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Why We Still Diagram Sentences: A Teacher’s View on an “Outdated” Skill


diagramming sentences

As a language arts teacher, my primary goals for my students are that they become avid, engaged readers and thoughtful, competent writers. So why am I teaching my 6th graders to diagram sentences—a skill many educators consider archaic and pointless? Let me explain.

#1 Diagramming continuously reinforces my students’ understanding of sentence structure.

The current trend in American education has moved away from grammar as a stand-alone subject. Teachers are encouraged to teach grammar and mechanics in the context of their students’ own writing. And for the most part, this makes sense. Asking students to locate the subordinate clauses in a set of 25 random, unconnected sentences isn’t likely to improve their writing – or to inspire their love of language. On the other hand, teaching kids they need a comma after a subordinate clause, for example, can be pretty tricky if they don’t know what a subordinate clause is. And they can’t know what a subordinate clause is if they don’t know how to find a subject and a verb.

However, by by diagramming just two or three sentences a day and in the space of about ten minutes, students can reinforce their understanding of multiple sentence elements. This alone won’t make them better writers, but it will give them the tools they need to understand punctuation and to use different types of sentences. So, when I ask them to do things like add vivid adjectives or use more complex sentences in their writing, they are already familiar with these concepts.

#2 Diagramming teaches attention to detail.

Content aside, many students today struggle to follow the most basic rules of grammar, mechanics, and punctuation. Their spelling is atrocious. They seem to think punctuation is optional. And somehow they haVe goTten it into Their HeadS that capitalization is Random. When I question them about their poor writing habits, some claim that they don’t worry about “all that stuff” because they can just use software like Grammarly if it’s really important. Other students don’t seem to know what “all that stuff” is.

Diagramming forces students to slow down, examine the function of each word in a sentence, and pay attention to details. Some educators argue that this sort of focus on the rules inhibits writing and paralyzes students with a fear of “getting it wrong.” In reality, a solid understanding of sentence structure (formed from a few minutes each day of learning to diagram sentences) and the well-formed habit of attention to detail will likely free students to focus on content and make them better editors of their own work.

#3 Diagramming encourages analytical thinking.

Before we diagram sentences, my students tend to think that the first noun in a sentence is the subject and that the verb always comes right after that. Diagramming requires students to work through sentences, analyzing the function of each word, phrase, or clause. It challenges them to look at the ways a word like running can function as a verb—I am running; a noun—Running is fun; or an adjective—I wore my running shoes. In short, diagramming is critical thinking. And critical thinkers make better readers and writers.

#4 Diagramming offers struggling learners an opportunity for success.

Diagramming can be challenging. It can be frustrating. Fortunately, there is real value in asking kids to buckle down and do hard work. But for some kids, even kids who might otherwise struggle in language arts, diagramming just clicks. Maybe it’s the analysis of sentences word by word. Maybe it’s the visual breakdown of sentences. But whenever it happens, whenever I have an otherwise struggling student take to diagramming, it is exciting. They suddenly feel empowered by language in a way they never have before, and this can help them be less afraid to tackle other language arts concepts.

#5 We have fun when we diagram sentences – really!

Again, the beauty of diagramming is that, unlike other grammar drills and exercises, a lot can be learned or reinforced in only a few minutes a day. And it’s easy for me to write a couple of silly or creative sentences (usually featuring my students–because 6th graders love that) for them to diagram each day. The kids get a kick out of taking apart sentences like:

  • Sadly, Mia squashed Clare yesterday.
  • Matteo’s fat hippo sang a sad song.
  • Gingerly, Cora tiptoed through the dank cave past the slumbering trolls.

Diagramming isn’t a language arts silver bullet. As a language tool, its potential to improve students’ reading and writing skills is limited. But because diagramming requires discipline and critical thinking, it can help build stronger students. Because diagramming can be fun and allows students to work with interesting sentences, it can be inspiring. And strong, inspired students tend to make great readers and writers.

Join us in the Empowered Teachers community to hear more views from fellow educators.

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Laura Hudgens

Senior Member

Laura has taught ELA and communication in grades 6-12. She also enjoys writing and taking care of her little flock of chickens. Her little flock of children have all grown or are mostly grown, but she still enjoys taking care of them too.

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