Last Updated: May 15, 2001
Dr. Ed Vavra's KISS Approach to Sentence Structure
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    This essay was originally written in 2001. Since then I have been asked by some teachers, who may or may not have read this page, to write a textbook based on the KISS Approach. As I suggest below, I don't think textbooks are needed, but I do understand the desire of teachers to have a collection of materials to work with, especially if they are not yet comfortable working with the KISS Approach.
     The result has been the development of the KISS Grammar Workbooks. If you look at them, they do look like a series of textbooks, but that is because most teachers are uncomfortable with their own knowledge of grammar. If you study them, I think you will agree that they consist of limited instructional material and a large number of exercises and analysis keys. (See, for example, the early levels prepared for students who are starting their formal study of grammar in sixth grade.) Parents and teachers are encouraged to substitute their own exercises for those offered in the free KISS Workbooks. The basic idea is to introduce a concept such as prepositional phrases and then have students do sufficient exercises on them so that the students will be able to identify the prepositional phrases in any sentence that they read or write.
-- E. V. 2/3/12

     Most of my colleagues in ATEG will probably react in horror to this essay, but I'm more than half serious. Our textbooks are not only a waste of time and money, they are probably the cause of the failure of grammar instruction in our schools. When I mentioned my intention of writing this essay to one of my colleagues, he brought to my attention an essay by Edgar H. Schuster -- "Reforming English Language Arts: Let's Trash the Tradition (Phi Delta Kappan, March 99, 518-524). Professor Schuster makes some major mistakes about what we should teach, but his main point -- that the traditional approach should be trashed -- is right on target. But what we need to trash are the grammar books, not the teaching of grammar.

The Definition of Grammar

      Professor Schuster will, I hope, forgive me for following the organization of his essay, but he has put all the stones in exactly the right order. Perhaps I can turn them into a better path for teaching. He begins, for example, right where he should, with the question of what is "grammar." He also quite rightly points out that there are many different definitions and types of grammar, including the major distinction between grammar as a set of formal, internalized rules of language which we all learn without any formal training, and grammar as "the description and analysis of these formal patterns" (519).  For most of his essay, Professor Schuster focuses on the former, the grammar that is "built into our heads." (519) The fact that he did so is understandable because many English teachers are still foolishly trying to teach students just this grammar that is already built into their heads. But he begs the entire question by focussing on grammar in this sense -- if grammar is those rules which are already built into students' heads before they get to school, then obviously there is no reason to teach it. In a sense, therefore, Professor Schuster ends where he begins.

