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Does Sentence Diagramming Make Sense?

FREE Sentence Diagramming and Parts of Speech Practice Lessons

Sentence Diagramming and Parts of Speech Practice

Simply put, any language’s grammar is the attempt to organize and systematize how its oral and written language works. A grammar provides a common language of instruction. It helps us understand how words function and how words are put together in a sentence to communicate effectively. It also provides rules for proper word choice, inflections, and usage.

Attempts to graphically represent a grammar are usually called diagramming. Most grammatical diagrams are designed to represent the sentence, since the sentence, by definition, is the

shortest representation of a complete thought. Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg first published the graphic depictions that we call sentence diagrams in their book, Higher Lessons in English, in 1877. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentence_diagram Linguists have always used sentence diagramming, albeit with different versions. For example, Noam Chomsky developed his own X-bar diagramming system in 1970. However, the Reed-Kellogg system has remained the most popular method because of its simplicity.

Why Teach Sentence Diagramming?

Proponents argue that sentence diagramming is a useful visual tool that allows teachers and students to identify the different parts of sentences, understand how these parts function, and see how these parts relate to other parts of the sentence. Most students find that the visual image helps them better understand and remember the parts of a sentence, grammatical terms, and the rules of grammar. Sentence diagrams make the abstract components of English grammar concrete for English speakers and writers. With a bit of practice, writers can use diagramming to diagnose their own grammatical errors and fix them.

Why Not Teach Sentence Diagramming?

Opponents argue that constructing sentence diagrams is not authentic writing; it is analysis. Understanding the parts of sentences and how they relate to one another does not necessarily mean that a student can apply this understanding to construct meaningful sentences. Correct sentences are not the same as coherent sentences. Furthermore, sentence diagramming does not go beyond the sentence level and so does not deal with connected thought, that is the paragraph level, or by extension, a unified essay. Lastly, any instructional practice is reductive—it takes away instructional time. Students learning to write benefit more from authentic writing practice, than from sentence diagramming analysis.

Does Sentence Diagramming Make Sense?

Effective writing instruction melds both analysis and practice. Students need the deductive apply-the-components/rules-of-grammar approach and the inductive practice-the-meaningful-communication of ideas-with-feedback approach to become effective writers. Some sentence diagramming does make sense: not too much to take over a writing program, but just enough to do its job. I advocate more recognition practice and less application practice. In other words, providing a sentence diagram with one or two missing words, say the direct and indirect objects, and having students identify and place those two missing parts of the sentence, achieves the instructional objective just as well as taking the time needed for students to construct the whole sentence. If you’re studying a leaf, you don’t have to draw the whole tree.

Find out How to Teach Sentence Diagramming in three 10-minute lessons. Sentence diagramming can be an effective instructional ingredient in a comprehensive standards-based grammar curriculum.


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