We called her the Diagram Queen. She was a small woman, probably no taller than five feet, but her students looked upon her as a giant. Each day, she would greet us with a smile and utter these simple instructions: “Students, take out a sheet of paper. Before we start the main lesson, let’s diagram the sentence I’ve written on the chalkboard.”
The Diagram Queen was my seventh-grade English teacher, who was famous—some would say infamous—for drilling her students day after day on the parts of speech, making us construct increasingly elaborate sentence diagrams until our pencils were worn to a nub. It seemed a grueling and pointless exercise at the time, but I know now that I learned a lot about how sentences are put together.
Of course, diagramming has gone out of fashion in the years since I was in school. But I’ve seen signs that this lost art may be returning, that some teachers are starting to see the sentence diagram as a useful literacy tool after all. Writer Kitty Burns Flory, in a New York Times opinion piece titled “Taming Sentences,” argues that some students enjoy diagramming because it works like a puzzle, exercising their brains and helping them visualize the underlying structure of a sentence.
In Word Classes, students learn how to categorize words into two groups: lexical words and function words. Lexical words refer to physical objects, actions, and states of being. Function words, on the other hand, simply show relationships among other words in sentences. Here’s how the parts of speech fall into these categories:
Lexical words: noun, verb, adjective, adverb
Function words: pronoun, conjunction, preposition, interjection
To learn about the relationships among the words in a sentence, students view animations and interact with sentence diagramming tools to explore parts of speech and their roles in sentences. Working through the diagramming exercises helps students make better editing decisions.
I often think about that seventh-grade teacher and wonder what her reaction would have been if she had lived to see all the digital resources now available to teach writing and grammar. I can only imagine that she would have studied them carefully, turned to her students, and barked out these instructions: “Students, take out your laptops. Before we start the main lesson, let’s diagram the sentence I’ve projected on the interactive white board.”