     Although he makes some nice observations about usage, Professor Schuster goes astray when he leaves behind the discussion of grammar as a "description and analysis of ... formal patterns,"  of which he gives only two undeveloped examples -- "traditional school grammar" and "transformational-generative grammar." Implied later in his article, but not specifically discussed, is the fact that "traditional school grammar" is a massive mixture of lots of different grammars, including Latin, eighteenth-century prescriptive, and now structural, transformational, systemic, tagmemic, and a lot more. All of these grammars have different perspectives on, and different reasons for looking at, the English language. But all these grammars -- and the grammarians who adhere to them -- often act as if they are the only kid on the block. Unrealized both by the general public and by many English teachers, our grammar textbooks are often an unsystematic cacophony of concepts from different grammatical theories. This accounts for much of the "Definitions That Do Not Define" and the "Verbal Quagmire" that Schuster accurately and neatly explains later in his article.
     The problem, very simply, is that teachers teach grammar by teaching what's in their grammar textbook. Instead of having students use grammatical concepts to explore a living language, teachers are stuck with, as Schuster explains, "DEAD" -- "Definition, Example, And Drill." (520) The acronym is cute and catchy, and I have even heard ATEG members use it as a term of scorn for traditional instruction. But the admirers of the acronym have not put enough thought into their scorn. The "traditional" problem with DEAD is not the systematic definition, example, and drill, but rather the isolated way in which it has been used -- to teach, not grammar, but what is in the grammar textbooks. Thus, in the traditional approach, students do DEAD with subjects and verbs, or with clauses, etc., and having done what was in the grammar textbook, both teachers and students leave it to DIE. The educational path is strewn with half-learned, isolated grammatical concepts for which neither many teachers nor students see any purpose.
     But let's change the focus. Instead of having students study grammar textbooks, let's have them focus on learning how to analyze real texts -- from newspapers, novels, essays, letters, etc., including their own writing -- so that they can understand how language works, and, if they wish, improve their own ability to read and write. We do not, of course, have to put them into the position of the first grammarians, starting from scratch. We know that there are many frequently occurring and widely agreed upon grammatical constructions -- prepositional phrases, subjects and verbs, clauses. In this situation, what should teachers do?
     I would suggest that DEAD is precisely the way to begin. Well, we can't simply give them a text and say "Find the prepositional phrases." They wouldn't know what we were talking about. So we give them some sort of definition -- it doesn't have to be extremely accurate, and we give them some examples. Then we drill. Believe me, as teachers, we want to drill. But our drills should consist of randomly chosen passages from texts, NOT from the isolated sentences in the exercises in a grammar textbook. Imagine yourself teaching prepositional phrases to a class of twenty-five third graders. As Professor Schuster would, I'm sure, agree, prepositional phrases are already in these students' heads. They use them all the time. All we want to do is to make a connection between what is in their heads and the term "prepositional phrase." To make that connection, all students really need is practice, i.e., drill. And, to begin, we want all the students doing the same drill, i.e., analyzing the same passage. No teacher, at this point in the instruction, wants to check twenty-five different passages (from the twenty-five students) to see what is right and what is not. In fact, the best way to go over such homework is not to grade it, but simply to go over it in class with each student checking his or her own work. (You can't do that, of course, unless all of the students have been working on the same passage, i.e., doing a "drill.") Because prepositional phrases are part of the grammar that is already in their heads, it does not take a lot of such drilling before most students will be able to identify most prepositional phrases in any text. At this point, students can begin to choose their own texts to analyze, including samples of their own writing, and checking their work in small groups -- no grammar textbooks needed.
     For those who are new to this site, what I have been describing is the essence of the KISS Approach. The focus of the approach is on analyzing texts. Grammatical concepts are introduced by means of DEAD (which could also stand for Define, Examine, Analyze , and Do). But because it focuses on analyzing texts, unlike the traditional approach, KISS adds new concepts to the inventory that students have already learned so that, as they progress, what students see is their growing, living analytical ability -- their own increased comprehension, rather than a trail of dry skeletons of apparently useless and frustrating grammatical concepts.
     Implied with the KISS approach is a special perspective on the definition of grammar as "description and analysis of ... formal patterns." The question is "whose description and analysis, and for what purpose?" Some grammars, for example, get into questions such as why we generally would say "I saw the three big American trucks" rather than "I saw American big the three trucks." This is, of course, the grammar that is already in our heads, and because explaining it requires a number of concepts, most of us -- including me -- are not interested. (For non-native speakers and their teachers, on the other hand, this is a question of major interest -- precisely because it is NOT already in non-native speakers' heads.)  KISS grammar is much more limited in scope. All we want is a general, and generally agreed upon, way of describing how words syntactically connect to each other within sentences. In the KISS approach, we can explain "the," "three," "big," and "American" by simply saying that they are adjectives to "trucks."
     The descriptions of KISS grammar are limited because its purpose is to enable everyone (i.e., every student) to explain and intelligently discuss how any word in any sentence works with other words in that sentence to convey meaning. But if we want a descriptive grammar, we need to address a question that is too rarely discussed -- What makes a grammatical concept valid? I have been told, for example, by at least two grammarians, that my definition of a clause as basically an S/V/C pattern is simply "wrong." A clause, I have been informed, is bi-, not tri-partite. A clause consists of a subject and predicate. In response to my childish question "Why?", I was informed "Because it is." Apparently, they think God made it so. But I have not  seen any reference to that "fact" in the Bible, and my definition not only makes sense to me, but also to all of my students. 

The Validity of a Grammatical Concept

     The validity of a grammatical concept (definition) does not reside in the grammar books (especially not in the grammar textbooks). Instead, it rests on two things: 1) Does it make sense to the user? 2) Can the user use the concept to get that same sense into the heads of other people? Although the first point is very important, the second may be more so. Every semester, after we have worked with prepositional phrases and S/V/C patterns, we get to clauses. I warn my students that I expect them to memorize the definition of a clause - "A clause is a subject/verb/complement pattern and all the words that chunk to it." As we do our drills, those students who memorized the definition have almost no trouble with clauses -- what is consciously in my head is now also in their heads. Those students who have not memorized the definition (probably because they have been frustrated by the confusing definitions that Professor Schuster discusses) are lost.
     But validity based on the ability to communicate serves another important function. We can all define anything in any way we want. And we all see things in different ways, some of which are very strange. What makes my definitions, my explanations, more valid than those sometimes proposed by students? Very simply, the ability to communicate them. When a student offers a new concept, or a different explanation in a sentence, I ask for an explanation, and then I ask the class how many people agree or at least understand. KISS grammar has actually been modified by concepts proposed by students, but usually the student finds him or herself alone. A grammar is a description, which means that something has to be described TO someone. If most people don't understand, I guess it won't work.
     There are, we need to remember, cases in which groups of people disagree, even within the KISS framework, about which description works best. This results in alternative explanations which should always be accepted for the simple reason that they meet our criteria for validity -- they make sense to the user, and a group of people have communicated and share the concept or explanation. In almost every case, these alternatives fall into two easily understood by all options, some people preferring to see it one way; some, the other. For example, consider the fundamental question of the finite verb phrase in:

She wanted to read the book.
When we get to infinitives, some students prefer to consider "wanted to read" as the finite verb phrase, but others prefer to consider "wanted" as the finite verb and "to read" as an infinitive functioning as the direct object of "wanted." Both groups understand the explanation of the other, and although various linguists may have good reasons for preferring one explanation over the other, our K-Freshman college classrooms are not the place to get into such technical discussions.

