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ELC Boston Reclaiming Sentence Diagramming June 17th, 2015

It’s been many years since Howard Gardner published his theory of multiple intelligences, and, at this point, the theory is accepted by many as gospel. Students, Gardner posits, don’t all learn in the same way. Some learn better if they read material, some if they hear it, some if they connect movement with it. No student is boxed into one particular intelligence, but everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. For students who struggle with verbal/linguistic intelligence, learning a new language can be excessively difficult.

One suggestion to work with these students—particularly if their strengths are visual and/or logical—is to use sentence diagramming. According to Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, “[d]iagramming sentences was introduced in an 1877 text called Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, [and] it swept through American public schools like the measles…by promoting the beautifully logical rules of syntax.”

Sentence diagramming breaks each component of a sentence–the subject, the predicate, the object, etc.–into a separate visual aspect. In its most basic form, a horizontal line is drawn across the page; the subject occupies the left side of the line, and the predicate occupies the right. The two pieces of the sentence are separated by a short vertical line that crosses the horizontal line perpendicularly. As a sentence grows more complex, so do the diagrams; examples of diagrams for opening sentences of various famous novels look positively terrifying (http://popchartlab.com/products/a-diagrammatical-dissertation-on-opening-lines-of-notable-novels). But this shouldn’t deter teachers from considering the use of this out-of-favor technique. Diagramming questions, for instance, is a great opportunity to explain to students how the placement of a subject changes in this form while its purpose stays the same. Diagramming compound subjects or compound predicates presents an easy visual to draw attention to the concept of parallel structure.

Furthermore, sentence diagramming takes those endless rules of grammar that can be so hard to remember and presents them in a logical, visual format that can be broken down and manipulated by the students themselves. It is difficult to think of grammar as a subject that can be considered “hands-on,” but that’s exactly what happens in this case. When students can actually tangibly work with the material, it increases their rate of retention. And for teachers, too, it is a unique way to interact with the material and truly understand the function of each part of speech. Nowadays, sentence diagramming isn’t taught in most American schools, and people have a tendency to remember it either very fondly or with deep loathing. But there’s certainly an argument to be made about its viability and usefulness, particularly with second and third language learners, and maybe we shouldn’t give up on it quite yet.

Grammar Graphic