You may have seen links to this NPR piece drifting around Facebook lately, or perhaps a friend or colleague has pointed it out to you. The lead image is from a PopChart poster that I have in my office where the opening lines to a handful of classic novels are diagrammed in classic Reed-Kellogg fashion.
The NPR piece waxes a bit nostalgic about sentence diagramming and seems to extoll the virtues of this method of visualizing a sentence’s structure. If you scroll down to the comments, you’ll see a number of commenters claiming that their writing today is vastly improved because of the efforts of their teachers to have them diagram sentences (no matter how much they disliked it). But, you might say, how do we reconcile this with my own admonitions against teaching diagramming in the classroom?
Setting aside the fact that deciding to teach the Reed-Kellogg system of diagramming requires that we introduce a whole system (with its inherent terms and rules) to our students, I think the larger issue is one of whether or not there is value in explicit grammar instruction of this nature that is removed from students’ immediate writing experience. We spend the entire semester in 329 discussing this, and you know where I stand on the issue–with the research that suggests there’s little impact on student writing of this explicit grammar instruction.
A similar response comes from P. L. Thomas of Furman University, who composed a long blog post summarizing some of the research that’s been done in response to those who claim that such instruction has a significant impact on students’ writing. I’ll let you peruse his response (and you should, as there’s a lot in his post that reinforces and fleshes out some of the things I’ve alluded to in class). But one thing that stands out to me is this clarifying statement he makes:
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.
I’ve said this before in class, but if it hasn’t been clear enough, there’s another voice for you. I worked with many teachers (and felt this way myself, too) who, hearing that grammar instruction doesn’t help writing, smile and say, in a relieved tone, “Well, I guess now we don’t have to teach grammar!” In the face of the research, we can’t just give up on teaching grammar; such a move would be irresponsible of us. Instead, we need to find smart ways to teach it–the how and the when that Thomas describes above.