Diagramming sentences does not seem like a fun thing to do. It arouses memories of sitting in my English Language Art course in elementary school learning grammar point after grammar point. BORING!
I recently came across this concept once again when I was studying the Praxis Core Writing exam. It was one of the first videos I watched in a series created by Magoosh’s Praxis preparation program. Seeing how useful it was for me in my studies, I wondered if I should be using more in my own classroom with ESL students. Upon searching online, I found an article, “The Wrong Way To Teach Grammar,” by Michelle Navarre Cleary where she reveals why sentence diagramming does not help students improve their writing skills. On one hand, I was a bit shocked because I thought it would be useful. On the other hand, I loved it because I agree that some traditional teaching methods are simply outdated.
In the article, Michelle Navarre Cleary argues against sentence diagramming as one of those outdated teaching strategies. I think it is worth noting that I am not sure if she is referring to native speakers or non-native speakers, or maybe both for that matter. Based on her introductory paragraph, I do know she is talking about making students “better writers.”
In that sense, I would definitely agree with her that diagramming sentences is not enough. However, I disagree with Cleary in part, regardless of the studies she mentions, because I was not always the writer I am today. If you asked me to write a blog or an article in 2002, I would have been lost. I would not have known how to properly using dependent versus independent clauses. Granted, it was by writing continuously that I improved in my writing.
While I became a better writer by writing, my professor consistently referenced Diana Hacker’s The Bedford Handbook which, in my opinion, should be renamed “The Bedford Bible.” I would say it was the combination of constant writing and referencing a grammar book with the help of my professor that made me the writer I am today. We peer-edited student’s writing by considering various grammar points which strengthened both our grammar and writing skills. Based on my experience, I feel it would help any native speaker.
While writing makes one better at writing, does writing make one better at grammar and vice versa? Cleary goes on to say “grammar [is] something that is best learned through writing.” Though it is useful to teach grammar to native speakers this way, I somewhat question whether this should be the only way to teach grammar to non-native speakers. Non-native speakers are acquiring the language and need to develop their speaking skills just as much as their writing skills. Even for the advanced non-native English speaker, they need grammar to be constantly recycled because even though they may be able to produce grammar correctly in their speaking, they may not be able to do so in their writing.
While diagramming sentences may be an outdated teaching strategy, I feel ESL students could benefit from diagramming sentences more often in writing classes so they can develop grammar recognition. In other words, they can better understand the context in which something is said and learning when to use various structures as a native speaker would. I find students struggle with complex sentences that include reflexive and relative clauses, and appositives. Grammar is important for ESL students.
Diagramming sentences is a valuable tool in language feedback sessions and peer-editing exercises. I usually hand out samples of other students’ writings so the students can develop competency in grammar as well as writing. As such, students need to engage in sentence diagramming to determine the error in the sentence. Usually, when I check their work, students will have have a grammar point to reference. In order to correct their errors, they need to reference that grammar point and work on it themselves to foster deeper learning.
On the plus side, ESL students will also develop confidence in their writing by improving their ability to recognize various parts of a sentence. I have found one of the major obstacles to student writing is the affective filter consisting of various insecurities, in this case- a fear of grammar. In conclusion, I am all for sentence diagramming but only if it is not the only tool being used to improve both grammar and writing.
Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook. Bedford/St. Martin’s; 7th edition (November 18, 2005)
Michelle Navarre Cleary. 2014. “The Wrong Way To Teach Grammar.” The Atlantic. Feb. 25, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/the-wrong-way-to-teach-grammar/284014/