Revised 12/20/99
Dr. Ed Vavra's KISS Approach to Sentence Structure
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What Grammar 
Should Be Taught in K-4?

The Inspiration
of Saint Matthew
Merisi da Caravaggio
(c. 1572-1610)

     This essay was originally written in 1999 as a response to the following question. My ideas about what can or should be taught at different grade levels have changed based on correspondence with teachers and parents, but the basic ideas set forth here are still valid.
- EV 2/9/12
Dear Mr. Vavra: 

     I have now read through your book, "Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art" twice in the last year and I'd like to know if anyone has used it successfully at the elementary level. 

     I am on the Education Committee of a very small private multigrade classroom in Iowa and we're trying to build a useful curriculum. This is a much greater challenge than I imagined starting out on this process and I found your book to contain some useful insights into the process.  As you point out, much has come down which is of dubious value and it sometimes takes a relative outsider 
to cut through the "stuff".  (I am a physician by training.) 

     One of our goals is to build a curriculum which teaches conceptually.  This word, much to no one's surprise, is slippery and I'm working on a definition which sounds like "teaching which represents or mimics that which is done in the real world".  Your consistent analysis of grammar as something which is more a cause for discussion and less a reason to retreat to the grammar book to find the "right answer" seems to fit in nicely.  We'd like to go beyond simply doing things simply because they are useful (I like the term "shopkeeper arithmetic" to describe this) to teaching the 
kids to solve problems which teach something of why a thing is. 

     Any thoughts on this matter would be appreciated!  I've always been a closet grammarian but the standard "here's the right way" approach has kept me frustrated because another grammar book  would give me slightly different rules so that an interested but non-expert reader becomes easily confused about which is the "right" way. 

Roy Doorenbos
Education Committee 
Grinnell Area Christian School 
210 380th Ave
Grinnell, IA  50112 

Dear Mr. Doorenbos,

     First, I want to thank you for your interest in Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art and for your questions. Let me start by saying that TGLA is not a textbook for students in K-12. It was written after I had developed a manuscript of a book for teaching teachers. It was called Grammar for Freedom, but publishers were not interested because no one was using the KISS Approach, and NCTE was not interested in publishing anything that was not supported by "theory and research." TGLA was meant to supply the theory and suggest directions for research. 
     Let me caution you that I do not claim to be an "expert," particularly when it comes to teaching English in K-4. I am a college professor of Rhetoric who, twenty years ago, became frustrated at the mangled sentences that kept crossing my desk. When I looked into how grammar was being taught, I found that it was (and continues to be) a disaster. I read widely, including various theories of grammar, the "research" (that supposedly "proves" that teaching grammar is not effective), and various books on natural language development. Among the most important of the latter are the works of Piaget and Vygotsky. I am particularly indebted to Jerome Bruner for practical ideas. It is primarily on their concepts that I will be relying when I suggest what you should NOT do.
     My general responses to your questions are that you probably do not need grammar textbooks for every student, and that you may be too worried about your inexperience with formal grammar. Don't make this project more intimidating than it needs to be, for yourself, or for your students. In fact, if you do it right, you and your students will probably find it to be enjoyable. Let me begin with what you should not do.

Don't Rush!

     The general tendency in most curricula has been to push advanced concepts into lower and lower grades. Doing so only results in confusion. Let's face it -- the majority of high school graduates cannot even identify subjects and verbs. You do not, in other words, have to go very far in order to give your students a much better education in grammar than most TEACHERS are currently receiving. Although I would like to give it a little more thought, I would say that by the END of fourth grade students need to know consciously only the following concepts: six parts of speech (noun, adjective, verb, adverb, conjunction -- limited to coordinating, and preposition); singular and plural; possessives (for the apostrophe); and prepositional phrases.

