Teaching Grammar: To Diagram or Not to Diagram?


When I teach essay writing for high school or college exams, I encourage students to beware of using absolutes such as “always” or “never,” because these are rarely true — there are exceptions to almost everything, and those absolutes are an almost guaranteed trigger for a professor’s red pen. I was reminded of that caution when I came across an article in the Atlantic Monthly, titled “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar.” The author unequivocally declares that the old fashioned way of teaching grammar doesn’t work.

How to teach grammar: is it relevant to diagram?

Does the traditional way of teaching grammar work?

Many homeschoolers and classical school students could challenge the statement that traditional grammar lessons “don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers,” but I don’t think that grammar lessons are the real issue. The author cites studies that support her contention that teaching grammar before writing is an ineffective strategy, and for the most part, I agree. Her example of classes in which students “can spend up to a year before being asked to write more than a paragraph,” seems atypical, though. Most school systems have been de-emphasizing grammar or using a writing-first approach for decades.

Grammar needs context

That said, I think the elephant in the room is the fact that over the past century, time spent reading and writing has dropped dramatically. In fact, a study reported by the National Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that people of all ages spend about three to five times as much time watching television as they do reading books. This deprives them of necessary context for effectively learning grammar.

It is incredibly hard to teach details or parts to someone who rarely experiences the context of the whole. Many modern kids don’t read any more than the bare minimum, if that, and often don’t hear well-spoken English in their daily lives. Because of this, they have not absorbed fluent language patterns as a reader does, and without those patterns to provide a context, grammar terms become simply a list of words to memorize for a test, rather than living parts of speech that can help them write more clearly.

Writing; then Latin

I grew up when diagramming wasn’t being taught, but as a voracious reader, I was always able to write decently, score well on tests, and win essay contests. However, I always wanted to take Latin, and when I finally got to college to do it, I learned wonderful things about grammar — both Latin and English grammar — that helped to improve my skills.

When I started homeschooling our boys, I knew I wanted them to have a better handle on the vocabulary of grammar than I did, so we went through Grammar Made Easy, a once-through-and-done program with diagramming. It was useful, but I am convinced that it worked because it was just one brief part of our language arts instruction, rather than a year after year focus.

Our language arts foundation was reading and writing, mostly using Charlotte Mason‘s methods. Without saturation in well-crafted language, the grammar instruction would have been out of context and nearly pointless. However, once a solid language foundation is in place, grammar can be taught with a simple grammar course, followed by Latin or another foreign language in which the student will gain a more solid grasp on the structure of language.

Should students learn to diagram sentences?

I think it’s a good idea, but it should not be the focus of writing instruction. Writing is a creative process that involves much more than grammar, and students should be spending far more time reading and writing than dissecting the language or filling out worksheets. Just as it is easier to learn music theory if you have heard music and can practice on an instrument, it is easier to absorb grammar if you do so while applying what you learn in real-life writing assignments.

Model of sentence diagram.

For students who do an extensive amount of reading, my preferred program is simple (students who do not read extensively or who are approaching English as a second language may need additional instruction):

  • One year of grammar sometime around late elementary or early middle school
  • Instruction in how to look up questions about grammar and mechanics in a writer’s handbook
  • Continued grammatical studies through foreign language (Latin is my top choice for its marvelously orderly and expressive structure)
  • Optional: one more run-through of Grammar Made Easy or other grammar program before taking the SAT

The bottom line? I believe that traditional grammar instruction does have a place, and it can be effective when it is part of an overall language arts program that is focused on extensive reading and writing. By teaching grammar in a writing-first, word-saturated context, a foundation is laid for genuine understanding and a lifetime of competent communication.


 Top image: Creative Commons 2.0

Horace Mann School, Miss Fuller & class (a day after the school’s twenty-third birthday),  1893, by Folsom, Augustine H. (photographer)

Title and date from item, from additional material accompanying item, or from information provided by the Boston Public Library.; Additional information on item: Boston School System

Results from a U. S. government study: chart reporting breakdown of time spent on leisure activities in 2013.

Infographic summarizing “Children, Teens, and Reading,” a report by Common Sense Media.

Children, Teens, and Media info graphic from Common Sense Media



2 Responses

  1. Jerilyn says:

    I enjoyed this article. As an author and a retired English teacher, I agree that a smattering of grammar is helpful for every student. As for me, I am a “diagramming addict” who thinks it is sheer fun to diagram sentences from St. Paul’s epistles. If people learned to do simple diagramming, they would not make mistakes such as “Would you like to go shopping with Rachel and I?” and “Who are you going to give that sundae to?” Both those sentences grate on my grammatically sensitive ears.

    • I can relate to the grammatically sensitive ears. Certain things just hurt! I didn’t grow up diagramming, but realized what a useful tool it could be when I was teaching the boys. Latin was my grammar teacher—I loved the order and beauty. Thank you for stopping by!

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