Why I Make Students Diagram Sentences

WARNING: This post may make me out to be the biggest grammar nerd on the block.

I make my students diagram sentences. I am going to take a guess and say diagramming sentences may be the worst part of my classroom curriculum according to my students. But, I, as the teacher, love it.

I took a college course title the Origins of Language as an undergrad. English 390. It was the ONLY course I took that focused solely on sentence structure, punctuation (I am also a fan of the Oxford comma), and language. So, essentially, it was a grammar-based course. Now, before you jump to conclusions, of course grammar was accounted for in my literature-based analysis papers. But, Origins was the only course I had that taught grammar. The entire semester was nothing but sentence structure and diagrams, with a final paper that focused on some sort of language analysis. I don’t remember grasping the concept until the last part of the semester. Once I had it, though, the light bulb has never blown. I wished I had taken the course earlier because it gave me a foundation for concise writing, structurally speaking. I would catch myself diagramming my own writing as a means of revision. If I couldn’t come up with a conclusive sentence diagram, I probably needed to rework what I was trying to say. I still do this.

As part of my curriculum for my dual-enrolled,  high school juniors and seniors, we do roughly a half hour of diagramming each day in class. I pull from the same exact textbook that I used for my Origins course. The textbook and workbook can be found here. Then, I teach the concepts I learned in a single semester over their two-year tenure with me. By the way, I have the same students for junior and senior year. I hope they like me because they are stuck with me for 360 days. I take the process as slow as I possibly can, as the concept of sentence diagramming is {usually} completely foreign to many students. I have had a handful the last three years who had seen a simple diagram. I have never completed the textbook. However, I have a 90-minute block, every other day with all my students. The primary focus of my curriculum is the literature.

“In order to become a good reader, you have to master the writing. In order to master the writing, you must be a careful reader.” Or, something like that. To avoid plagiarism, I didn’t come up with this theory. I also do not know who did.

So, why do I teach this sorcery? From this point on, let me just mention that I do not have any substantial research or supporting evidence to defend my rationale for including this particular grammar technique in my classroom. I just know it works for me and my students are capable. And, I have seen an improvement in student writing.

Well, for starters, let’s look at this NPR article. A contributor to the article and author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, Kitty Burns Florey, breaks it down to two groups when it comes to the sentence diagram: “those who love it and those who hate it”. I love it, and my students hate it. Accurate. The process of sentence diagramming is making a comeback. At least in my mind, it is. It faded until it was almost obsolete, and I know I am not the only one who teaches it. I’ll put it this way, I went through my whole grade-school education without a single sentence diagram. I had no idea what it was until Origins. I do, now, tutor a young man who is in the sixth grade, and his English grammar course uses the diagram. It’s back, people.

  1. It teaches many different grammar concepts within one single diagram structure. In other words, I am not teaching a single concept of grammar each day. While I teach sentence patterns and diagram structure, it automatically teaches several topics. For example, let’s take the verb. An identifying sentence pattern (there’s 10) is assigned by the verb. The verb either has to identify as a state-of-being verb, a linking verb, or an action verb. Whatever follows the verbs mentioned above determines an object or a complement. Then, after identifying the simple predicate as a complement or an object, the relationship to the subject can be determined. So, several different concepts in one learning objective. That was probably extremely confusing, but I could visually explain it if there was a diagram generator in WordPress. My students need a form of grammar instruction. My juniors take a cumulative Standard of Learning test at the end of the year (that includes a writing multiple choice test, a written response to a given prompt, and reading comprehension). Somewhere between the last writing test they took in the eighth grade to their eleventh-grade year, they seem to lose almost all grammar knowledge. I do not blame any single school teacher or particular school curriculum for this. I do not even blame the student. If you don’t use ityou lose it. I will partially blame standardized testing because of the emphasis on reading comprehension. Writing and the process of writing should not get lost in reading instruction. So, I use the diagram to refresh my students on their grammar concepts, so I can tackle several different topics in one single diagram concept. I think we say two birds with one stone.

Are you with me?

IMG_1582

I just diagrammed my previous question. The “A” in “are” should be capitalized, not the “Y” in “you.” I caught my mistake via proofreading.

2. It teaches critical thinking. Once we get past the basic fundamentals of sentence patterns and diagram structure, I always get the same question. Mrs. Hauser, when are we going to use this in real life? I do not lie. You probably won’t. And, it’s very true. Most of my students pursue some sort of science or math career. After all, they attend a STEM-based program. Not English. Again, I don’t lie. Unless you major in English or possibly take a pre-law track, you won’t see this again. If they don’t accept my honesty, then I resort to the “…because that’s what I assigned you to do.” plea. But it DOES teach critical thinking. I like to call it word math. Just like mathematical equations and formulas use proofs (is that what they’re called?) to arrive at an answer, a process exists to create a structurally-sound sentence. Sentence diagramming gives a writer (or reader, even) a visual for constructing any sentence no matter the complexity. In math, you start with addition and subtraction before making it to algorithms (is that a math thing?). With grammar and sentence diagramming, you start with the parts of speech before moving to complex structures. All words in a sentence produce a function to create meaning. The critical thinking of the diagram rests in determining word function — not form. After instruction and practice, I try to incorporate practical approaches for the use of the diagram as well as critical thinking exercises using the diagram. We have looked at government literature (The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence). We have looked at journalism articles. We diagram using sidewalk chalk on bright, sunshiny days. We construct stories. We have competitive races. All in the name of the sentence diagram. And, don’t fret. I’ll post my activities on the diagram in a future blog post.

3.  You will always have to write. It may be a typed email. It may be a book-length dissertation. It may be a scholarly article for peer review. And I’ll say it: Text messaging is only becoming more complex. Writing is a part of every-day life whether we consciously recognize it. Again, I reiterate that sentence diagramming will probably be completely forgotten when students leave my classroom. However, I know they will always have something to write. I hope they will always have something to read, too. With the diagram, I wish for them to retain at least the basic. I wish I knew that it was something that it is always retained as far as practice and fundamentals. I do not because I use the diagram almost every day for the purpose of instruction and occasionally for personal use. I just want something for students to have so they may visualize their writing. This final reason is not as detailed as the last two. But, it really is as simple as you will always have something to write.

The sentence diagram is not for every English teacher or every English classroom. I am a proponent for the process. I have worked with teachers who do not like it. I have worked with teachers who do not even know what it is. As long as I can remember how to teach it, I am going to teach it. As long as my students have the rudimentary image while they are in my room, I am satisfied.

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