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Sentence Diagrams & 
The One Question You Should Be Asking 

As you probably know, I LOVE sentence diagrams. But having students who can diagram is not my goal. My goal is to help people understand language. If you're a teacher, that's probably your goal too.

Diagrams can be an excellent tool for developing your students' understanding of language, but there is one question you should be asking in order to make sure that your students are gaining a knowledge of grammar and not just the ability to diagram.

Of course, the ability to diagram does indicate some level of understanding, but we want our students to have an understanding that they can put into words.
Sentence diagramming and the one question you should be asking

Make Them Explain

Some people are excellent at following patterns, and they can diagram sentences without knowing why they are doing what they are doing.

Do your students understand how sentences work? Do they understand the grammatical concepts that you're trying to teach them? Can they explain each word's function and the relationship among the words?

Or are they just following a pattern?

How can you find out? Ask them one simple question: Why?

(If you are studying grammar yourself, make sure to ask yourself this question as you diagram your sentences.)

Look at this diagram. The sentence is diagrammed perfectly, but can the student explain the grammar of the sentence?

The orange leaves slowly fell onto the ground.

Here's a sentence diagram.
Here is an example of what should be going on in the student's mind when he diagrams that sentence:

The orange leaves slowly fell onto the ground.

This is what you should be thinking as you diagram sentences.
Since we can't read minds, the next best way to check for comprehension is to ask some WHY questions.
  • WHY did you put the prepositional phrase under the verb?

  • WHY is orange diagrammed under leaves?

  • WHY is slowly diagrammed under the verb?
It would be impractical to ask students WHY questions about every sentence that you diagram. However, it's helpful to sprinkle these questions here and there.

Having students fill in charts for each diagram is another way to check for comprehension. Here's one for the above sentence. Students would have to complete the chart after diagramming the sentence.

The orange leaves slowly
fell onto the ground.
verb (intransitive complete)
onto the ground

Here's what the completed chart should look like.

The orange leaves slowly
fell onto the ground.
leaves subject (noun)
the adjective
orange adjective
fell verb (intransitive complete)
slowly adverb
onto the ground prepositional phrase (adverbial)
onto preposition
the adjective
ground object of the preposition (noun)

* You'll find charts like this in the Get Smart: Grammar Through Sentence Diagramming and Stay Smart: 188 Advanced Sentence Diagramming Exercises.

Ask your students why they put words where they did. If they can't give you a reason, they don't really understand the grammar behind the sentence. Once you know what areas they are struggling with, you can reteach troubling concepts and help your students become grammar stars.

The Beginner's Guide to Grammar
The Beginner's Guide to Grammar gives you a fun and visual way to get started with grammar and sentence diagramming. Yay! $29 FREE for you

Learn more about teaching grammar with sentence diagrams here.

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