I’m here to let you in on a little secret today. It might be a bit of a shocker. Here goes…you don’t have to teach sentence diagramming. There, I said it. Throw a hardback copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style at me if you must. I am not backing down from this one.
The funny thing is that, personally, I enjoy diagramming. Way back in middle school, all my classmates would groan when my teacher brought out the big pieces of butcher paper – not sentence diagramming again! Actually, everyone would groan except for me (I just pretended to groan). I was one of those weirdos who liked diagramming sentences. To me it was fun to take a sentence, the more convoluted the better, and divide it into its most basic parts according to function. It was a game to me to get all those words to fit neatly onto the appropriate lines, to figure out to which word each modifier belonged. Ah, blissful middle school memories – there certainly aren’t many of those!
Here’s the thing, though – I went on to get an English degree, and did diagramming come in handy? Not even once.
I wrote and revised and edited dozens of essays and research papers and even a handful of short stories in college. I made straight As. Diagramming never helped me do it. I never resolved a problem sentence in a composition by diagramming it. Looking back, I think I liked diagramming because I was good at it while most of my peers struggled. It made me feel like I had a special skill. Akin to the math-letes who memorize pi to dozens of digits past the standard 3.14, my personal enjoyment of diagramming was more about feeling smart than developing a skill that had much practical value.
I must admit, in my early years of teaching high school, I made my 10th grade students learn sentence diagramming. We started with very simple sentences with just subjects and verbs. Then we added modifiers, direct and indirect objects, predicate nominatives, verbal phrases like participles and gerunds, and eventually, dependent clauses. My chalkboard would be covered in sentence diagrams by the end of the class period. Some of my students, especially those who favored math and science over writing, really enjoyed doing an activity in English class that had a definite right or wrong answer. Most of my students HATED it. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I started a new job at a new school, that one of my colleagues asked me the question that I should have been asking myself:
“Does diagramming make students better writers?”
In 1960, the Encyclopedia of Educational Research boldly asserted that “Diagramming sentences…teaches nothing beyond the ability to diagram.” Years later, in 1985, the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) weighed in on the topic by stating that “repetitive grammar drills and exercises” like diagramming are a “deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.” Instead, declared NCTE, language arts teachers should help their students improve their speaking and writing by devoting class time to “opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing.” In other words, students get better at writing by doing more writing (and by reading and listening to other people’s writing and by speaking their ideas aloud as they try to make sense of them).
As it turns out, diagramming does NOT make students better writers. Writing makes students better writers.
Diagramming is good for demonstrating an understanding of grammatical relationships. For students who are highly visual, it might help the grammar lessons “click.” At best, it might help to diagnose a dangling participle. Generally speaking, though, it won’t help a student replace linking verbs with action verbs. It won’t help them liven up their usage of adjectives and specific details. Certainly it won’t help students with spelling and punctuation or even subject-verb agreement. It definitely won’t help them support a thesis with well-developed and engaging body paragraphs. Most importantly, it won’t help them to follow the writing process to produce a focused piece of writing with a clear beginning, middle and end.
I wish I could apologize to my former students on whom I inflicted lesson after lesson about diagramming. We could have used that valuable time for things that would have benefitted them more. But that’s how teaching is – you do the best you can with what you know. Now I know that diagramming is not very useful, especially for students who have a strong aversion to it.
So if your child enjoys it, by all means, teach them sentence diagramming. Have fun with it! But, if your child is like most students, you can skip the diagramming lessons. It will free up your time to read beautiful works of literature that will inspire your budding writers or to write silly sentences while they learn about participles or to write short stories that will unfetter their imaginations. It is in activities like these that children truly learn to embrace the art of language.