KISS Grammar Course
from Dr. Ed Vavra
As the editor of Syntax in the Schools, I regularly hear the complaint -- from college teachers as well as from teachers of K-12 -- that they have not been prepared to teach grammar. Too many teachers don't themselves have a useful, conscious understanding of grammar, and thus they don't know how to teach it. A few teachers have expressed interest in taking an official course with me, over the net. Currently, however, there are problems with the kind of credit (offered as opposed to needed), with timing, and with the cost. I have therefore decided to put this self-instructional course on the net. Anyone who is interested can use it at his or her leisure.
The objective of the course --
and ideally the objective of anyone who uses the material -- is to develop
a limited but powerful terminology adequate for discussing the structure
and style of any English sentence. The terminology, of course, is
the same as that which I propose in the suggested KISS
curriculum, and in that section teachers may find more suggestions
for using the concepts in their classrooms. Once teachers have mastered
the material here, they will (I hope.) no longer feel ill-prepared to teach
KISS approaches sentence structure through five levels, new constructions being ADDED at each level:
1. Prepositional PhrasesIn this course, numerous exercises -- and answer keys for them -- will be provided on this website. Users are urged not to work ahead, i.e., begin at level one and stay with the exercises on that level until you have mastered them. (You can test yourself simply by using any exercise and the answer key for it.) Once you have mastered a level, you will no longer have to think at that level. For example, once you have mastered prepositional phrases, you will be able to put them in parentheses automatically. This mastery will free your brain to concentrate on the next level.
In twenty years of using this approach, I have failed with only two students. One of them, an interesting case, simply could not learn to distinguish a noun from a verb. [For anyone who might have this problem, I intend to add some materials once the main course is up and usable.] The other student insisted on working ahead -- in looking for noun absolutes before he had mastered basic clauses. He failed.
The KISS approach is intentionally designed such that one level depends on mastery of the the preceding levels. With prepositional phrases neatly tucked out of the way in parentheses, subjects and verbs (Level 2) are easier to find. A clause (Level 3) is defined as "a subject / verb / complement pattern and all the words that chunk to it." If you cannot identify the subjects and verbs in a sentence, then the instructional material at Level 3 will only frustrate you. With clauses out of the way, Level 4 turns to verbals. All those verbs in a passage that are not part of a clause pattern now MUST BE one of the three verbals. If clauses are understood, then verbals are relatively easy to master. But if S/V/C patterns and clauses are have not been mastered, you are very likely to try to make the finite verbs in clauses into verbals. You'll get confused and frustrated. Once you have mastered the verbals, the eight other constructions are a relative snap. In analyzing a sentence at this level, always starting with prepositional phrases and moving through the levels, you will find a (very) few words left to be explained. At this point, you can easily apply the eight additional constructions to finish the analysis -- thereby explaining how any word, in any English sentence, is syntactically related to the main subject/verb pattern.
Having read one of my articles about the KISS Approach, one teacher claimed that she could see no difference between this approach and traditional grammar. To explore this difference, we can briefly review one set of exercises. Each set is based on either a complete work, or a passage from a longer work. Participants use that passage over and over again as the exercise for the set.
In Level One, after studying the instructional material, participants place parentheses around each prepositional phrase:
At the bottom of each answer key is a table on "Noting
Progress." Our sample passage consists of 73 words, nine of which are in
prepositional phrases. Because the participants' objective is ultimately
to be able to explain how each of those words grammatically connects to
a main subject/verb pattern, the table indicates that, in this exercise,
nine of 73 words have been accounted for, so the participant is 12% of
the way toward the goal.
In our sample, twelve additional words are adjectives
or adverbs. Added to the nine in the prepositional phrases, they now total
21 accounted for, or 29% of the total passage.
As the progress chart for our sample indicates, 33 more
words can be added to the total accounted for. Any student who got them
all right has, in this exercise set, reached 74% of the goal. As always,
participants should work on different passages in this level until they
are comfortable identifying the relevant constructions.
In our example, the explanation of clauses adds nine words
to the total, which brings us to 86% of the goal for the passage. But even
more important, perhaps, the answer keys for this level include some basic
information about style, and the instructional material deals with comma
splices, run-ons, and fragments, all three of which are often considered
In our example, seven additional words are explained, so participants who got them correct are now 96% of the way toward the ultimate goal. Level Five covers the seven (or eight, depending on how one wants to count them) additional constructions that are needed to explain how every word in every sentence is grammatically related to a main subject/verb pattern:
Every set of exercises, in other words, begins with prepositional
phrases and moves through the levels until, at Level Five, students can
explain how every word in every sentence grammatically fits. Along the
way, of course, there are various discussions of both errors and of style.
The KISS Approach is different. Give it a try, and you'll love it. So will your students.
Although it uses the terms, the
KISS approach spends little time on adjectives and adverbs. Any word that
modifies a noun or pronoun is considered an adjective; any word that modifies
a verb, adjective, or other adverb is an adverb. The KISS approach focuses
on how the parts of a sentence work together, but we really do not need
to spend time exploring and explaining how, for example, in "the tired
old man," "the," "tired," and "old" chunk to "man." Those grammars that
attempt to do so add so much baggage that our students never get off the
ground -- witness the current situation in our schools. KISS grammar can
make you -- and your students -- soar. If you are still interested, you
are ready to begin. I hope you enjoy the course.
1856, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Carol Gersten's Fine Art http://metalab.unc.edu/cgfa/
[for educational use only]