Diagramming Sentences: Strategies for Learning Sentence Structure

by Deana Swanson

Do your English students struggle with diagramming sentences? Sentence diagramming is a classic method for helping students see the structure of a complete thought, but the process can get messy, especially for some students. In this video, Deana Swanson demonstrates some teaching methods for making sentence diagramming effective and enjoyable for students.

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These are just a few teaching tips that I’ve picked up over the years, a lot of them from other teachers.

Cards that leave out nobody

One of my favorites is to put all the students’ names, on these names, on these little cards, and that way nobody gets left out. I scramble them up, and I go through the first one, and I’ll set it down or else I’ll put it at the back here with my other finger.

And then once I’ve gone through all of them, and they all have to answer, and if a student doesn’t answer—they don’t answer correctly—I’ll just stick it back in there. And that gives them another chance to answer correctly.

And then when I’m done—and I do this so they know that I’m doing it, and they watch me do it—I tell them, “OK, we’re going to shuffle the cards again,” and I shuffle them all up so they know that I’m going to call on them to read or answer a question. And they know they might be the next one because they can never figure out the order. So this is one of my very favorite things to do because it causes every student in the room to be focused, to be paying attention, and to know I might be next.

Lessening sentence diagramming confusion

Whenever we’re diagraming—again, I use my cards and I will call on them and they can mark—they can tell me whatever they see up here.

For instance, one of them might say, “I see a preposition.”

Deana: “OK.”

Student: “with.”

Deana: “So what’s the prepositional phrase?”

Student: “Well, I’m not sure.”

Deana: “What’s the next one? What do you see?”

Student: “Well, I see subject and verb.”

Deana: “OK, what is it?”

Student: “I agree.”

We mark it. I agree.

Deana: “And then what is this? What do you see?”

And I’ll call in the next person.

Student: “Well, I see another subject and a verb.”

Deana: “What is it?”

Student: “You decide.”

Deana: “Good.”

You decide—subject and a verb.

Deana: “So if I have a subject and a verb here, and the subject and the verb here, this must be a clause. Do you see what we call a deer antler or a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun, whatever it is.”

And they’ll say, “whatever,” and I’ll say “yes.” So we mark that.

And again, I like to mark mine. The guys love this. We put deer antlers on it. We’ll make him a ten point or whatever that is. A twelve point.

And so we’ll say, “Ah ha! This is a clause.” And the next student will mark it, and then we go to diagram it.

And we’ve already done all the hard work. We don’t have to see that and then go back and forth and mark it and get all confused. This really helps, especially some of the guys that seem to want to crisscross everything and get all confused.

So we’ll mark it.

I agree.

And then we’ll say, “Now this is a prep phrase, so where does it go?” You agree with whatever you said. So then we’ll put it there. And again, nothing crisscrosses.

This is the subject. This is the verb. This prep phrase modifies the verb. Here’s our little pedestal because it’s a noun clause.

And you. And they’ll get tripped up here.

So we’ll say, “subject and verb.”

Deana: “You decide what”?

Student: “You decide, whatever.”

Deana: “Does whatever get decided?”

So we’ll mark that even as the D.O. There. And that way everything is neatly marked. They just have to bring it down—and it makes it much less confusing—rather than trying to look at it and write it down here. Just take—I always tell them it takes, what, five seconds or something. Just mark it up there.

All the hard work is done. There you go.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Deana Swanson

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