Correcting Spoken Errors

      Although my interests primarily concern grammar as related to reading and writing, I should probably address the question of correcting students' spoken errors. I shouldn't even have to discuss this, but unfortunately there are many English teachers who refuse to correct such errors. Often, they justify their (mis)behaviour by claiming that "Students have a right to their own language." They never seem to see the logical consequences of that statement -- if that is the case, then what do we need English teachers for? I'm beginning to suspect that teachers who make that claim use it as a shield to hide their own ignorance -- they don't want to be responsible for correcting errors simply because they themselves cannot recognize them.
     Student's oral errors should be corrected, but with tact, and not always. If a student runs up and says "Me and Bill were running down the steps, and Bill fell," we should worry about Bill and ignore the "Me." On the other hand, if the situation is calm and casual, a teacher might respond to "Me and Bill" by asking "Who and who?" Students will get the idea. There is, of course, a fine line between helping a student by correcting his or her errors and making a student afraid to talk for fear of committing errors. Correcting every error a student makes may result in fearful silence, especially if the student has numerous usage problems. But the location of that fine line depends on the personality of the student, the personality of the teacher, and the general atmosphere of the school. Intelligent and caring teachers stay as close to that line as possible without crossing it.

Formal vs. Informal Instruction

     We need to make a distinction between "formal" and "informal" instruction. In "formal" instruction, a teacher addresses an entire class and attempts to teach either factual information or a concept. For example, a first grade teacher might use formal instruction to teach a class about "proper nouns" so that they would all know that the names of specific people, places, and things (such as titles) are capitalized. With the use of  examples and a short exercise for students to do -- and then discuss, such instruction should take less than an hour. It is not, by the way, important for students to remember the term "proper"; what is important is that the students capitalize the names of specific people, places, and things. The teacher's use of "proper" informs the students that the rule does not apply to all nouns, but there is no real need for students to remember that term. Indeed, the concept could be taught without it -- Nouns that name specific people, places and things (such as books, poems, and works of art) are capitalized.
     In K-2, short formal lessons should be used to teach students to begin sentences with a capital letter, to end them with a period, question mark, or exclamation point, and, perhaps (but with less emphasis), to use an apostrophe to form contractions and to show possession. I do not think that students in K-6 should be taught a definition of "sentence." The definition used in some textbooks, for example, is that a sentence is a "group of words that begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point." But that definition is invalid. According to it, one of the "sentences" in this paragraph is "K-6 should be taught a definition of 'sentence'." (Note also that, according to that definition, fragments are sentences as long as they begin with a capital letter and end with an appropriate punctuation mark.) The only valid definition of "sentence" that I am aware of depends on an understanding of clauses, and clauses should be taught no earlier than sixth grade.
     The concept of "sentence" can be taught without a definition simply by providing students with lots of examples. In the process of teaching beginning capitalization and ending punctuation,  provide students with exercises all based on relatively simple sentences. Should a student ask for a definition, I would do two things. First, I would point out that the concept will be taught in a later grade. Second, I would take the time and ask the class to see if it could come up with its own definition. Using the blackboard or an overhead, I would ask the students for examples. The teacher's role here is crucial. Most of the offered examples will, in all probability, be acceptable sentences. (We need to remember that pre-school students have all already developed a solid but unconscious and unlabeled concept of "sentence.") 
     Suppose, however, that Mary offers as an example "Because I said so." The teacher needs to decided whether or not to accept the example, and if so, how. My way of handling this would be to ask the class for a vote -- do they consider this an acceptable sentence? If the majority said "No," I would not write it down; if they said "Yes," I would. In either case, I would tell Mary that it was a very good suggestion and that it raises an advanced question. (The KISS Approach offers numerous similar opportunities for teachers to praise incorrect suggestions based on the truthful response that involve advanced concepts that will be studied in later grades.) With eight to ten examples of sentences on the board, I would ask the students what they have in common and thus how we might define "sentence." They might well end up with something such as "A sentence is a group of words that begin with a capital letter ...." Or with "A sentence is a group of words that name something and then say something about it." 
     Whatever fourth graders end up with as a definition of "sentence"  is, ultimately, not important. I would be sure to end the discussion with a reminder that they will be studying sentences again in later grades. What is important in this process is that a student's question has been explored. Far too often, teachers simply cut students off. Also important, however, is that the students have used an inductive procedure to search for an answer of their own. They started by making up (or finding) specific examples, and then examined those examples to find similarities in order to arrive at a generalization. Unfortunately, this thought process, crucial to the ability to develop abstractions, is unknown even to many of my college Freshmen. 1
     Short, formal lessons should also be used to teach concepts such as the apostrophe, but the purpose of the instruction should be different -- and students should be made aware of the difference. Once students have been taught capitalization, for example, every student should be expected to make very few, if any mistakes. Apostrophes, however, involve several more complex concepts. As a result, an INTRODUCTORY formal lesson (or lessons) should be given -- with plenty of examples and a few short exercises. Some students, of course, will pick up the concepts right away, but many will not. For the latter students, additional instruction should be conducted "informally."

