Why Every Student Deserves a KISS-Like Approach to Grammar by Dr. Ed Vavra
August 23, 2015
Bob, a college instructor of Freshman Composition, was complaining about students to a couple of his colleagues. He had devoted a lot of time to teaching students grammar, especially subject-verb agreement, but their papers were still full of agreement errors. “Blah, blah, blah,” he said, imitating the Charlie Brown cartoon. But his implication was that the students were at fault. When I asked him if he ever tried to teach his students how to identify the subjects and verbs
in their own writing
, he gave me a strange look, said “No,” and walked away—end of conversation.
Complaints of teachers that students don’t learn from exercises on subject-verb agreement are common. But the “Blah, blah, blah” comment is accurate, not because the students can’t understand the simplistic exercises, but because teachers rarely, if ever, even try to enable students to identify subjects and verbs in their own writing. It is, in other words, the educators’ fault, not the students’. (By “educators,” I mean the teachers of the teachers—the teachers are doing what they have been trained to do. Some teachers have literally asked for better instruction in teaching grammar, but they were informed— by their teachers—that teaching grammar is “harmful.”)
Forty years of teaching Freshmen to improve their writing have shown me that student’s (including college students’) problems with subject-verb agreement almost always occur because the student cannot identify the subject and verb. When students discuss such sentences with me, I ask if they can identify subjects and verbs. Most college students can’t. When they can, they almost always correct the error in a sentence once they have identified the subject and verb.
With students who cannot identify the subject and verb, I point it out for them—
“They walks”? Usually they will look at me strangely, but if I repeat it a couple of times, the light turns on, and they say, “They walk.” In cases like this—and there are millions of them each year—the students don’t fail; we fail them. Why aren’t we teaching them how to identify the subjects and verbs in their own writing (and reading)?
It is not difficult to do—it is simply a matter of making their unconscious knowledge of sentence structure conscious. Most students could learn this in primary school by doing two five-minute exercises a week. It does, however, require a totally different approach to teaching grammar. This is the essence of a “KISS-like” approach.
The approach starts with sentence basics, and
new constructions as students make progress. But in identification exercises, students always underline subjects once and verbs twice. In other words, unlike current approaches to teaching grammar, a KISS-like approach is cumulative.
My objective in this paper is to suggest how such an approach empowers students—no more “Blah, blah, blah”! If, in their two five-minute exercises each week, students regularly underline subjects once and verbs twice in randomly selected sentences, they will quickly learn the difference between the subject-verb pattern “it’s” and the “its” that functions as a possessive pronoun. In other words, a major problem for many students (including college) will disappear—and that goes for “who’s” and
“whose,” and “they’re,” “their,”and “there.”
It does not take long before the subject-verb identification becomes automatic, and once it is, students can
new constructions. In the KISS Ideal curriculum design, first graders can learn how to add prepositional phrases. A prepositional phrase between a subject and verb often causes a subject verb agreement error, as in “One of the boys are here.” Identifying prepositional phrases is also important for young students because they add details to their writing. Teachers often ask students to add details to their writing, but
“details” is a very abstract word. Some of my college students have complained that they do not understand what details are. But first graders can learn to add details by adding prepositional phrases that answer the questions “Where?” “When?” and “How?”
The most important constructions that students need to be able to identify are clauses. Fourth grade teachers have asked my help because they were supposed to teach clauses, but half of their students just could not understand them. I couldn’t really help these teachers because
a clause is a “subject-verb pattern and all the words that connect to it.”
If students cannot identify subjects and verbs, they are totally unprepared to identify clauses. In a KISS-like approach, clauses are easy—for every subject-verb pattern there is one clause. For students who are already pros at identifying S-V patterns,
learning how to identify clauses is simply a matter of underlining the S-V patterns in a sentence and then figuring out which of the other words meaningfully go with which pattern.
The ability to identify clauses is important for two reasons. First is the question of errors. Three major errors are fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons. A “fragment” is a part of a sentence that does not connect to an S-V pattern. In a “comma-splice” two sentences are joined with just a comma, and in a “run-on” one sentence runs on into another with no punctuation marking the end of the first sentence. (KISS Grammar includes a model of how our brains process sentences, a model that explains why these errors cause problems for readers.) My point here, of course, is that students who can identify the clauses in their own writing can understand these errors—and how to fix them.
I might note here that students who cannot identify the clauses in their own writing suffer from traditional exercises, especially exercises on semicolons. Semicolons are frequently used by professional writers to join two sentences that imply a contrast—
“He went swimming; she did the dishes.” The semicolon in that sentence invites the educated reader to think about the difference in what he and she did—he had fun, but she was stuck in the kitchen. Semicolons, by the way, are also used by writers to connect two or more sentences that are logically related, for example, three sentences that provide examples of the sentence that precedes them. We should probably not, however, say anything to students about semicolons if the students cannot identify the clauses in their writing. Whenever I have done so, semicolons are spread over sentences like salt and pepper on mashed potatoes.