The Problem of the Textbooks

     In addition to the isolated exercises, the basic problem of most textbooks is that they are far too complicated and big. In many texts, the index consumes more pages than would be needed to explain to students everything they need. There are two main reasons for the bulk. First, the people who write them tend to love grammar. They are fascinated by questions such as the sequence of adjectives ("the three big American trucks"), and they inappropriately bring their enthusiasm into their textbooks with little regard to what students actually need. Because there are hundreds of such questions, the textbooks bulge. They bulge even more because publishers, in an attempt to please everyone and thus sell more books, include materials, concepts, exercises, etc. from grammarians with radically different perspectives on grammar. Too many cooks spoil the soup. The result, in other words, is big, expensive, spoiled textbooks. It is no wonder that students don't learn from them. As Professor Schuster observes, traditional school grammar has become "a verbal quagmire."

The Reasons for Teaching Grammar

     Professor Schuster makes some valid points in his discussion of the reasons for teaching grammar, but ultimately his perspective is too limited and literally enslaving -- no students who learned only what Professor Schuster wants to teach would be able to read and understand his article! Not only that, they would be unable to judge the grammatical validity of what they read and write. This site, for example, includes discussions of errors and stylistic questions for each of the constructions presented. Very very little of this would be accessible to students who had studied only what Professor Schuster wants to teach. Knowledge IS power. Does Professor Schuster, like the many educators who do not want students to be taught grammar, want to deny students that power, thereby making the students perpetual "slaves" of grammarians and grammar textbooks? 

So Should We Trash the Tradition and Burn the Grammar Books?

     Traditions are very complicated things. Professor Schuster is definitely right when he argues that our current traditional approach is confusing and ineffective. But he has put himself in the position of the French and Russian revolutionaries who wanted to destroy without having a solid idea of what would follow the destruction. Instead of trashing the tradition, we need to reexamine and simplify what we teach. We need to focus not on grammar itself, but on grammar as a means of describing how language works. And we need to replace the confusing, repetitive, intimidating, several-hundred-page grammar textbooks with a few one to three page handouts like those in the KISS Workbooks.
     We also need to spend a lot more effort helping the teachers whom we expect to teach grammar. Currently, if we prepare teachers at all, we put them in a grammar course where they learn hundreds of terms (different terms, depending on the theoretical perspectives of their professors). But when these teachers enter the classroom, most of them cannot identify something as basic as the clauses in their own or their students' writing. (If you doubt this, take any of the exercises from the Level 3 KISS Workbooks, and give it to teachers as a test. You can use the appropriate answer key to see how they do.) What teachers have been taught, in other words, is useless. The KISS Approach may not be the ultimate answer, but at least it shifts the focus of instruction from learning the terms to using the terms and concepts to analyze and discuss texts. Teachers are going to need some help in mastering this new approach.

Can We Change the Tradition?

     Professor Schuster notes that it will be extremely difficult to trash a tradition that dates back to 1762 (524). Once again, he is right, but he has made his task greater than it needs to be. The general public (as well as Corporate America) wants grammar to be taught. Ultimately, therefore, Schuster's position opposes the objectives of both the general public and the grammarians. If, on the other hand, our objective is simply to improve the way in which grammar is taught, the general public -- if we can get its attention -- will support us.
     That does not mean that the task will be easy. Textbook publishers have a lot of political power, and they will not be happy with the idea of burning their textbooks. Likewise, the writers of those textbooks, some of whom are members of ATEG, will not be pleased. And many of the college professors who teach teachers will not be pleased -- instead of teaching their pet grammatical theory, they may ultimately be forced to teach something that teachers can use in their classrooms. And then there are the state Departments of Education, with their often nonsensical "standards" for the teaching of grammar. The opposition is strong, and it is entrenched.
     But it can be defeated. Thomas Jefferson believed that the American public, having been clearly given the facts, would make the right decisions. I believe in Jefferson's idea. The problem, therefore, is in getting the facts clearly before the American public. Any individual school system that wants to can adopt the KISS Curriculum. The entire curriculum is set out on this site, as well as materials for helping teachers learn to use it.  Some people will object that they have to meet state standards, but those standards are available on the web. Anyone who reads them will see that either the KISS Curriculum meets them, or the standards are so vague that they do not preclude the adoption of the KISS Curriculum. The only thing stopping the adoption of the Curriculum (or something like it) is the lack of public awareness and support.
     The questions, actually, are very simple:

1. Do you want your children and the other students in our schools to continue to be confused and frustrated by the grammar that they are being taught?

2. Do you want your school system to continue to spend thousands of dollars on expensive books that are ineffective?

3. Is there a better way?

4. Are you willing to become involved?

What can you do?

1. Send a copy of this page to everyone you know who is (or should be) interested in the problem, including members of your local School Board and your local newspaper.

2. Read through the other Essays on Grammar, especially "On Learning Those Pesky Parts of Speech." Print out a copy of it, take it to the local schools, or even better, to your children's teacher(s), and ask them how they are handling the problem. Ask a few specific questions -- how do they define a "clause," a "main clause"?

3. Use the materials on this site to teach your own children, even if they are in public schools.

4. Write to some of the other educational organizations, local and national, tell them about this site, and urge their support in solving this problem.

For additional reasons for burning the textbooks, see the essay on "The Definition of 'Clause'."