KISS Grammar Writing Assignments

Suggestions for Parents and Teachers:
From My Side of the Desk

     I have heard teachers say that they oppose any type of "formulaic" writing assignments. Translated, this means I don't know much about writing or how to teachit, so I am going to make a virtue of my ignorance. Not every writing assignment should be formulaic, but most students should be doing much more formulaic writing than they currently do.Unfortunately, the current teaching of writing is almost as bas as is the teaching of grammar.
     A simple illustration of this is the endless repetition of the "five-paragraph essay" debate on NCTE-Talk. Some teachers are adamantly against it; others are strongly for it. The assumption appears to be that it is an either/or question. I do remember one bright spot in this debate when a teacher suggested what she callled the "accordion essay" -- the number of paragraphs expands or contracts, depending on what the writer has to say. But formulas should go beyond the number of paragraphs.
     As a relatively simple example, modes of writing require different formulas. In narratives (stories), a change in speaker is normally signaled by a new paragraph. In comparison/contrast essays, the number of paragraphs should depend, at a minimum, on the number of fundamental similarities and differences that the writer sees. Two similarities, three basic differences, plus an introductory paragraph and a conclusion could easily result in a seven paragraph essay. Cause/effect essays are often assigned in terms of the five-paragraph essay -- Explain three causes for the Revolutionary War. For inexperienced writers, these number-specific assignments can probably be very helpful. But what if the student sees four basic causes, each of which could be developed in a paragraph? Or what if the writer sees only two? Most college professors, I would suggest, would much prefer to see two causes fully developed in a paragraph each than to see three thinly developed paragraphs.
     My point here is that formulas are structures -- scaffolding upon which students can learn to build and flesh out well-organized essays. It was, I believe, Ben Franklin who said that an empty bag cannot stand upright. Might I add that it is difficlut to put anything into an empty bag that is lying on the floor. Writing formulas hold the bag upright and open, making it much easier for students to fill it.
      The writing assignments suggested below are primarily formulaic and some take specific advantage of the KISS Approach to teaching grammar. A formal definition, for example, should begin with an S/V/PN pattern -- A saw is a tool used to cut things. In school, and especially in college, student will be required to write numerous definitions -- ranging from separate short exam questions to parts of longer papers, to entire, fairly long papers. Many students have problems in writing definitions because they will explain what a saw does, what it looks  like, how much it costs, but they never begin with the expected formula of a formal definition -- an S/V/PN pattern. Currently, of course, they cannot do so because they cannot identify S/V/PN patterns. Within the KISS framework, this pattern will have become automatic. 
     We need to remember that students need practice. We cannot ask students to write a definition paper once and then assume that the students have mastered it. Thus it would probably be a good idea if students, having been introduced to a type of assignment, were asked to write at least a short version of it once every year. They are organized around the five KISS Levels, but obviously students working at the higher levels can also be given assignments from the lower levels.

The Importance of Revising

     "Revising" means re-seeeing the substance of what one has written. It primarily involves substance, not grammar. As the various directions below suggest, however, revision can be assisted by directions to add or check for various constructions. Even as early as third grade, revision should be taught as a separate stage in the writing process, a stage that should not be done on the same day as the drafting. Such revision should probably not be requred for every writing assignment, but some assignments should probably be revised several times.
     During my years of teaching writing as a graduate assistant at Cornell, I had one student who wrote better than I do. When I asked her how she learned to write, she immediately credited a high school teacher who made her revise a paper seven times! She noted that by the sixth rewrite, she began to understand what was expected. Most students would strongly resist the idea of rewriting a paper seven times, and most teachers are lucky if they have the time to seriously consider even one revision from each of their hundred plus students. Part of the problem here is that too many students hand in edited copies of the originals rather than true revisions, but the more we can get students to thoughtfully revise some of the things they write, the better their writing will become.
     The "Suggestions" given below for revising should become part of a larger set of instructions, a set that depends on the assignment. It would include such things as Is the point of your paper (the thesis) clear?  Is the paper organized? Are the examples you have given the best that you can think of to make your point clear to your readers? 

