in the Wings
and KISS Grammar
Although many English
teachers are not enamored by statistics, statistical exercises are very
important for two reasons. First, they can provide useful information about
students' writing, not only to teachers, but also to the students themselves.
Second, used within the KISS framework, they can be a primary source of
motivation for students.
Most of the research on natural syntactic
development was based on statistical studies. In the 1960's, Kellogg
Hunt demonstrated that the average length of students' main clauses
(which he called "T-units") naturally increases with age. Hunt called them
"T-Units" because of the lack of a standard definition for "main clause."
Hunt's "T-unit" is the same as the KISS definition of a main clause. Before
Hunt's work, researchers had been looking for a "yardstick" to measure
"syntactic maturity"--the way and rate at which sentences naturally grow
longer and more complex as people become more mature. Attempts to count
words per sentence fail because third and fourth graders write long sentences
by compounding main clauses, especially with "and."
Hunt's work was reinforced by the studies
of Roy O'Donnell and
of Walter Loban. In the following
two tables, Loban's data was taken from Language Development: Kindergarten
through Grade Twelve. Urbana, IL.: NCTE. 1976. 32. Hunt's and O'Donnell's
data is from Frank O'Hare's Sentence Combining. Urbana, IL.: NCTE.
1971. p. 22.
Average Number of Words per Main Clause by
The differences in the studies (such as O'Donnell's showing 9.99 words/main
clause for 7th grade students and Loban's showing 8.94) should raise questions,
but there is little doubt that the average number of words per main clause
increases with age. Because a reader's brain dumps to long-term memory
at the end of main clauses, the clearing of STM creates a rhythm to the
text. Even if readers can not identify main clauses, they can surely sense
the difference in rhythm.
There are many questionable aspects to these
studies. For example, what kind of writing did the student do? Narrative
writing (stories), for example, almost certainly involve fewer cause/effect
statements than do some expository topics. Then there are questions about
the students' preparation on the topic that they were asked to write about.
Perhaps most important, exactly how were the writing samples analyzed--what
counted for what? Sometimes, for example, students' writing is illegible.
How does one count what one cannot decipher? It was, I believe, Roy O'Donnell,
who referred to these as "garbles." Many of these studies simply omitted
garbles from the text. But how many garbles were there in the samples?
I had the opportunity of meeting Roy O'Donnell
at a national conference, and I asked him where the original samples were.
His response was that they were probably in a box in someone's garage.
It is an understandable response -- at that time, of course, there was
no internet. If the samples of students' writing were scanned and put on
the internet (which is now easily possible), such studies would be much
more valid. Statistical studies, however, are typically expensive and very
time-consuming, and few, if any, such studies have been done to follow
up on this work after the seventies. (That is why the KISS statistical
studies section is called "Cobweb Corner.")
All of these questions should make us cautious
about how we use the results of such studies, but as general guidelines
for what should be taught when, and as instructional exercises for students,
these studies can be very helpful.
The studies that analyzed words per main clause,
for example, also explored subordinate clauses per main clause:
Subordinate Clauses per Main Clause by Grade
The large increase between seventh and eighth
grade led Hunt and some of his colleagues to conclude that subordinate
clauses are mastered in seventh grade. This is an extremely provocative
and complicated question that I cannot discuss here in detail. It is interesting
to note, however, that in my experience seventh grade teachers are the
ones who are most likely to complain about the comma-splices, run-ons,
and fragments in their students' writing. These are all clause-boundary
errors that could be the result of their average and below-average students
struggling to get subordinate clauses into their writing.
Also interesting and relevant here is O'Donnell's
concept of "formulas"--strings of words that children master as wholes
without total mastery of the grammatical construction. By the time they
enter school, for example, most children have used subordinate clauses
as direct objects thousands of times after "formulas"" such as "Daddy
said I could go." Similarly, they may learn and use many adverbial
clauses as strings -- "When it gets dark, come home." My point here
is that if the results of these studies are valid, they pose a serious
question about what we should expect from--and what grammar we should teach--to
students before they enter seventh grade.
Unfortunately, the work of these researchers
was abused as some educators began to assume that longer equals better.
Thus, many of the studies that supposedly show that teaching grammar is
useless (or even "harmful") were based on sentence-combining exercises
and then considered the longer sentences as simply better--even if they
contained more errors.
