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Fourth Graders' Writing:
The 1986 Study

(Back to 4th Graders' ToC)

     Note: This essay will be continued as I complete the analysis of these fourth graders' writing.

The Meaning of "All"

     Some linguists object to the KISS Approach because  prepositional phrases, for example, are not that simple and therefore young students cannot be expected to identify all of them. These linguists, however, fail to understand the difference between an objective and reality. No fan expects a basketball player to make every basket or a quarterback to complete every pass, but those are certainly their objectives. Anyone working with the KISS Approach will soon realize that students can, in fact, reach a far higher percentage of accuracy than any basketball player or quarterback. 
     In addition, we can predict where students will have problems. We cannot, for example, expect students who are working at Level One (Prepositional Phrases) to be able to explain prepositional phrases that have clauses as their objects -- They were arguing (about [where they should meet]). In the KISS Approach, clauses are studied in Level Three. When students get to Level Three, in other words, they can be expected to deal with prepositional phrases that have clauses as their objects, but not before then.

Level One: Prepositional Phrases

     The three primary purposes of teaching students to identify "all" the prepositional phrases in any passage are 1) to get them an easy good start toward the goal of being able to explain how any word in any text chunks to a main S/V/C pattern; 2) to enable them to avoid the subject/verb agreement errors caused by a phrase between a subject and its verb -- as in One of the men are here; and 3) to enable them to find the syntactic subject of clauses whose semantic subject is in a prepositional phrase -- as in She saw one of the girls [who usually hit a homerun].  #1

The Functions of Prepositional Phrases

     Of these three purposes, only the first requires that students be able to explain the function (normally adjectival or adverbial) of the phrases

Level Three: Clauses


Note: If you are not already familiar with it, you might want to read the KISS psycolinguistic model of how the brain processes language before reading the followng.

     Fragments are usually parts of clauses that are cut off from a main clause and punctuated as separate sentences. It seems, therefore, nonsensical to try to teach students to avoid fragments before teaching them to recognize clauses. We also need to think about the causes of the fragments. In sample #1, for example, the student wrote "There is a tv in that room. A couch, and a chair." The student probably thought, and then wrote "There is a tv in that room." Further thought then led to the addition of "A couch, and a chair." The fragment, in other words, is not the result of incorrect processing in short-term memory, but rather the clearing of short-term memory and the introduction of additional thoughts. But because these thoughts are so close to those in the preceding sentence, the student wrote the essential ideas without making the syntactic connection to the preceding sentence clear.
     Another primary cause of fragments, more apparent in the writing of older students, but also possible with fourth graders, is probably an overloading of the writer's short-term memory. Whereas in the first example, the student had a thought, wrote it down, put a period after it, and then thought of something else, in this cause, the writer's head is filled with related thoughts, filled to the point of overflowing. Thus a writer who averages ten words per main clause may have the ideas in STM for a twenty word main clause. Unaccustomed to writing such a long main clause, the writer gets part of it down on paper, and then, perhaps in fear of losing the whole thing, adds a period (thus clearing the first part from his STM) before finishing the sentence, often perfectly correctly except for the inserted period. 
     Related to the preceding cause are cases in which a writer completes a main clause which is significantly longer (or more complex) than their average in length, and then writes a fragment. The only fragment in Sample #5 may be an example of ths. The student wrote:

The next thing [that happened yesterday] was [the V.C.R. wouldn't record a show [I wanted to watch.]] / Then the most worst thing [my cat got out and went in the ceuar.] / Then he jumped in another tunnel in the ceuar. Finally when we left he came out. I thought he would fall in the deep, deep, hole 
The entire sample averages 8.5 words per main clause, but the first sentence in the excerpt is not only a 17-word main clause (exactly twice the average), but it also contains three subordinate clauses, one of which is embedded in another. The writer, moreover, does not develop the idea at all (What was the show?), perhaps because she was already thinking of "the most worst thing." The "most worse thing" is developed with three additional sentences, but in the rush to get the ideas safely down on paper, the writer slipped and left out the "was" after "thing," thereby creating a fragment. 
     The preceding ideas require more thought, and more research, but they do fit with the idea that language is a stream of meaning, and that the "sentence" is a psycholinguistic entity.

