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     If you are reading this, you are probably dissatisfied with the way that grammar is being taught in our schools. You have reason to be. I have spent more than fifteen years of studying the problem -- as a teacher of writing at the college level, and as editor of Syntax in the Schools, the only publication devoted to the question. This site offers 1) numerous essays that explore the problem, 2) specific suggestions about what grammar should be taught in which grade levels (including explanations of how and why), and 3) a large selection of instructional material, including answer keys so that parents and teachers can study the KISS approach and decide for themselves if it makes sense.

     The situation in our schools is a mess. Because most teachers have little training in grammar, and because some teachers are even claiming that grammar should not be taught, reform will probably not come from within the educational system.  Significant improvement therefore depends on heavy involvement by business leaders and the general public. You can help by exploring the materials on this site, and, if you think they are worthwhile, spreading the word and advocating their implementation in your school system.

     The causes of the problem are complex, but they generally fall into two categories -- the current design of the curriculum, and the education of teachers.

The Current Design of the Curriculum

     There is no current design for grammar in the curriculum. Not only that, but there is little agreement among educators on what grammar is, how grammatical terms should be defined, or when they should be taught. If we compare the current instruction in grammar to a meal, it would be a combination of chow mein, a turkey dinner, and chili -- all mixed in one bowl. Not only is it distasteful, it is confusing. As just one example, when members of the NCTE Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar were asked to underline the words in the main clause of the sentence "He thinks she would make a good president," half of the members underlined "He thinks," whereas the other half underlined the entire sentence. Is it any wonder that the students in our schools are confused?

The Education of Teachers

     Current certification procedures and our Schools of Education do not prepare teachers to teach grammar. In many, if not most cases, teachers receive NO practical instruction in grammar while they are in college, and NO instruction in how to teach it. Once in the classroom, they must rely on textbooks, textbooks based on that confusing and distasteful meal described above. Is it any wonder that most teachers, including most English teachers, hate to teach grammar? Publicly, of course, most won't admit this. They remain silent, or they refer to research that supposedly shows that teaching grammar is a waste of time -- even harmful. In a way, the research is right. The way we currently teach grammar is certainly not effective, but that does not mean that grammar cannot be taught effectively. It is a matter of approach.

The KISS Approach -- A Better Way

     When most people think of studying grammar, they think of rules (hundreds of), and exceptions (thousands of), and "drill-and-kill" exercises. That is, after all, the way that grammar is currently taught. But it need not be. Currently, too many terms and exceptions are taught, and the concepts for which they stand are not related to each other. The typical textbook, for example, explains subjects and verbs and then gives students twenty numbered sentences (which do not form a coherent text) in which the students are expected to identify the subjects and verbs. Then, in another section, the text explains clauses and gives students an exercise with twenty sentences in which the students are supposed to identify the clauses. Students are NOT expected to apply what they learned about subjects and verbs to their work on clauses.
     Imagine working on a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces with flat edges (probably border pieces) go into one pile. Light blue pieces (probably sky) go into another. The dark green (grass?) become another pile. Pieces that don't go into any of the above remain in a pile by themselves. In terms of the current teaching of grammar, we have now finished the puzzle. If that were how jigsaw puzzles actually worked, few people would find them either enjoyable or sensible, but the comparison accurately describes current instruction in English grammar. It doesn't make sense.
     The purpose of the KISS Approach is to put the puzzle together. Instead of focussing on grammatical constructions, the KISS Approach focuses on texts. It uses grammatical concepts to explain how words in a sentence work together to create meaning. The students' objective is to understand how every piece (every word) fits. Suppose, for example, that a text consists of 100 words. In the average adult's writing, approximately 1/3 rd of the words are in prepositional phrases. Once students can identify and understand the functions of prepositional phrases, they have mastered 1/3 rd of the text -- they are 1/3 rd of the way to their goal. Adjectives and adverbs account for approximately an additional 20%. The words that function as subjects, verbs, and complements (predicate nouns, predicate adjectives, direct and indirect objects) 40%. The student who has mastered these constructions has thus mastered approximately 93% of the structure of ANY English sentence. Subordinate conjunctions account for another 1%, verbals (gerunds, gerundives, and infinitives) for 5%, and eight additional constructions are sufficient to explain the remaining 1%. (For a more detailed example of how the KISS Approach works, click here.)
     The problem with current instruction is not that students cannot remember the rules, but rather that they cannot apply the rules for the simple reason that instruction is so fragmented. The vast majority of current college graduates cannot IDENTIFY basic subjects and verbs, even though subjects and verbs are the core of English sentence structure. The KISS Approach, on the other hand, because it is text-based and cumulative, constantly reviews and builds on what was previously studied. The KISS Approach is also built on a model of how the human brain processes language -- a model that explains why many errors are errors, thereby providing students with solid reasons for avoiding those errors. Finally, as students progress through the levels of the KISS Approach, they can learn how to use their knowledge of grammar to improve the clarity and style of their writing, as well as to avoid errors.

