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Save the Diagrams: Why Students Need to Learn Sentence Diagramming

Posted by Dawn Burnette on

I’m a huge proponent of sentence diagramming, but occasionally I meet someone who—usually due to a bad middle school experience—is adamantly opposed to the practice. I offer you this defense.

A Little History Lesson

Sentence diagramming is perhaps one of the oldest graphic organizers we have in language arts. In 1847, a school principal named Stephen Watkins Clark developed a bubble-looking type of diagramming to help his students see connections among grammatical concepts. About 30 years later, Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, professors at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, tweaked the concept and made diagramming hugely popular as a way for students to see the structure of a sentence.

The Benefits of Diagramming

Like any other graphic organizer, diagrams can be tremendously helpful for visual and kinesthetic learners. Think of all of the words in a sentence as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. If you take all of the pieces out of the box and line them up on the table, you just see a bunch of disconnected pieces. But once you fit them together, you see the whole picture! Diagramming allows students to see the picture of the sentence.

Diagramming also requires critical thinking and reading comprehension. You have to analyze the sentence and understand what it really means to be able to figure out what modifies what and which words go together as phrases and clauses.

From an editing standpoint, diagramming helps us to figure out usage issues. Does that pronoun go in the indirect object spot? Then we must use the objective case. Do we need that preposition in the sentence? Only if you can find a place for it in the diagram. And diagramming helps us figure out parallel structure. If you aren’t sure if parts are parallel, diagram the sentence and you will see the structure.

What Happened to All the Diagrams?

Unfortunately, in the 1960s, diagramming started to become less fashionable. Then in the 1980s, a national education association announced that diagramming actually prevented students from improving as speakers and writers, so the practice all but disappeared from classrooms. But why?

I have a few theories based on my own schooling during the 1980s (though I probably shouldn’t have date stamped myself like that). First, some teachers required students to diagram for the sake of diagramming rather than using it as a tool for critical thinking and analysis of structure. Additionally, some of these teachers focused so much on drawing the lines at the correct angles that they missed the point of the exercise.

Second, educational theorists came up with new ideas and had to push out the old ones in order to sell their books. And third, many teachers simply didn’t like diagramming, and since English teachers tend to have a natural knack for writing, they often didn’t (and still don’t) understand why left-brained math and science students need the support that sentence diagramming offers.

Not by coincidence, students nationwide began to struggle with sentence structure (and analytical thinking if we are to be honest), and we are still seeing the effects of that struggle in our society.

What Do We Do Now?

Thankfully, teachers and parents are turning back to diagramming as a means to a greater end. And that’s why Daily Grammar Practice includes diagramming as the final step of the weekly sentence analysis from grades 4-12 (and in the Latin and French series as well).

Will diagramming automatically make students better writers without any other writing instruction? Of course not! But understanding how words fit together to create sentences helps make other writing instruction more meaningful.

Does sentence diagramming help every student? No one strategy is perfect for every learner, but plenty of brain research has proven the efficacy of graphic organizers. And my own experiences as a teacher have led me to believe that most students can use that help.

Also, I confess that I really love wearing this shirt. :)


  • When I read Justice Neil Gorsuch book, A Republic If You Can Keep It, I understood, for the first time, the importance of diagramming for interpretation of Constitutional text.

    BAR on

  • I learned English when I was a refugee (My family members had been murdered, my mom and I fled, so yes,really a refugee.) I was still struggling to speak any English due to shyness in 6th grade when my English teacher started diagramming sentences. I gained confidence that I would say words correctly, not strangely. It was one of the things that unmasked the hidden form of the English language for me. I now know English better than my native language. Another thing I did was spend weeks and months reading the beginning of the dictionary with the many examples of pronunciations and other useful things there. Every library was a chance to see another big reference dictionary with possibly more examples to think about and sound out quietly. I got maybe a year of actual ESL classes, but they weren’t very helpful. What helped was sentence diagramming, vocabulary exercises and spelling tests. In a year, I started to “hear” when things were wrong. I could correct myself. The value of diagramming is very high. Same with phonetic symbols and large dictionaries with as much “root words” and information about where words come from as possible. I can’t express enough how much I appreciated those teachers who stuck with diagramming in the 1980s. it should never be abandoned.

    And currently I’m annoyed that when I try to learn another language, grammar is totally ignored under some other delusion such as “you learn faster if you don’t have grammar.” That’s nonsense. You learn how to talk baby talk faster, that’s all. Just learn properly. Don’t be a test subject in an academic experiment.

    Angelica on

  • I loved diagramming sentences in grade school in the ’50s! I despair at the state of grammar today. Much of what I see and hear makes me cringe. At the same time, as I learned in graduate school studying linguistics, language is constantly changing, and after all, the reason we speak is to be understood and communicate. Does it really matter if we say “Who did you go with?” if we understand the meaning perfectly well?

    Marie Baumann on

  • Diagramming gives the structure in one image. That would be the fastest way to do it. It also gives the function of each word which is based on it’s relative postion to all the other words. This is called structure and fucntion which is used extensively in biological sciences. It also helps in drawing skills and spatial recognition.

    julius on

  • I’m learning how to diagramming sentence at 60 years old. It helps. Our students need to learn phonics & diagraming & spelling rules. Old School teaching is better. Good article.

    Stella on

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