To Diagram or Not to Diagram?

I have been teaching English for 22 years. For the first 12 years of my career, I didn’t even think about teaching students how to diagram sentences. Then, fate intervened to change my perspective permanently: I was hired in a prestigious, high-achieving school district where I was required to teach diagramming. I got this information about a month before school started, and immediately my blood pressure and pulse rate increased, I began to sweat, my mouth went dry, and I started to tremble. I had not done any diagramming since high school, and I wasn’t even sure that I had known what I was doing back then!

Fortunately, I am a quick study once I find the right resources, and everything clicked for me. Also fortunate for me was the fact that I had taken an advanced grammar class in college that introduced me to case grammar and transformational grammar, which made it easier for me to master (again?) the traditional Reed-Kellogg system of diagramming. Particularly fortunate for me was the fact that I was only teaching eighth grade English, so I didn’t have to teach students how to analyze lengthy passages or construct complex trees! I found, to my surprise, that I loved it. I was a diagramming junkie. I loved diagramming so much that I created the “Diagram Slam,” a diagramming race game that turned into a department-wide contest.

My enjoyment of diagramming unfortunately blinded me to the benefits of learning to diagram sentences because it prevented me from analyzing the practice itself (ironically, a process of analysis), making it difficult for me to answer the question “Why are we learning this?” with anything other than, “Because it’s fun!” To many of my students, it is not, in fact, fun. Now, there are good reasons to teach diagramming, and there is also a reason why some students absolutely hate it. Both of these facts should be addressed before we decide to include diagramming as a regular part of a grammar curriculum. Although there are many articles citing many studies and feeding many debates on the topic, one of the best and most succinct reports related to the controversy can be found here:

Mark Pennington’s post advocates a balanced approach to writing instruction that includes both application and practice. Of course sentence diagramming alone will not produce a better writer, but neither will writing without some process of analysis that clarifies the relationships among sentence parts and provides a foundation for the practice of editing. This diagramming vs. writing debate reminds me of the whole language vs. phonics debate, which should never have been a debate in the first place. It’s like having a mind vs. body debate: can you really have one without the other? Diagramming is simply one way of analyzing sentence structure; to say it doesn’t help with writing is to say analysis of sentence structure is pointless.

My suspicion has always been that the opponents of teaching diagramming are primarily those who never mastered the system (or perhaps worse, lack a strong foundation in the parts of speech and their sentence jobs); it is quite possible, too, that these individuals are not the strong writers they think they are. How is one to know if one’s writing is in need of help without corrective feedback, after all? My own writing, in fact,  may be peppered with errors of which I am entirely unaware! I am willing to bet, however, that having a system for analysis, particularly one that is comprehensive and standardized (such as the Reed-Kellogg system) makes me a better editor.




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