Additional Advantages of the KISS Curriculum

1. It's free. Implementing the KISS Approach will not be extremely easy, but everything needed to do so is freely available on this web site. I have a good job here at Pennsylvania College of Technology. It would be nice to be rich, but I am comfortable. One of the defining moments of my life was the day I was sitting in an office in my high school and heard on the loudspeaker that JFK had been shot. The words from his inaugural address stuck with me -- "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." The KISS Approach and this web site is what I am trying to do for my country. The site is already extensive (See below.) and I will be working to make it more so.

2.  It provides a logical, objectively measurable plan for teaching grammar spread across grades three through eleven. Even parents who feel uncomfortable with their own knowledge of grammar can test their children to see how they are doing. All they have to do is to print out one of the many exercises on this site, ask their child to do it, and use the appropriate answer key to check the work.

3.    The KISS Curriculum gives students a clearly defined goal -- the ability to explain how every word fits the puzzle of any sentence's structure. As they work, students can measure their own progress -- literally, if they want to. If a text has a hundred words, and thirty of them are in prepositional phrases, then students (or their teacher) can count the total number of words, count the words in prepositional phrases, and see that they are 30% of the way toward reaching their goal. The answer keys for many of the exercises on this site indicate such levels of progress.

4. Although many teachers will be worried (because of their poor preparation noted above), the KISS Approach is actually easy for teachers to learn and use. This site provides an entire self-paced course for them, but most teachers need not master the entire course. Teachers of third grade students, for example, would only be responsible for prepositional phrases. In the KISS Approach, moreover, teachers are encouraged to take a very different attitude toward grammar -- one that they will find much more comfortable. Currently, teachers are expected to know all the answers. In the KISS Approach, beyond the very basic, the teacher's attitude and response should be "I Don't Know." This response may shock some parents, but if it does, I encourage you to read the little essay attached to the previous link.

5.  The KISS Approach will improve students' ability to read and write. Some educators will object that there are no studies that prove this claim, and they are right. But then, there are no studies that prove that ANYTHING teachers do is effective. (Educationists thrive on studies and studies of studies, most of which are meaningless. See my bibliography on Education.) Instead of studies, I appeal to common sense.
    Ask any reading teacher why students have trouble reading and you will get one or both of two responses -- either the student has vocabulary problems, and/or the student reads words, not sentences. KISS won't do much for vocabulary, but, as opposed to traditional instruction, the primary focus of KISS is how words work together in sentences to create meaning. Doesn't common sense suggest that such instruction will help students who read words as individual words, rather than words as parts of sentences?
     Unfortunately, even many English teachers claim that knowledge of grammar does not improve students' writing. But what these teachers have in mind is the traditional instruction that focuses on individual constructions. (There are, moreover, major questions about what these teachers mean by "knowledge," by "improve," and by "writing.") Words stand for ideas, and sentences hold words within a specific context. If the sentences are crumbly (like bad bricks), then the sentences --and the ideas in them -- fall apart. It is almost impossible to build a solid house (a letter of complaint, an essay) out of crumbly bricks. Because it makes sense of grammar, because it uses a model of how the brain processes language, because it constantly involves the analysis of how words fit together in sentences to make meaning, the KISS Approach will improve students' writing. 

