Maybe I was just an odd kid, but one of my favorite childhood pastimes was diagramming sentences. I hadn't thought about diagramming in years, until I read recently about a teacher in Gaithersburg, Md., who has re-introduced the lost art into her Advanced Placement English classes in the high school where she teaches.
I learned how to diagram sentences in elementary school -- or what we used to call, appropriately, grammar school. By the time I was in high school, I drew diagrams only when I was stuck figuring out where to place a modifier or whether to use an adverb or adjective. Today, I suspect you'd get a blank stare if you asked even the brightest students the difference between an adverb and an adjective.
Robyn Jackson, the Gaithersburg teacher, didn't learn about diagramming when she was in school. Progressive teachers and their professional associations, especially the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), believe that diagramming sentences is make-work that bores students and turns them off to writing. So they banished diagramming from the classroom years ago, along with most grammar instruction.
Just 30 years old, Jackson is, as education reporter Jay Matthews writes in the Washington Post, "as daring as the scientists who revived dinosaurs in 'Jurassic Park.'" Jackson came across the arcane technique of diagramming when she was searching for a way to teach her advanced students about the functions of the various parts of speech. She found an old grammar book filled with odd drawings of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, with words laid out like pieces of a puzzle. The more she studied the diagrams, the more she thought it would be a fascinating way to help her students improve their writing. "Many of my students are very bright and have learned how to counterfeit writing proficiency," Jackson told Matthews.
Even if the smartest students can fake their way through most writing assignments, most students can't. Most high school students cannot write a coherent, intelligible essay on any topic. According to a recent study of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, barely one fourth of students write at or above the proficient level, and a shocking 1 percent write at an advanced level.
For years now, schools have been teaching students to "express" themselves, without worrying about transmitting the finer points of grammar and syntax. The latest fads in education theory discouraged teachers from placing too much emphasis on correcting students' work, encouraging them to praise creativity instead. But effective communication always entails understanding the rules. There are no short-cuts to good writing.
So why does the NCTE insist "the teaching of grammar does not serve any practical purpose for most students"? According to these edu-crats, teaching grammar "does not improve reading, speaking, writing or even editing" for most students. That's a little like saying that structural engineers don't need to understand the properties of certain metals if they want to build better or stronger buildings. Or, telling aerospace engineers they don't need to learn the laws of physics.
I suspect the dismal showing of American students on writing proficiency tests has much to do with the attitudes of educators who don't think it's worth their time to try to teach the rules of grammar. Teaching the parts of speech, the difference between a verbal and a verb, and why the active voice is preferable to the passive in most writing demands hard work on the part of teachers. It's a lot easier to encourage students to scribble their thoughts on a piece of paper, without attention to form. But when we eliminate the basics, we shouldn't wonder why students can't express themselves well.
I bet Robyn Jackson's students will be better writers for her efforts. Who knows, they may even look back fondly on those days spent, rulers in hand, diagramming sentences. As my writing teacher, Sister Marie Florence, used to say, "If you can't diagram it, don't write it."