Rethinking Sentence Diagrams

Sentence diagrams are another tool in your grammar toolbox when teaching students to be great writers. Learn more about sentence diagramming in this blog post on the 2 Peas and a Dog website. #grammar #teaching #teachinggrammar #lessonplans

Sentence diagrams questions are something that I see regularly come up in my 18,000+ member Facebook Group #2ndaryELA.

Rebecca Gettelman is a middle and high school teacher from the Midwest. She has been teaching for over eleven years. In this blog post, she shares her passion for using sentence diagrams as an important tool in her English Language Arts classroom.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The first time I diagrammed a sentence was my junior year of college. I went through a very traditional grammar curriculum in elementary and middle school, rigorous college-prep English classes in high school, and had really great English teachers from day one all the way through college – but the first time I laid eyes on a sentence diagram was in a 300-level English class when I was twenty-one years old. Truth be told, my grammar skills are (and were) pretty good.  

So as someone who did just fine without the benefit of sentence diagramming, it would be reasonable to assume that I fall into the category of people who believe that sentence diagramming is a skill that is at best antiquated and at worst a complete and utter waste of time. This is not the case. It may come as a surprise that not only do I love sentence diagramming, I also firmly believe in the usefulness and importance of teaching this skill to our students.  

Let me tell you a few reasons why I believe sentence diagrams are important.

Reason Number One: Just One More Tool in Your Toolbox

Not all English teachers remember a time when writing was difficult, grammar didn’t just fall correctly on the page as you wrote, and reading wasn’t an enjoyable pastime. For many of our students, the English language is anything but instinctual. Enter sentence diagrams.

Far from being a useless waste of time, these collections of lines are just another way to explain how the English language fits together. They give teachers another method to explain how a given grammatical term or structure works besides the traditional define/apply method, and they show students a concrete, visual depiction of grammar.

For all teachers, but particularly for those with struggling students, access to a wide variety of tools and teaching techniques is an especially valuable part of their curriculum.

Reason Number Two: Demanding the Development of Depth

Diagramming sentences requires the diagrammer to develop much more than a cursory understanding of grammar. If you are familiar with Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, the basic grammar lessons that most students complete on a regular basis are at the lowest or maybe the second lowest level of the pyramid (remember, understand).  

In order to diagram sentences, you must move up to at least the third level (apply) and often to the very top of the pyramid (create). Don’t get me wrong, basic grammar lessons where terms are learned, examples given, and where students must identify grammar structures, insert the proper words, and correct mistakes are a useful and good start to understanding. These lessons are an important part of my own curriculum.  

However, the depth of understanding that develops when learning to correctly diagram sentences is something that does not often come with these basic lessons. The deeper one’s understanding, the more likely it is to stick. While few people will diagram a sentence at any point in their adult lives, the skills and understanding of the English language that those diagrams encouraged will stay with adults way beyond their school days.

Reason Number Three: Visual Methods for Visual Learners

Sometimes we use words as part of a title of a given thing so much that we forget that the individual words have individual meanings.  Think about ice cream for example.  For most of us, this compound noun means a delicious treat found in the freezer section of our local grocery store, but in reality ice cream is telling us exactly what this item is created from: cream that has been turned to ice (that is, frozen).  

Sentence diagramming is like this. The term sentence diagram has for many become strictly the title of one more section in our books – a ridiculous and antiquated activity with pages full of endless, arbitrary, spider webbing lines. But just like ice cream, sentence diagram can be less title and more description.  

Many students, especially (but not limited to) our visual learners, benefit from being able to see how grammar works instead of just being given written definitions and descriptions. They need something to look at, to visualize, to analyze, something like…a diagram!  Sentence diagrams are visual representations of the grammar of given sentences. Once students master the basic “code” of sentence diagramming (for example, what a slanted line in a particular spot means), they have an easy way to visually understand grammar.

To find more sentence diagramming support and resources you can check out Rebecca’s grammar resources on Teachers Pay Teachers.

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