     By "informal" instruction I have in mind both tutoring and marks on papers. As soon as students begin to write (as opposed to copy), they should be taught the basic steps of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing. They should also be taught, as a general rule NOT to think about grammar or spelling while they are storming, drafting, or revising. But they should also be taught to bring all their spelling and grammar knowledge to the process of editing. For most writing assignments, no paper should be accepted unless it is 100% correct in regard to those concepts and constructions which the students have already been taught. 2 If the students have been taught about apostrophes and there is an apostrophe error in a student's final paper, the teacher should simply put an "x" in the margin and return the paper to the student. It should be the student's responsibility to correct the error(s) -- or to get help to do so. 3

The Importance of Reading

     I don't think that I have answered your question adequately, but, as I noted above, I am not an expert in teaching grammar in K-4. I am hoping that teachers at this level will invite me into their classrooms and also provide me with unedited samples of their students' writing. True to what I said above, I need more specifics before I can give better generalizations. I am convinced, however, that heavy doses of formal grammar are not the answer -- that was the traditional approach, and we have clear evidence that the traditional approach does not work. If I have time, I will try to make more specific suggestions within the context of both the KISS Curriculum and the Menu of Errors and Style. I suggest, however, that the teaching of formal grammar in K-4 be kept as minimal as possible. Instead of focussing on grammar, as much attention as possible should be paid to reading.
     Here again I tread on an area in which I claim no expertise, but from what I have seen and heard, the commercial, educational reading texts are abominable. If not replaced, they should surely be supplemented copiously with things such as Aesop's fables, Grimm's fairy tales, selections from McGuffey's readers, Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, and other works and authors that children in K-4 find interesting and amusing. Most of us who have a decent command of grammar got it through hundreds of hours of reading. During those hours, we saw "have" (not "of") used as a verb thousands of times. It sank in. Often indirect instruction is more important than direct.


1. When I say "unknown," I mean in a formal sense. Four-year-olds form abstractions. Learning to catch a ball requires the formation of numerous abstractions. What I have in mind here is induction as a formal procedure -- the essence of scientific method. Asked to write an essay about virtue, for example, most students look in the dictionary and/or go to the library to find out what other people have said about it. Rare is the student who will search his or her memory for specific incidents that they consider virtuous and then use these incidents to arrive at a definition. But it is precisely the specific examples that make a definition meaningful. Similarly, most grammarians, especially those who write textbooks, begin in the troposphere of previous grammarians' texts, often ending up in the stratosphere themselves. They then wonder why down-to-earth students cannot understand the wispy clouds of their grammar books.

2. Because of the mobility of today's society, a standard, national design for the place of grammar in the curriculum, such as that I have proposed in the KISS Grammar Curriculum, would help, but individual school systems can adapt such a design. Although incoming students might have a difficult time adjusting to standards for spelling and usage, the levels of the KISS Curriculum can be made up rather easily. In three weeks, I get college students who are willing to put in a little effort through prepositional phrases, S/V/C patterns, and clauses.

3. The primary reason for the persistence of errors in spelling and usage is that students develop the idea that nobody really cares. In most cases, even their English teachers didn't care, so why should students worry about them. As Art Whimbey has convincingly pointed out, strong students are characterized by two main traits, both of which can be learned. They are attention to details and ability to analyze. Expecting perfection in spelling and usage is one good way to teach students to pay attention to details.