The trend toward sentence-combining led to
many teachers simply bringing sentence-combining exercises into their classrooms
-- for everyone to do. The teachers were almost always unaware that in
the studies that claimed sentence-combining is better, errors in the students'
writing had been eliminated before the final results were tallied.
In one study that I am aware of, the errors tripled in the writing
of the students who did the sentence-combining." And, as might have
been expected, sentence-combining is most effective with those students
who are already good at combining shorter sentences into longer ones. 
When such exercises are brought into the classroom for everyone to do,
they simply push all students into writing longer sentences, thereby, perhaps,
pushing good writers into longer and weaker sentences.
The KISS Approach, of course, enables students
to see what, how, and why when they are combining
sentences so that errors will not increase, but statistical exercises in
KISS grammar also enable students to see where they themselves are in relation
to their classmates (and everyone else for that matter). If nothing else,
students can be given the results of the studies by Hunt, O'Donnell, and
Loban (above). Then, instead of an emphasis on longer, longer, and longer
sentences, most students should be encouraged to aim for the average. If,
for example, they are between eighth and eleventh grades, they (and their
teachers) should be satisfied if they are averaging ten words per main
clause. Instead of pushing for more length, the instructional emphasis
should be on sentence variety, and control (i.e., avoiding errors.) With
that control, they will progress, naturally, into longer main clauses.
In the KISS Approach, students can start doing
such studies of their own writing as soon as they are fairly comfortable
in KISS Level 3 (Clauses). In the approach, students put a vertical line
at the end of each main clause. To arrive at a figure comparable to that
in the studies, all they have to do is to count the words in the passage
they wrote and are analyzing, and then divide that number by the number
of vertical lines. Most students will find themselves pleasantly pleased.
Some, however, will see for themselves that they are below the norm, and,
human nature being what it is, they will probably want to catch up, especially
since the KISS Approach can give them good, usable guidance for doing so.
The students that find themselves well
above the norm raise some additional questions. The first two are How
much above the norm are they, and how error-free is their writing?
If their writing is basically error-free, and they are not much above the
norm for professional writers (20 words per main clause), then they are
fine. If their writing contains numerous errors, they should be encouraged
to simplify and gain control.
My college Freshmen often did such a study. As a
class, they always averaged between 14.9 and 15.5 words per main clause.
But I usually had three or four students who average close to 25 words
per main clause. These students are, I firmly believe, hurting themselves.
The KISS psycholinguistic model helps
students understand how and why. The model suggests that we process incoming
information in a very tight, seven-slot, working memory. Within those seven
slots, we probably handle not just the syntactic "chunking" of the sentence,
but also some global questions -- such as the point of the entire paper,
the topic sentences, etc. Any crash in the processing may therefore
cause a reader to lose track of important points of the paper. And the
longer the main clauses are, the more likely it will be that some readers
will have trouble processing them. An error that might be minor in a short
main clause can cause a major crash in a 30-word main clause. Students
understand this, and thus statistical exercises can put a brake on the
push for more and more length. And, of course, the KISS Approach includes
exercises in de-combining as well as sentence-combining.
The National Council of Teachers of
English has often claimed that students have a right to their own language,
but that right is meaningless unless students have some perspective on
how their language, their writing, compares with everyone else's. Statistical
exercises can give students that perspective.
Kellogg Hunt raised another very interesting
point in his "Early Blooming and Late Blooming Syntactic Structures." 
In essence, he claimed that most high school students use few, if any,
appositives or gerundives. Both of these constructions can be seen as reductions
of subordinate clauses.
Subordinate Clause: Martha, who is a high school
senior, wrote an excellent paper on nuclear physics.
In an introduction to statistical studies, I cannot get into all the questionable
aspects of this study, but my own research supports it as does developmental
theory -- students cannot very well master the reduction of subordinate
clauses before they master subordinate clauses themselves.
Appositive: Martha, a high school senior, wrote an excellent
paper on nuclear physics.
Subordinate Clause: For a long time he struggled, as he tried
get the egg to go through the neck of the bottle.
Gerundive: For a long time he struggled, trying to get
the egg to go through the neck of the bottle.