The second reason for being able to identify clauses is stylistic. Almost all subordinate clauses function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs within other clauses, and they add both logical connections and a sense of maturity to a writer’s style. I used to teach students in my Freshman comp courses to identify S-V patterns and clauses—main and subordinate. Near the end of the semester they did a statistical analysis of a selection of their own writing.
I’ll return to the statistical below. Here my point is that the statistical project made students much more aware of the style of their own writing. We spent a class period in
which the students worked in small groups to check each others’ analysis and statistics. It was not unusual for a student to bring his paper to me and say, “Dr. Vavra, we cannot find any subordinate clauses in my writing.” A quick glance showed me that there weren’t any. I told him that and suggested some sentence-combining exercises.
Then there were the students who called me over and said, “I have a subordinate clause within a subordinate clause within a subordinate clause that is within still another subordinate clause. Can that be right?” It took a longer glance to check it, but the analysis was correct. “Yep,” I said, “That’s right. And your sentence is perfectly correct, but embedding clauses within clauses like that makes sentences harder to read. You might want to do some de-combining exercises.”
Current instruction cannot individualize teaching in that way. An entire class is asked to do combining exercises. The result is that students who write very short sentences write longer ones that contain numerous run-ons and other errors. Students who already write excellent sentences combine into longer, harder to read, sentences.
Statistical analysis is also important because it provides non-subjective norms. In the 1970’s researchers were trying to find a way to measure what is called “syntactic maturity.” Previous attempts to do so failed—third graders write very long sentences by connecting numerous short ones with “and.” Kellogg Hunt solved the problem with the
“T-unit,” which he defined as a main clause with all the subordinate clauses that are attached to it. With this as a yard-stick, researchers were able to analyze the writing of students at different grade levels. Graphed, the results show a fairly steady upward trend, as opposed to the awkward “U” of the results based on sentence length. Twelfth graders averaged approximately 14.4 words per main clause. Hunt also did a study in which professional writers averaged 20.3.
The KISS site includes more details on these studies in addition to studies that go beyond them, but here my point is the importance of non-subjective norms, especially for students who can analyze the clause structure of their own writing.
Back in the 1980’s I taught an advanced essay course that met one evening a week. There was an older, retired man taking the course. He was not working toward a degree, his writing was fine, and I couldn’t figure out why he was taking the course.
Every week after class, we’d chat about it until he told me that he was taking the course
because one of his teachers, years previously, had told him that his sentences were too long. He had worked in the government on oil-related issues, and wanted to write a book about the oil-shortage. We didn’t deal with grammar in that course, but once he told me what his problem was, I asked him for more samples of his writing.
Then, of course, I did a statistical analysis. He averaged 21 words per main clause. That is only slightly higher than Hunt’s
for professionals. In other words, the man’s sentences were certainly not “too long.” Think about it. This man was a good writer, but for most of his life he felt that he could not write well because one of his teachers had made a subjective comment to the effect that his sentences were too long. A
KISS-like grammar enables students to analyze their own sentences, statistically, so that they can judge for themselves if their sentences are too long or too short.
At a more advanced level, statistical analysis explains the importance of a KISSlike approach to improve students’ ability to read. The best way to learn to read, of course, is simply to read. But students are reading less and less. Statistical analysis shows major differences between the structures of oral and written language. If students are not regular readers, they will not absorb the patterns of written language. Here is not the place to go into details, but the higher levels of KISS give students the patterns of—and practice with— passive voice, appositives, noun absolutes, etc. As one user of KISS noted, even the lower KISS levels teach students to read meaningful phrases instead of just individual words.
One more example: I was scheduled to teach my grammar course for future teachers on a Saturday morning. One of our English majors asked me about it and decided that he wanted to take the course. He was an excellent writer, and I told him that he really did not need the course. His response was that his girl friend had to take a
Saturday morning course, and since he had to drive her to school, he thought he might as well take one too. (Young love is so beautiful.) He aced it, as I thought he would. When the course was over I asked him if he thought his taking it was worthwhile. His answer was a definite “Yes!” The course, he said, gave him a much stronger conscious control of his sentences, especially how to move constructions around to better focus on his meaning.
My question is “Don’t all of our students deserve ‘KISS-like’ instruction in grammar?” I have been speaking of “KISS-like” because KISS Grammar itself may not be the “be-all and end-all.” KISS is, however, on the web for free. At
you will find instructional material and hundreds of free exercises and analysis keys. We have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on textbooks and teacher training, and we have been wasting millions of hours on “Blah, blah, blah” instruction. Our students deserve better. Your children and grandchildren deserve better. Our country needs better!
[Feel free to reproduce or publish this.]
Suggestions for improving this essay are welcome at evavra@KISSGrammar.org