The Voice behind KISS Grammar:
An Autobiographical Note
I don't really like writing about myself, but
you will find a voice in KISS Grammar, a voice that is usually absent in
most grammar books. In many of the analysis keys, for example, you will
find things such as "I would accept this explanation." Or "I expect students
to make a mistake here." The question, of course, is "Who is this 'I'"?
You will not find such statements in most grammar books. Most such books
are written as if grammar is a totally objective subject -- the book is
giving you the "facts."
If, however, you look at several different
books, you will probably become confused -- the "facts" change from book
to book. This happens because there is no "authoritative grammar" of English.
A grammar is simply a description of a language, and different grammarians
describe English in different ways, often using different terms. These
differences have caused tremendous problems in the teaching of grammar
in our schools, but that is discussed elsewhere on the KISS web site. The
questions to be addressed here are "Who is Ed Vavra?" "And why should anyone
pay attention to what he says?"
I teach five sections of Freshman English
every semester at Pennsylvania College of Technology. That is what I get
paid for, and that is where most of my time and effort is spent. My job
and my education are probably responsible, in large part, for my unique
perspective on the teaching of grammar. Every semester I work with students
who have major problems writing essays because they have major problems
with grammar, especially sentence structure. My education gave me a unique
perspective on the problem. In high school, and for a year in college,
I studied Latin, but my B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. are all in Russian Language
and Literature, with minors officially in Italian and French. I also had
to learn enough German to pass a reading test. Put differently, for me,
study of grammar is the study of a tool to be used for a purpose.
When, twenty or so years ago, I was asked
to teach a grammar course for future teachers, I looked at the English
grammar textbooks and soon realized that none of these books has a purpose.
They taught, and still teach, isolated concepts, terms, and countless exceptions
to the rules. Although some of these books (and their writers) claim that
their purpose is to improve students' writing, the claims are vague, and
I have yet to see any book that even claims to try to enable students to
analyze and discuss the structure of their own sentences. Indeed I have
yet to see any book that even claims to try to teach students how to identify
the subjects and verbs in their own writing. To me, this does not make
any sense at all. Thus, the KISS Approach was born.
To test my ideas, and to share
ideas with others, I founded, and for fifteen years served as editor
of, Syntax in the Schools, the only national publication
dedicated to the teaching of grammar. Syntax is now the official
publication of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, an assembly
of the National Council of Teachers of English. In other words, I have
been heavily involved in "The Great Grammar Debate" for over twenty years.
During these years, I published several short articles in English Journal.
but I have become convinced that the teachers (professors) of future teachers
and the major educational organizations such as NCTE are not really interested
in helping students.
The preceding summary should suggest that
I have some idea of what I write about. In composition courses such as
the one I teach, my credentials are called an appeal to authority.
Does the writer (or speaker) have a demonstrated expertise in the topic?
But, if you care about my credentials at all, I ask that you use them only
as a reason to begin to examine KISS Grammar. The primary appeal
of KISS Grammar is to what, in composition classes, we call logic. More
simply, it is an appeal to common sense.
Even if you are familiar with grammatical
terms, you will probably be initially confused by KISS Grammar because
KISS is an entirely different way of looking at the teaching of grammar.
All you need to do to see this difference is to compare the other textbooks
with KISS instructional materials and exercises. Not only do most grammar
textbooks not teach grammar effectively -- they kill it, slice it, and
dice it. (Is it any wonder that students -- and most teachers -- hate it?
Dead stuff stinks.)
Look at the "Tables of Contents" in almost
any grammar book. You will probably find a chapter on "Parts of Speech,"
a chapter on "Basic Sentence Structure," chapters on verbs and verb forms,
chapters on clauses, etc. Prepositional phrases, one of the most important
constructions for students to understand if they are to see how a living
language works, are usually relegated to a chapter near the end of the
book. And the chapters are all separated and illustrated with very simplistic
examples. There is no discussion of how all these parts fit together. Each
chapter is a diced and sliced section (of a living language) as if it were
dead and on a dissecting table.. Ouch! Rarely, if ever, will you find a
single, relatively complicated sentence analyzed in full.
KISS exercises, on the other hand, are often
either complete works (or verbatim, consecutive passages from longer works).
Instruction proceeds through several levels, and by the last level, the
grammatical function of every word in every sentence in every passage has
been explained. As they learn how to do this analysis, students begin to
understand not only why many errors are, in fact, errors, but also how
sentence structure affects writing style and logic. Having mentioned errors,
style, and logic, I would like to address a question that I am frequently
asked by teachers and parents who are considering the KISS Approach --
When does KISS address punctuation and other errors?
The only way to effectively address these
errors is to understand what punctuation does -- how does it "work" in
sentences? And the only way to understand that is to understand how sentences
work. And the only way to do that is to spend some time learning to recognize
adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and subjects, verbs, and complements
-- not just in the simplistic sentences found in most grammar books, but
in real texts such as those in the KISS exercises. In The Karate Kid,
Daniel objects to waxing the car and painting the fence -- "Wax on. Wax
off. Wax on. Wax off." It's boring, and Daniel wants to quit. But after
he has done it, Mr. Miyagi easily shows him how important those tasks were.
The initial levels of KISS Grammar can be made much less boring than waxing
a car and painting a fence, and they are crucial.
Thus far I have asked you to pay brief attention
to my credentials and then to judge the KISS Approach in terms of whether
or not it makes sense to you. The latter also applies to the terminology
used in KISS Grammar. Confusion about terminology is a major problem in
the teaching of grammar. KISS Grammar has a name because the name designates
a systematic, limited set of grammatical terms and concepts that enable
students to discuss the function of any word in any sentence. Most of the
terms used in KISS are traditional, but some, for reasons that are explained
both in the instructional materials and in the notes, are distinctly KISS
concepts. Are these KISS concepts "correct"? You can, of course, compare
them with what you can find in other grammar books, but I would suggest
that the more important question is "Do they make sense to you?" Do you
want a name for a concept? Or do you want to understand how words work
together to make meaning in sentences?
KISS owes a great deal to the research and
theories of Kellogg Hunt, Roy
O'Donnell, and Walter Loban,
to the developmental theories of
Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Jerome
Bruner, and to a psycholinguistic
model of how the brain processes language, a model that is based on
Miller's fundamental work on short-term memory. I also want to thank
the many students who helped develop KISS Grammar, and members of the KISS
List, whose questions have helped me not only improve many of the instructional
materials but also restructure their presentation. All these instructional
materials are free. I don't want more money (although my family could probably
use it). And I don't want fame. I want to change the way grammar is taught
-- across this country, and around the world. I'm passionate about that.
(Note the illustration on this page.) Our students (and their teachers)
deserve better than what we have been giving them.