The Question of Editing

     With few exceptions (such as the structure of a thesis sentence), students should never be thinking about grammar and spelling while they are drafting or revising a paper. George Miller's concept of short-term memory (See the KISS Psycholinguistic Model.) suggests that we have only seven slots in which to juggle information simultaneously. In the process of drafting and revising, all of those slots should be devoted to content -- What am I trying to say? What kind of, and how many, examples should I include? How should they be organized? When students stop to think about spelling and grammar, some of the content information (that should be in the slots) is pushed out, as grammar and spelling rules are brought in. Editing, therefore, should be taught as the final stage in the writing process. Once all the ideas are on paper and organized, students should go over the paper a final time to check for spelling and grammatical errors.

KISS Level One
[Grade 3]

L1N01 Retelling Something They Just Read

     This idea came from a member of the KISS List. Unfortunately, it was a while ago, and I cannot remember who suggested it, but it immediately struck me as superb. It relieves the student of two of their major problems -- finding a topic, and "brainstorming" for details about that topic. Many students, when they have the option, pick a topic about which they know very little. As a result, their writing process is "jerky" -- as they draft, they continually have to stop to think about what to write next. In addition to affecting the overall qualtiy of the writing, this jerkiness affects the complexity of students' sentences. When the mind is overflowing with information, some of this information is naturally combined within sentences. Thus the sentences become longer and more complex. When the mind is basically empty, and searching for something to say, then individual stray thoughts are put down on paper, usually in much more simplistic sentences. If they are retelling something that they just read, their minds should be full of details, and thus sentences should flow much more smoothly.


     In your own words, with the book closed, write the story in as much detail as you can. Be sure to name the author and title of the work you are writing about at the beginning of your paper.

In some cases, you may want to give students a short chronological list of the episodes (people and/or events) in the work. For example, if they are retelling the story of Thumbelina, you could give them "the Witch, the birth of Thumbelina, the toad, the fish, the butterfly, the cockchafer, the field-mouse, the mole, the swallow, and finally the little Prince."
     For longer works, you can have the students choose the episode that they found most interesting, funny, happy, sad, etc. The primary focus here should still be on retelling, but you could also have the students follow the summary with a few comments on why they found it interesting, funny, etc.

L1N02 Writing about Personal Experience

     "What I did last summer" has been the object of many jokes about what students write in school, but for students working at KISS Level One, such personal experience papers can be good writing exercises. Other possible topics include "My Home," "My Favorite Place," "My Hobby," "My Favorite Toy," "Favorite Person," etc.

Revising and Editing at KISS Level One

Suggestions for Revising and Editing

     Revise your paper to improve the details in it. Add adjectives, adverbs and prepositional phrases that provide additional information about the characters and the setting. (Where and when did the story take place?)

Suggestions for Editing

Check the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.

KISS Level Two
[Grades 4, 5, 6]

L2N01 Writing a Characterization (Description) of a Person [Instructional Material for Students]

      A characterization is probably the easiest "analytical" paper for students to write. Very young children have a sense that other people are "nice," "mean," "helpful," "nasty," etc. In addition, characterization papers primarily depend on adjectives (including predicate adjectives) and predicate nouns. Within the KISS Curriculum design, these are among the first constructions that are taught. Thus students can be asked to write characterizations (or descriptions of characters) soon after they have begun to master KISS Level Two.
     Another advantage of this assignment is that our expectations, and the amount of pre-writing help that we give students, can vary widely. We can begin, for example, with:

