Phi Beta Cons

Re: Diagramming

As a middle- and high-school student in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I was subjected to an overwhelming bombardment of sentence diagramming. Though I am very much spatially oriented, I found it tedious and of little value, and accordingly did just enough to pass, learning little. Most of my peers suffered through it, some couldn’t get it to save their lives, and a few found it the most enjoyable thing they ever did in school. 

Now, as a teacher of high-school English, I’m forced to confront these issues with more attention to detail. By the time a student reaches high school, we have to assume that the basics of grammar have been taught and grasped (not always the case). We have little time in the classroom, and that time is constantly interrupted by pep rallies, assemblies, and a wide variety of activities, so we zealously guard every moment and carefully choose what we’ll teach. Unfortunately, even for the elementary grades, teaching is becoming more and more an eternal exercise in mandatory, high-stakes test preparation.  With less and less time for actual learning — as opposed to test drill — to take place, I’m afraid we must avoid diagramming for more productive pursuits.

Much evidence exists to indicate that diagramming, and great skill therein, does not lead to excellence in writing. If one wishes to study diagramming as part of a specific discipline, that’s fine and worthwhile, but one should not expect the study of diagramming to lead to excellence in the kinds of specific skills we hope to develop and nurture in our students, skills such as writing well. My teaching experience bears this out. There is much to recommend about what some might consider an outmoded curriculum, such pursuits as reading, correct grammar, spelling and punctuation, and vocabulary development, but diagramming, for the general populace, is best left as a quaint artifact of the past for reasons of time and skill development.

Mike McDaniel

Joshua, Texas

NRO Staff — Members of the National Review Online editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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