An Overview of the KISS Curriculum on this Site

     This page is intended as an introduction to the KISS Approach for the general public. The site itself is large and difficult to keep organized. It includes all the instructional material, assignments, and sample papers for the courses I teach at Penn College, my bibliographies, my research workshop, and free instructional material on the KISS Approach for teachers. In other words, it attempts to address a number of different audiences, and, as material is developed to meet the needs of different audiences, it ends up scattered around the site. For people interested in the KISS Curriculum, the following are the most important links.

The KISS Curriculum (for Grades 2 - 11)

    This section explains the design of the KISS Curriculum ideally spread out across grades three through eleven. It includes discussions of what should be taught, why, how much classroom time it would take, and how to create objective, measurable tests for each of the five levels of the design. Although it already includes some, as it grows it will contain even more suggestions and exercises for teaching students how to identify specific constructions, i.e., how to identify prepositional phrases, finite verbs, etc. 

The Free, Self-Paced Course for Teachers

     As a result of many requests from teachers who felt ill-prepared to teach grammar, I put this entire course on the web. It consists of instructional material plus numerous texts (jokes, fables, the opening passages of famous novels) that can be used as exercises. As you will see if you visit it, for each text there are six answer keys, one for each level of the KISS Approach, plus one that deals with simple adjectives and adverbs. Each answer key indicates the percentage of the text that has been analyzed. More than any other part of this site, this area demonstrates how the KISS Approach should work. It also includes a "Menu on Errors and Style" which leads to pages that explain how the work on each level can help students avoid errors and improve their writing style.

Dr. Ed Vavra's Grammar Materials: An Overview

     If, after visiting the previous two sites, you are interested in more of my work on grammar, you are welcome to check out this site which has links to my bibliographies, my research area (which includes still more passages which can be used as exercises), and my "Essays on Grammar." You are also welcome to visit my main menu, where you will find links to the course materials for my Freshman composition and Introduction to Literature courses.

Implementing the KISS Approach -- Your Help Is Needed!

     When I first started developing the KISS Approach, I thought that all I had to do was to design a better description of syntax and a better sequence for teaching it. I assumed that the educational establishment would be interested. It isn't. (See, for example, the quotations from Reginald Damerell and Charles Sykes in the Education Bibliography.) As Damerell correctly notes, neither the educational establishment nor college professors are interested. "Reforms will have to be imposed from outside their ranks." (261) That means it is up to the general public. It is up to you!
     In some school systems there are teachers who would like to improve and who will help. But the KISS Approach cannot be effectively taught in a single year, and rare is the teacher who is willing to push other teachers into a specific approach. At a minimum, the KISS Approach needs to be spread over three years (grades nine, ten, and eleven). Ideally, it should be spread over nine. To be effective, an entire school system has to adopt the approach. Some teachers and administrators will claim that they can't because of restrictions of time or because of State Standards. Those excuses are nonsense. (The section on State Standards and Grammar in the Curriculum addresses both of them.)
     The point of attack needs to be local School Boards, State Departments of Education, and our politicians. Send them this document. Demand clear, specific responses, free of educational jargon. (Damerell suggests that one of the purposes of Schools of Education is to train teachers in educational jargon with which they can mystify, and thereby deceive, the general public.) Raise the question in your local Chamber of Commerce. If they won't respond, form a local committee to discuss the question. If the committee basically agrees, form an advocacy group. (Invite retired English teachers -- they know much more about grammar than do the teachers currently entering our schools.) If you wait for the educational system to reform itself, things will only get worse.

--Dr Ed Vavra
December 21, 1999