Wordplay is a blog project featuring posts from students enrolled in ENG 320 Grammar and Linguistics (Fall 2019)

To Sentence Diagram or not to Sentence Diagram?

Shawna Turner

The sentence on my English test reads, “It was a nice, sunny, happy day in the middle school when suddenly a storm cloud blocked the sun.” The test asks me to diagram the sentence. “Okay, what is the direct object? What modifies the subject and goes under the line?” I thought this to myself, tapping my pencil, hands sweaty, as I struggled to complete my sentence diagramming test. The cloud blocking my nice, sunny, happy day was having to do sentence diagramming. What is the point of it, and why is it being taught in school?

Photo credit npr.org (from the opening of the opening of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis)

Yes, sentence diagramming was taught in my school. Yes, I struggled with this concept and seeing its relevance and purpose. Some schools stray away from teaching the sentence diagramming method, while others gladly welcome it into the curriculum. Many of my Grammar and Linguistics classmates had no background knowledge of sentence diagramming, while others had rigorous training. It just depends on the school. Whether or not diagramming should be taught in schools has been a topic of controversy for quite some time.

According to Juana Summers of nprED (2014), the practice of diagramming sentences dates all the way back to 1877, created in hopes that students would learn how to better see sentence structure if they could see it as a graphic structure. The Golden Age of sentence diagramming boomed after this. However, this boom began to fade, and by the 1960’s heavy criticism of the practice arose.

 “Diagramming sentences … teaches nothing beyond the ability to diagram,” declared the 1960 Encyclopedia of Educational Research.

More critique came in 1985, when the National Council of Teachers of English stated that “repetitive grammar drills and exercises” — like diagramming sentences — are “a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing” (nprED, 2014).

Despite this criticism, diagramming sentences can still often be found in modern day American classrooms such as my middle school. Wow, middle school seems like ages ago. As I try to think back, I realize that I do not remember much from my middle school curriculum. However, one thing still haunts me: sentence diagramming. English was my best subject; I was a good writer and everyone in my class collectively coined me, “the grammar police.” Despite this, I remember greatly struggling to wrap my head around diagramming sentences. It never really ended up clicking for me. I developed a very negative mentality towards sentence diagramming. When I heard we would be learning about sentence diagramming again in my “Grammar and Linguistics” course in college, I felt my heart drop. “It’s back and probably worse than ever,” I thought to myself. I felt reassured when many of my classmates felt the same way.

However, after receiving instruction in class about sentence diagramming, it slowly began to click. The pieces began to come together like an odd puzzle. I saw the potential benefits it has in helping students with sentence structure. Afterall, there were some crazy kids in my middle school English class who loved sentence diagramming and it actually really helped them. Maybe it was not so bad after all. Yes, I said it. There are advantages to utilizing sentence diagramming.

I’ve bashed sentence diagramming enough, so I will now focus on its benefits. First, it helps students see what modifies what in a sentence along with the structure and organization of a sentence. When students are learning to write well, it helps them to understand what the sentence is doing and why and how they can improve it. Visual learners can greatly benefit from seeing how a sentence operates by breaking it down.

So the real question is, does sentence diagramming deserve a place in English classes today? The Common Core Standards do not mention it. Technically then, we as future educators don’t have to teach it. However, it can have its place in English curriculum. Whether or not to continue to use sentence diagramming will continue to be a method of preference; therefore, I can see where the controversy arises. Afterall, there are two types of people in this world: those who love sentence diagramming (there has to be some out there) and those who dislike it (me). So, to use sentence diagramming or not to sentence diagramming in the classroom? As a future educator, that decision is up to you, but keep in mind your ultimate goal: teaching your students in a way that works best for them.


References:

Summers, J. (2014, August 22). A Picture Of Language: The Fading Art Of Diagramming Sentences. Retrieved October 27, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/22/341898975/a-picture-of-language-the    fading-art-of-diagramming-sentences


Shawna Turner is a junior at Chadron State College originally from Hill City, South Dakota. She is studying elementary education and hopes to become a successful and fun upper grades elementary teacher in a smaller school district (preferably in a place with outdoor recreation). Go Eagles!

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