Deirdre Moore | January 2017
Picturing Grammar with Sentence Diagrams
Sentence Diagrams – some of you may have learned to diagram and others of you may not have learned. It came up recently with some friends with whom I had attended middle school. I had not used that skill since then. In fact, when I went to college to become a teacher the “Whole Language” approach was all the rage which is about as far from diagramming as you can get! But being reminded of diagramming sentences made me think about the implications for arts integration – the idea of a pictorial representation of the grammatical structure of a sentence.
I went online and started doing a little research. It was really interesting to read people’s reactions to an article about sentence diagrams. (Not only does the article in the “Huffington Post” provide those reactions but it also gives a nice review or introduction to sentence diagrams). Some readers loved it and credited being able to diagram a sentence with success in writing or in learning a foreign language while others hated it and found it not only confusing but useless. And that is the challenge for educators. A teacher needs to try to find as many ways as possible to teach a concept in order to reach every learner without alienating other learners in the process. The arts are so powerful as they are uniquely suited to do just that.
But what does diagramming a sentence have to do with art? When artists create they are trying to communicate. Maybe they are using the art to understand something themselves. Maybe they are trying to communicate an understanding to others or just make people think or feel something. No matter how you slice it, art is a form of communication. Since sentence diagrams are pictorial representations to communicate how the different parts of a sentence relate to one another, the diagrams can be analyzed just like any piece of art can. If students have been taught how to think about an image, they can apply that same thought process to a sentence diagram.
Students could be shown several examples of these diagrams starting with simple subject/verb sentences and then increasing in complexity. With or without some careful questions and guidance, students may start to see a pattern in how these diagrams are organized and how the different parts relate. It may not be that important that students be able to create the diagram themselves (which can be very tedious to learn) but their understanding of a diagram, shows a teacher what the students understand about parts of speech and their respective roles in a sentence.
Some students may really take to diagramming and it might be a useful tool for them while others might need a different approach. But just about anyone can appreciate how much more interesting a complex sentence looks once it is diagrammed. So, if students are talking about a piece of art or are writing, a teacher can refer back to the sentence diagrams and show how that sentence would look diagrammed. If the sentence is lacking in detail or fails to give support for its reasoning a teacher can point out to the student more branches are needed on that sentence tree. It could be used to help students elaborate and better support their thinking.
If the diagrams can be examined with the eye of an artist they may provide another way for students to think about not only the grammatical structure of the sentence but also the quality and specificity of their expression.