The Voice behind KISS Grammar:
An Autobiographical Note

The Scream
National Gallery, 

     I don't really like writing about myself, but you will find a voice in KISS Grammar, a voice that is usually absent in most grammar books. In many of the analysis keys, for example, you will find things such as "I would accept this explanation." Or "I expect students to make a mistake here." The question, of course, is "Who is this 'I'"? You will not find such statements in most grammar books. Most such books are written as if grammar is a totally objective subject -- the book is giving you the "facts." 
     If, however, you look at several different books, you will probably become confused -- the "facts" change from book to book. This happens because there is no "authoritative grammar" of English. A grammar is simply a description of a language, and different grammarians describe English in different ways, often using different terms. These differences have caused tremendous problems in the teaching of grammar in our schools, but that is discussed elsewhere on the KISS web site. The questions to be addressed here are "Who is Ed Vavra?" "And why should anyone pay attention to what he says?"
     I teach five sections of Freshman English every semester at Pennsylvania College of Technology. That is what I get paid for, and that is where most of my time and effort is spent. My job and my education are probably responsible, in large part, for my unique perspective on the teaching of grammar. Every semester I work with students who have major problems writing essays because they have major problems with grammar, especially sentence structure. My education gave me a unique perspective on the problem. In high school, and for a year in college, I studied Latin, but my B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. are all in Russian Language and Literature, with minors officially in Italian and French. I also had to learn enough German to pass a reading test. Put differently, for me, the study of grammar is the study of a tool to be used for a purpose.
     When, twenty or so years ago, I was asked to teach a grammar course for future teachers, I looked at the English grammar textbooks and soon realized that none of these books has a purpose. They taught, and still teach, isolated concepts, terms, and countless exceptions to the rules. Although some of these books (and their writers) claim that their purpose is to improve students' writing, the claims are vague, and I have yet to see any book that even claims to try to enable students to analyze and discuss the structure of their own sentences. Indeed I have yet to see any book that even claims to try to teach students how to identify the subjects and verbs in their own writing. To me, this does not make any sense at all. Thus, the KISS Approach was born.
       To test my ideas, and to share ideas with others, I founded, and for  fifteen years served as editor of, Syntax in the Schools, the only national publication dedicated to the teaching of grammar. Syntax is now the official publication of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, an assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English. In other words, I have been heavily involved in "The Great Grammar Debate" for over twenty years. During these years, I published several short articles in English Journal. but I have become convinced that the teachers (professors) of future teachers and the major educational organizations such as NCTE are not really interested in helping students.
     The preceding summary should suggest that I have some idea of what I write about. In composition courses such as the one I teach, my credentials are called an appeal to authority.  Does the writer (or speaker) have a demonstrated expertise in the topic? But, if you care about my credentials at all, I ask that you use them only as a reason to begin to examine KISS Grammar. The primary appeal of KISS Grammar is to what, in composition classes, we call logic. More simply, it is an appeal to common sense.
     Even if you are familiar with grammatical terms, you will probably be initially confused by KISS Grammar because KISS is an entirely different way of looking at the teaching of grammar. All you need to do to see this difference is to compare the other textbooks with KISS instructional materials and exercises. Not only do most grammar textbooks not teach grammar effectively -- they kill it, slice it, and dice it. (Is it any wonder that students -- and most teachers -- hate it? Dead stuff stinks.)
     Look at the "Tables of Contents" in almost any grammar book. You will probably find a chapter on "Parts of Speech," a chapter on "Basic Sentence Structure," chapters on verbs and verb forms, chapters on clauses, etc. Prepositional phrases, one of the most important constructions for students to understand if they are to see how a living language works, are usually relegated to a chapter near the end of the book. And the chapters are all separated and illustrated with very simplistic examples. There is no discussion of how all these parts fit together. Each chapter is a diced and sliced section (of a living language) as if it were dead and on a dissecting table.. Ouch! Rarely, if ever, will you find a single, relatively complicated sentence analyzed in full. 
     KISS exercises, on the other hand, are often either complete works (or verbatim, consecutive passages from longer works). Instruction proceeds through several levels, and by the last level, the grammatical function of every word in every sentence in every passage has been explained. As they learn how to do this analysis, students begin to understand not only why many errors are, in fact, errors, but also how sentence structure affects writing style and logic. Having mentioned errors, style, and logic, I would like to address a question that I am frequently asked by teachers and parents who are considering the KISS Approach -- When does KISS address punctuation and other errors? 
     The only way to effectively address these errors is to understand what punctuation does -- how does it "work" in sentences? And the only way to understand that is to understand how sentences work. And the only way to do that is to spend some time learning to recognize adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and subjects, verbs, and complements -- not just in the simplistic sentences found in most grammar books, but in real texts such as those in the KISS exercises. In The Karate Kid, Daniel objects to waxing the car and painting the fence -- "Wax on. Wax off. Wax on. Wax off." It's boring, and Daniel wants to quit. But after he has done it, Mr. Miyagi easily shows him how important those tasks were. The initial levels of KISS Grammar can be made much less boring than waxing a car and painting a fence, and they are crucial. 
     Thus far I have asked you to pay brief attention to my credentials and then to judge the KISS Approach in terms of whether or not it makes sense to you. The latter also applies to the terminology used in KISS Grammar. Confusion about terminology is a major problem in the teaching of grammar. KISS Grammar has a name because the name designates a systematic, limited set of grammatical terms and concepts that enable students to discuss the function of any word in any sentence. Most of the terms used in KISS are traditional, but some, for reasons that are explained both in the instructional materials and in the notes, are distinctly KISS concepts. Are these KISS concepts "correct"? You can, of course, compare them with what you can find in other grammar books, but I would suggest that the more important question is "Do they make sense to you?" Do you want a name for a concept? Or do you want to understand how words work together to make meaning in sentences?

     KISS owes a great deal to the research and theories of Kellogg Hunt, Roy O'Donnell, and Walter Loban, to the developmental theories of Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Jerome Bruner, and to a psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes language, a model that is based on George Miller's fundamental work on short-term memory. I also want to thank the many students who helped develop KISS Grammar, and members of the KISS List, whose questions have helped me not only improve many of the instructional materials but also restructure their presentation. All these instructional materials are free. I don't want more money (although my family could probably use it). And I don't want fame. I want to change the way grammar is taught -- across this country, and around the world. I'm passionate about that. (Note the illustration on this page.) Our students (and their teachers) deserve better than what we have been giving them.

Ed Vavra
My Resume
June 8, 2005