     Think of one adjective or noun that would best desribe a specific character in the story. State that characteristic in an S/V/PA or S/V/PN sentence -- "Charlotte is a helpful spider." Then give as many specific examples as you can from the story to show that the character is like that.
In an early assignment, it might be helpful to have the students brain-storm, as a class, for adjectives and nouns that would describe the character (or characters). Then each student could choose the adjective or noun that he or she considers best and support it.
     The most important aspects of this assignment are the initial S/V/PA or S/V/PN pattern, and the support, the specific examples that the students provide. At the college level, students often complain that they get low grades because "the instructor doesn't agree with me." There is a fair amount of validity in the complaint, but the problem usually is that the students have given few, if any, supporting examples. Indeed, often the students simply impose their prejudices onto the story and there is nothing in the story that supports the student's view. On the other side of the coin, the students with whom the instructor agrees have usually given supporting examples, which is why the instructor agrees in the first place. College professors do, by the way, give A's to students with whom they disagree, but the student's paper has to include supporting examples. Thus this characterization assignment can be an excellent introduction to the most crucial aspect of all college writing -- make a statement, and then support it.
     There are, of course, numerous ways in which this assignment can be expanded for students in upper grades. The simplest is to have students think of three or four characteristics and write a paragraph that supports each of them. This can easily result in a five or six paragraph paper:
Par. 1 Introduction & Thesis Robin Hood is a hero.
Par. 2 First characteristic He is brave.
Par. 3 Second characteristic He is smart.
Par. 4 Third characteristic He is generous.
Par. 5 Closing Conclusion

Revising and Editing at KISS Level Two

Suggestions for Revising and Editing

1. Replace weak verbs with stronger, more vivid ones.
2. Consider combining subjects, verbs, or complements -- "Jill loves football, and she likes baseball." -- "Jill loves football and likes baseball."
3. Replace abstract words with more concrete compounds -- "Gary likes to read books." -- "Gary likes to read histories and biographies."
4. Supplement abstract words with prepositional phrases that give specific examples -- "Gary likes to read books like histories and biographies."
5. Use conjunctive adverbs ("first," "more importantly") to show transitions from one idea to the next.

Suggestions for Editing

1. Begin some sentences with prepositional phrases.
2. Check the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.

I should confess here that it is only recently that I became much more aware of the importance of teaching grammatical transitions as a tool for revision. In order to make a transition, there has to be something to transition from and something to transition to. This in itself helps students resee the structure of their papers. In addition, different types of conjunctive adverbs (etc.) reflect differences in the logic and quality of the thoughts being expressed. "First," "second," "next," and "fourth," for example, can be used to make any unorganized list. A more thoughful writer will more likely use such transitions as "more significantly," and "most important." Not only do the latter suggest that the "list" has been put into a meaningful sequence, they are also more likely to lead the writer to explain why one idea is more significant that the preceding. 

KISS Level Three
[Grades 7, 8, 9]


Revising and Editing at KISS Level Three

Suggestions for Revising

1. Add details by inserting subordinate clauses, prepositional phrases, and/or simple adjectives and adverbs.
2. Consider combining sentences to express the logical relationships that you see in them. Make sure that you have included specific examples that will enable your readers to see the same logical relationship.
3. Have you left out relevant information by using the passive voice?

Suggestions for Editing

1. Begin some sentences with prepositional phrases or subordinate clauses.
2. Check the length and variety of clause structure.
3. Check the embedding of clauses -- is it too simple, or too complex?
4. Check the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.


KISS Level Four
[Grade 10]


Revising and Editing at KISS Level Four

Suggestions for Revising and Editing

1. Add details by inserting gerundive phrases.

Suggestions for Editing

1. Check the length and variety of clause structure. Can you reduce some clauses to verbals?
2. Check the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.


KISS Level Five
[Grade 11 +]


Revising and Editing at KISS Level Five

Suggestions for Revising and Editing

1. Add details by inserting appositives and/or post-positioned adjectives.

Suggestions for Editing

1. Check the length and variety of clause structure. Can you reduce some clauses to appositives or post-positioned adjectives?
2. Check the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.