In each of 34 years in the classroom, I could count on a student asking, “Why do we have to diagram?” I would reply that I could try to explain why we diagram, but that he wouldn’t understand my answer. However there would soon come a day when I would remember his question and I’d promise to demonstrate why we integrate diagramming in any type of homeschool curriculum.
In the late 1800’s, when English grammar was extensively taught, two professors, Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, came up with what is now known as classical sentence diagramming. They had struggled to express these complex relationships, feeling strongly that there had to be a way to use a picture to represent the relationships between words in a sentence. In 1877 they published a book called Higher Lessons in English where they introduced their diagramming method. The Reed-Kellogg method was used in schools for the rest of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries.
Practical Application of Sentence Diagramming in Homeschool Curriculum
I often used to tell my students, “Suppose I asked you to build me a $100,000 house for which I’d pay you a million dollars. Would you take the deal?” They’d usually, “Sure!” But then I’d tell them there was just one condition: if there was anything wrong with the house they wouldn’t get a dime… AND they were not allowed to use any blueprints. I was just going to TELL them what
I wanted, down to the placement of every electrical outlet, and they could write it down. Given the “no blueprints” condition, would they still take the deal? After a few seconds of thought, they’d say no! There was simply too much room for misinterpretation when you only have words; whereas, with a blueprint you could be very precise.
So diagramming is included in homeschool curriculum simply because it is useful. But why not teach it later after you’ve introduced the parts of speech and sentence parts? Remember that Reed and Kellogg were struggling to find a way to EXPLAIN the grammar concepts. Sentence diagramming simply makes the whole thing easier to understand when you’re learning it.
If you examine curricula which don’t use diagramming at all, you’ll usually find that they also don’t teach “advanced grammar.” That’s because it would be almost impossible to get those ideas across using only words.
Remember that student’s question and that I’d get back to it? It was always on the day I introduced Noun Clauses, a pretty difficult concept. I’d write five sentences on the board, each with a noun clause. Underneath each sentence I did a diagram. “I want you to study the sentences on the board and let me know when you understand what a noun clause is and how you diagram it.” A period of silence would ensue, and then I’d begin to hear, “Oh! I get it.” When I could tell that the class had the concept of noun clauses down THEN I’d turn to the student who had asked the original question and remind him. “This,” I’d say, “is why we diagram!” Then they begin to understand why it has to be included in their homeschool curriculum.