Having been a serious competitive and recreational cyclist (not “biker”) for all but a handful of years over three decades, I cringe and must bite my tongue every time people refer to their bicycle “seat” (it is a “saddle”). During those years committed to cycling, I have also become well acquainted with the history of the professional sport and a fairly accomplished bicycle mechanic.
I can take apart and assemble a high-end road bicycle, and I know the proper names for all the parts.
All of that knowledge and skill, however, have not made me a better cyclist. And since I have spent those same approximate years also pursuing careers as a writer and teacher (mainly of English, specifically writing), I remain baffled at both recurring arguments found in Juana Summer’s NPR piece and the public responses to it:
When you think about a sentence, you usually think about words — not lines. But sentence diagramming brings geometry into grammar.
If you weren’t taught to diagram a sentence, this might sound a little zany. But the practice has a long — and controversial — history in U.S. schools.
And while it was once commonplace, many people today don’t even know what it is….
But does it deserve a place in English class today? (The Common Core doesn’t mention it.)
I found this article through Facebook, where the original posting was praising sentence diagramming and many who commented followed suit. Oddly—although not surprising—when I weighed in with a century of research refuting the effectiveness of sentence diagramming for teaching writing, my comments were brushed off as a “viewpoint” and one person even boldly stated that no one could convince her that sentence diagramming wasn’t effective.
During a teaching career—mostly in English—that spanned over six decades and included a term as president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Lou LaBrant  confronted the grammar debate, including sentence diagramming, in 1952:
Let us admit that in thousands of schoolrooms our teaching of punctuation has concerned sentences no child ever made, errors which adults and publishing houses provided, books which we have spent hours trying to “motivate,” and corrections of so-called “errors” which are approved forms everywhere except in our classrooms. We have wasted hours on diagramming dull sentences when what a sentence calls for is not to be drawn but to be understood. Who understands “Thou shalt not steal” the better for having written not on a slanting line under shalt steal? Our first step is clearing away busy work, meaningless matters, and getting at the problems of speaking about something worth saying and writing with sincerity and zest. Reading is not to be “something I had”; it should be “something I do.”
Six years previous, LaBrant identified the research base examining isolated direct grammar instruction and teaching writing:
We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing.
In 1953, although there is a danger in her simple phrasing, LaBrant offered an eloquent argument about the job of teaching writing:
It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need. Again and again teachers or schools are accused of failing to teach students to write decent English, and again and again investigations show that students have been taught about punctuation, the function of a paragraph, parts of speech, selection of “vivid” words, spelling – that students have done everything but the writing of many complete papers. Again and again college freshmen report that never in either high school or grammar school have they been asked to select a topic for writing, and write their own ideas about that subject. Some have been given topics for writing; others have been asked to summarize what someone else has said; numbers have been given work on revising sentences, filling in blanks, punctuating sentences, and analyzing what others have written….Knowing facts about language does not necessarily result in ability to use it.
And thus, we come to LaBrant’s most powerful metaphor for teaching writing:
Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house….The end has all along been writing, but somewhere along the way we have thought to substitute mechanical plans and parts for the total. We have ceased to build the house and have contented ourselves with blueprints. Whatever the cost in time (and that is great), and whatever the effort, our students must be taught to write, to rewrite, to have the full experience of translating ideas into the written word. This is a deep and full experience, one to which each in his own way has a right.
At mid-twentieth century, then, LaBrant expressed evidence-based positions on teaching writing (and the ineffectiveness of isolated direct grammar instruction and sentence diagramming) that have been replicated by numerous teachers and scholars for decades—notably the work of Connie Weaver and George Hillocks. Hillocks, for example, has shown that isolated direct grammar instruction has negative consequences on students as writers:
NCTE has catalogued the same debates, misunderstandings, and research base: Guideline on Some Questions and Answers about Grammar and Resolution on Grammar Exercises to Teach Speaking and Writing. And despite a cumulative and clear recognition of the effective and ineffective approaches to teaching children to write (see Writing Next), we find articles such as the NPR piece above and the responses I witnessed on Facebook.
And while I don’t suffer the delusion that I can stem the grammar/sentence diagramming debates, I want to offer here some framing clarifications that I think may help both teachers and the public better understand the issues:
- Isolated direct grammar instruction (including sentence diagramming) is ineffective in general for fostering students as writers. If our goal, however, is to teach grammar, then isolated grammar instruction would be justifiable.
- And thus, isolated direct grammar instruction fails writing instruction because (i) it too often replaces time better spent reading and writing by students, (ii) it requires a great deal of instruction related to terminology and systems that (a) does not transfer to composition and (b) again consumes huge amounts of classroom time, and (iii) formal and isolated grammar instruction remains decontextualized for students since grammar (like algebra) requires abstract reasoning by children and teens who may have not yet reached the level of brain development necessary to navigate or understand the system at the explicit level.
- However, the two key points here include the following: we are discussing writing instruction as the primary goal and we are confronting isolated direct grammar instruction. So let me be very clear: No one in literacy suggests not teaching grammar; the question is not if, but how and when. Thus, once students are required and allowed to have rich and extended experiences reading and writing by choice, direct instruction is very effective after those experiences and when anchored in those students’ own demonstrations of language acquisition, misunderstanding, or gaps.
- Connected to the context and when of direct grammar instruction is the importance of balanced literacy, which calls for literacy teachers to incorporate any practice (including sentence diagramming, including grammar exercises) that helps individual students (which may rub against generalizations found in the research base):
- And finally, many people have a distorted nostalgia about why they have learned so-called standard English. While people are quick to ascribe harsh and traditional grammar instruction as effective in their own learning, that doesn’t make it so. In fact, many people grew as readers and writers in spite of traditional practices—or what is often the case, they can’t recognize their existing facility for language (often brought from home), which made them good at direct grammar exercises and sentence diagramming, as the actual cause of that success.
So I return to LaBrant, and her plea that teaching young people to write is about goals and weighing what truly matters:
There are many ways of writing English, and the teacher of composition must know, before he thinks of means for teaching, what kind of writing he thinks important to teach. He may be content if the writing is composed of sentences with correct structure, with periods neatly placed, verbs correctly ended, pronouns in the right case, and all attractively placed on the page. I have heard teachers say that if their pupils do all this, and spell with reasonable correctness, they (the teachers) are content. I am willing to admit that a conventional paper, such as is just described, tempts one to be satisfied; but I am not willing to admit that it represents a worth-while aim. As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing….I would place as the first aim of teaching students to write the development of full responsibility for what they say.
If we seek to teach young people to write, and thus to think, in complex and original ways, we remain confronted by the need to see that writing is learned by writing—just as I have honed my skills as a cyclist by riding a bicycle about 5000 to 10,000 miles annually for most of the last thirty years.
Naming correctly the parts of the bicycle, taking apart and putting together a bicycle—these have not made me a better cyclist. For students as writers, blueprints, still, are not houses, diagramming is not composing.
Simply stated, then: The effective writing classroom must never be absent the direct teaching of grammar (again, not if, but when and how), but the grammar-based classroom has often been and continues to be absent writing by students—and therein is the failure.
Teaching the Unteachable, Kurt Vonnegut