teaching writing

Subject: teaching writing
From: diane haugen <dhaugen -at- BARNESVILLE -dot- POLARISTEL -dot- NET>
Date: Mon, 4 Dec 1995 23:37:05 -0600

Win, I thought I was the only one who had learned English grammar by taking
German in college. In fact, I took a grammar course the same semester I
took the German course, and the interplay between the two classes was very

And yes, we diagrammed sentences--in a college course. This was just
before the linguists took over the teaching of the language courses within
the English department and turned them into pep rallies for
transformational grammar. I considered myself lucky that I managed to
squeak through before the enlightenment.

David Dvorkin asks if diagramming is peculiarly American. I don't know,
but now I'm curious. The grammar books I have which were published before
1900 speak of separating a sentence into its parts (which they call
parsing), and describing the relationship of the words in the sentence to
each other (which they call analysis). There is no diagramming. By 1920,
Pearson and Kirchwey, in _New Essential of English_, say "The structure of
a sentence may be explained by oral analysis...or it may be shown
graphically by means of a diagram. Complicated sentences and sentences
that employ unusual constructions, however, can be more clearly explained
by oral analysis than by diagrams" (p. 254).

The excuse often given for not teaching grammar is that research shows that
teaching grammar doesn't work. Interestingly, most of the research studies
on the effectiveness of teaching grammar test rote memorization of rules,
not sentence analysis.

My personal opinion is that there's a big difference between analyzing how
the parts of a sentence fit together and learning rules by rote.
Unfortunately, grammar has become associated with rote memorization.
Sentence analysis somehow dropped out of the picture. But back to Win, in
order for us to learn German, we had to learn to analyze the sentences, as
did Teresa in Latin.

I also think Connie Winch makes a good point that we all have different
learning styles, and we should be exposed to a number of approaches to what
needs to be mastered. Diagramming helps some people. Others do just as
well analyzing sentences without the formal structure of a picture.

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