class, using an overhead. One student would be selected to analyze a sentence while I made the marks on the overhead. While this student was working, much of the class was not paying particular attention, and it was not unusual to have long waits while a student who was not prepared figured out what to do.
      The game changed that. First, some students who do not seem at all embarrassed at being unprepared undergo a change of attitude when working in teams. They do not want their teammates mad at them for letting the team down, and as a result, they tend to be both better prepared and more attentive. As we began playing the game, I was literally surprised to see some calculators (for math homework) disappear into book bags.
      The five-second time limit eliminates the loooong pauses for unprepared students. The teacher, of course, is in control of the game, and my head handles time very poorly. Some seconds take longer to go by than others, depending on either the construction to be explained or the student whose turn it is. (Put plainly, if I know that a student is trying but is having trouble, I hesitate to call five seconds.) In some classes, students get in on this and start calling the five-second rule on other teams, which is fine with me. The five-second rule keeps the game moving quickly, and because the game follows the sequence that students are expected to use anyway, they are also responsible for that sequence. When a student asks "Where are we?" or "What is next?" my response is "That's what you're supposed to know." After the vertical line is put at the end of a sentence, i.e., after a sentence has been completely analyzed, I pause the game to ask if there are any questions about that sentence.

Making Teams

     If, as I do, you are going to use team scores for grades, how you establish the teams is important. My grade program produces random lists of the students in the class, and I simply divide these lists into three, four, or five teams. In class, I simply reseat the students into rows by team, and "turns" start at the front of the room and go down the row. I have, however, been known to fudge when making teams. My grade program can also produce "Ranked" lists, i.e., the students in a class are listed from highest average grade to lowest. Sometimes I will create teams by teaming the student at the top of the list with the student at the bottom and one from the middle, etc. I have also been known to create teams entirely from the top, from the middle, and from the bottom of the lists. (This occurs most often when the students at the bottom of the list are there because they haven't even been trying to do anything, and the students who are at the top are there, not because they are smarter, but because they have been studying.)
      Because we use the game to review homework, we spend from three to five class periods playing it. As a general rule, teams will be different each class period. I have, at times, gone into a classroom to find students already seated in their team positions from the last class. If the scores from the last game were close, and the students want to keep the same teams, I usually agree.
     Should a teacher want to do so, a game could be spread out across a number of class periods by, for example, analyzing only one sentence at the beginning or end of the period. Although this approach has its advantages, the teacher would have to be more careful in keeping track of whose turn it is. Seating arrangements would also be important. Team spirit is enhanced by the simple fact that the students are seated together as a team. Teachers who want to spread the game across several classes, five minutes per class, might consider changing the seating arrangement for those classes during which the game is played. (This change in itself might have some interesting effects.)


      When I first thought of playing the game this way, I told students that the members of the winning team would get a course bonus point. I soon realized that that was a bad idea. Once a team is too far behind, they lose interest. Now, the grades are based on points. The members of the team with the highest score all get a 100. The grades of everyone else are based on how their team's score matches that of the winning team. Thus, if the winning team has a score of 50 and the second place team has a score of 48, the members of the second place team each get a grade of 48/50, or 96. This method of grading encourages the team with the lowest score to keep trying -- the more points they get, even if they lose, the higher their grade will be.
      Teachers who give a lot of grades may want to record grades from each competition separately. I usually print out a separate class roster and record all the grades on it. At the end, I average these grades and record it as a single grade.

Making Your Own Editions:
Selecting and Preparing Passages for the Game

      One of the keys to my success with the KISS Approach to Grammar is that I constantly emphasize to students that they are not studying grammar in isolated sentences -- they are studying the grammar of sentences in context. Often, they are in passages written by the students' peers. Even when sentences are put on an overhead one or two at a time, as they are in the Formal version of the game, they are sequential sentences from a paragraph. The passages I am currently using are available on the net. One of the advantages I have found in using passages written by students is that, in the process of playing the game, I can point out to students different stylistic patterns. For example, some students will have three or four compound sentences in a paragraph; others will have none. Some students' passages will have heavily embedded subordinate clauses; others will have almost no subordinate clauses. In discussing these differences, students begin to see that they can see stylistic differences in writing.
      In addition to selecting short passages by students, teachers might want to throw in a few curves. My final assignment is from the Introduction to the Declaration of Independence. It's not an easy sentence to analyze, and students are stunned by it. (Triumphant, however, if they can analyze it.) Other "curves" would be to use, for example, a passage from a simple children's story (The Little Engine That Could), or, if you are working with tenth graders, use a passage written by a fifth grader. Not only will such passages change the pace, they will also show students how their command of the language has improved.
      Preparing the passages is relatively simple. If possible, use a computer and a larger than typewriter font so that the sentences will easily be seen from the back of the room. Double or triple space. Ideally, your department will supply you with blank transparencies for plain-paper copiers (available at most office supply stores). Be sure to use a washable ink marker in playing the game, so that you can reuse the transparencies.