Sentence Diagramming (No, really…Give it a chance!)
I know, I know…How is sentence diagramming useful in a world where students rely on grammar checkers and write text messages that defy any commonly held standards for English sentence construction? Sentence diagramming seems rather old school and unnecessary, doesn’t it?
To my way of thinking, however, “everything old is new again” applies in the case of sentence diagramming. We talk frequently about our students being more visual and tactile in their learning than we might have been at their age and attribute their learning styles to their interactions with the Internet and video games. Interestingly, this seemingly old-fashioned activity of sentence diagramming is just the tool to address the needs of these learners. It offers a highly visual way for students to learn how elements of a sentence work together rhetorically, grammatically, and mechanically; and creating a diagram engages students in a hands-on activity.
I learned to diagram sentences in the seventh grade and continue to diagram with the same obsession that other people have for Sodoku puzzles. My students? Not so much. Many of them have not had any training in grammar and mechanics since middle or high school, and sadly many of them view the conventions governing standard English as some big mystery best unraveled by guess work and the “because it looks right/sounds right” method. Sentence diagrams or other strategies that present sentence structure as ordered and systematic are great ways to help students produce grammatically and mechanically sound sentences that also incorporate standard punctuation. Plus, sentence diagramming is just plain fun. Trust me on that one.
Of course there are always grey areas regarding what constitutes “standard” English; and good grammar, mechanics, and punctuation should always support and reflect the rhetorical function of a text rather than adhere strictly to prescriptive standards, but for teaching basic English sentence structure, sentence diagrams have been a valuable tool. My students have had many “a ha” moments once they see sentences as patterns rather than as random groupings of words.
If you want to learn to diagram sentences, teach your students to diagram, or create a few diagrams to use as illustrations during your grammar and mechanics lessons, here are some resources.
Elizabeth O’Brien’s Grammar Revolution: This is my favorite resource. Free downloads, books, RSS feeds, Facebook feeds, Twitter feeds, free newsletter, sentences for diagramming delivered to your inbox…What can I say? This site has it all.
Capital Community College’s Guide to Grammar: CCC provides diagramming instructions and examples of diagrams for common sentence patterns. The PowerPoint on how to diagram is especially helpful.
Literal Minded: This blog post illustrates the differences between the Reed-Kellogg diagram and tree diagram methods for diagramming sentences. I prefer the Reed-Kellogg method. I know linguists prefer tree diagrams for their precision and more nuanced representation of sentence structures, but I’m not a linguist. I just want a visually accessible way for students to look at sentences, and (at least for me) the left-right reading orientation of the Reed-Kellogg diagram presents sentence structures more clearly than the top-down reading orientation of the tree diagram.
So there you go…If you’ve used sentence diagrams in your courses, tell us what you do. If not, please give it a try, and tell us about your experience.
On a related note…National Punctuation Day is September 24. It’s not too early to start thinking about your celebration! If you like, share your plans with us.