Fragments and the Counting of Words per Main Clause

     There has been little agreement about what, exactly, should be considered as a main clause (T-unit). I have described this disagreement in "Definitions of the 'T-Unit'." Here, I simply want to expand on why I count fragments as separate main clauses. In his definition, for example, Mellon gives seven rules, three of which are

4. Orthographic sentence fragments count as part of the T-unit to which they belong.
5. True fragments resulting from the omission of a single word count as T-units with the missing word supplied. Other true fragments are discarded.
 6. Unintelligible word strings, vocatives, interjections, and various parenthetical or a-syntactic expressions found in conversational writing are discarded.
The big problem here is that he gives no theoretical justification for making these decisions. I have already referred to a fragment from Sample # 1 -- "There is a tv in that room. A couch, and a chair."  Since I can't see spelling, in itself, causing a fragment, I'm assuming that in "orthographic" in Rule 4, Mellon includes punctuation. If so, he would have counted this example as one twelve-word main clause, whereas I have counted it as two main clauses averaging six words each. A single such fragment ina passage may not make much difference in the overall count, but Sample #9 has sixteen fragments, about half of which are of this type. They are, in other words, a major factor in my analysis of this passage as averaging only 5.6 words per main clause.
     Even worse, Mellon's rule apparently turns some fragments into advanced constructions. Sample #6, for example, begins with "I have four people in my family. My mom, my dad, my sister and me." Doesn't Mellon's rule mean that we should replace the period after "family" witth a comma, and replace the following "M" with "m"? Doing so, however, 1) changes what I have counted as two "main clauses" that average 7.5 words with one 15-word main clause, and 2) replaces a fragment with four appositives. (In "Late Blooming," Hunt explains that the appositive is  "late-blooming," and thus an advanced, construction.) The unstated, but apparent justification for Mellon's rule is that a "T-unit" is a "minimal terminal unit." But if we want to help students improve their writing, don't we need to consider all of their terminated units?
     Mellon's rule simply eliminates these problems from consideration. (As I understand it, O'Hare, in his very influential study, also corrected spelling and punctuation before the passages were analyzed.) The  "discarding" in Mellon's Rules 5 and 6 have the same effect. But fragments are reflections of ideas that were in the writer's head, and, if we want to help writers express their ideas clearly, we cannot, in our research, simply correct or discard the fragments. 

The KISS Approach to Helping Students Avoid Fragments

     Given the ability to analyze their own writing (which is the primary objective of the KISS Approach), students will see that the function of the words in the fragment is unclear -- what is the syntactic function of "a couch, and a chair"? They could be made into subjects -- "A couch, and a chair are also in that room." Or the previous sentence coould be revised -- "There are a tv, a couch, and a chair in that room."

"The worst day in my life was when..."

     Unfortunately, I do not have the exact prompt that they were given, but it is clear that these students were asked to write about the "worst day" in their lives. This prompt resulted in numerous sentences such as that in Sample # 1 -- "The worst day I ever spent in my life was when I was six years old." If we try to analyze these sentences, we run into problems with the function of the "when" clause. An adult, writing this, would probably have used "occurred" instead of "was," thereby making the "when" clause adverbial. Another perspective would be to consider the "when" clause as a description of the "day," thereby making it a predicate adjective. Still another view would look at the sentences as containing an ellipsed "day" -- "The worst day I ever spent in my life was *a day* when I was six years old." This would make the clause a simple adjective. Still another perspective suggests that the subject / verb pattern (the worst day ... was ...) raises expectations of a predicate noun.
     I have opted to consider these clauses as adverbial, analogous to "The worst day in my life was a long time ago."

     See also the  essay that accompanies the study of novelists' writing.

1. This problem is not widely recognized because grammar is usually taught from textbooks that either avoid or give few exercises that include such sentences. However, when students run across such sentences, they apply the rules that they have been taught -- Find the verb (hit) and  ask Who or what hit? They then arrive at the incorrect answer --- girls. Rarely are students taught that the object of a preposition cannot be the subject of a verb.