Hunt's essay is one of the primary reasons
for KISS focusing on clauses in Level 3, and leaving gerundives (and other
verbals) to Level 4. Appositives are in Level 5. (The other primary reason
is that almost any text will include more clauses than it will gerundives
or appositives.) Another nice aspect of Hunt's idea of "late blooming"
constructions is that it enables teachers to praise the "advanced" constructions
that do occasionally appear in the writing of even the weakest student
For students, the value of doing a statistical
analysis of their own writing probably cannot be overstated, especially
if it is done in the context of their classmates’ writing, or, if that
is not possible, in the context of the research studies discussed above.
One advantage is that counting constructions makes them look at the syntax
of their own writing much more closely than they normally would. For example,
once they learn how to identify prepositional phrases, students can place
them in parentheses almost without thinking about them. Counting the prepositional
phrases, however, requires more time, but also provides a different perspective—how
many do they actually use? This becomes even more interesting if they can
compare the number they use to what their classmates are doing. In other
words, let the students analyze their own writing and then compare it to
I used to have my college Freshmen analyze
a sample of their own writing for words per main clause and for subordinate
clauses per main clause. One class period was spent in small-group work
with the students checking each others' analyses and statistics. In was
not unusual for a student to bring her or his paper to me and say, "Doctor
Vavra, I don't have any subordinate clauses." A quick check verified that,
and I suggested sentence-combining exercises from the KISS site. The students
appeared to take the problem and the suggestion seriously, especially since
they could see for themselves, from what was going on in the class, that
most of their peers had at least a few subordinate clauses in their samples.
They could also see that other students were
coming up to me to ask, "I have a subordinate clause within a subordinate
clause that is itself within a subordinate clause. Is that o.k.?" In such
cases, my answer was usually, "Yes, but you might want to consider some
de-combining exercises." It was, I knew, near the end of the semester and
most of these students would never have formal work on grammar again. Few
of them probably used my suggestions. But the point is that these students
were beginning to see and understand some basic aspects of their own writing
styles in the context of the writing of their peers. Students should probably
do at least one such statistical analysis of their own writing every year.
And these studies should be kept so that the students can see for themselves
how their writing styles change as they grow older.
Perhaps an even more important example is a retired
gentleman who was in an advanced essay course that I was teaching many
years ago. He wanted to write a book, but he said that first he needed
to improve his writing. The class met once a week, and after most classes,
he and I would chat about his writing. I couldn't find any problems with
it, and I kept probing to see what he thought his problem was. Finally,
he stated that one of his teachers had told him that his sentences were
too long. As soon as he said that, I knew what to do.
We took several samples of his writing and
simply counted the number of words per main clause. We then compared the
result (21 words per main clause) with those of Hunt, O'Donnell, and Loban.
There was, in essence, nothing "long" about this gentleman's sentences.
But a subjective comment by one of his teachers resulted in his feeling
insecure about his writing not only throughout the rest of his education,
but also throughout his entire professional career! Teachers, often without
thinking, can do that. I have often heard teachers refer to sentences as
being "short and choppy," although I myself have no idea of what they mean
by "choppy." Subjective comments can hurt students, often seriously.
Statistical research, done by students
on their own writing, and done in the context of that by Hunt, etc. (and
of some on this site) eliminates the subjectivity. And, as noted above,
the objective of the project is not only to enable students to see how
their writing matches the "norm," but also to keep their writing within
a reasonable range of that norm.
1. See "Words
Enough and Time: Syntax and Error One Year After," by Elaine P. Maimon
and Barbara F. Nodine. and "Sentence
Expanding: Not Can, or How, but When," by Rosemary Hake and Joseph
M. Williams in Daiker, Donald A., Andrew Kerek, & Max Morenberg, eds.
Combining and the Teaching of Writing: Selected Papers from the Miami University
Conference, Oxford, Ohio, October 27 & 28, 1978. The Departments
of English, University of Akron and the University of Central Arkansas,
2. "Early Blooming and Late Blooming Syntactic Structures."
In C.R. Cooper & L. Odell (eds.) Evaluating Writing: Describing,
Measuring, and Judging. Urbana: NCTE, 1977. 91-104.
The Problem with Pure Statistics: A Closer Look at an Eighth Grader's
Writing --"The Road to Lhut Golane," by Kellen in Australia [Grade
8, Feb. 15]