November 07, 2004

Reintroducing Diagramming

Not long ago I commented on a nostalgic essay on diagramming sentences, an exercise that, along with grammar instruction in general, disappeared from most schools with the advent of the "whole language" trend and the idea that children learn grammar best without any explicit instruction in the context of reading and writing. Well, for some people it isn't just nostalgia. The Education Life section of today's New York Times contains an article about a move to reintroduce diagramming.

The idea of reintroducing grammar as a subject in schools is a good one. It's good for students to acquire insight into the structure of their own language and to be able to understand how it differs from others, both foreign languages, and the formal, written variety of English to the mastery of which so much of education is devoted. I fear, however, that reintroducing diagramming may not be the best way to do this. As we learn from Mark's discussion of the history of diagramming, it reflects a 19th century approach to syntax. A lot has been learned about syntax since then, especially in the last fifty years. One rather obvious defect of traditional diagrams is that they reflect only constituency; there are no category labels. The main problem, though, is not so much the diagrams themselves as the lack of any explicit procedure for constructing them or any principles for determining whether a diagram is a valid representation of a particular sentence. Even this explanation of how to diagram consists merely of a bunch of examples. Mark's description of his experience meshes with my own brief exposure to diagramming in grade school. The teacher didn't give any real explanation of what the principles were or how to choose between alternatives.

It is of course possible that the people reintroducing diagramming are using it as part of a more sophisticated grammar curriculum, but I am skeptical. In my experience, few English teachers know anything at all either about English grammar or about linguistics. This isn't really their fault - most of them never learned any grammar in school themselves and nothing in their training as teachers would have suggested to them that they ought to know either grammar or linguistics. Nonetheless, it means that they are ill-prepared to teach about grammar and even more so to develop a curriculum. I hope that the people working to reintroduce grammar will avoid clinging to tradition and instead introduce an approach that reflects current knowledge of syntax and presents the study of syntax as an empirical, scientific activity.

The late Ken Hale was a proponent of the idea that speakers of minority languages could benefit from studying the structure of their own language empirically. He actually wrote a highschool-level textbook of Navajo linguistics aimed at helping speakers of Navajo to discover the structure of their language. One reason for doing this is the hope that it will increase their appreciation for the richness of their language and engender pride in it. Another is that studying the structure of one's own language provides an introduction to the scientific method that requires no laboratory, equipment, or materials and that is perhaps less foreign and threatening than laboratory science is for many students. Speakers of standard English can derive many of the same benefits. Wayne O'Neil and Maya Honda have carried on with this idea. Wouldn't it be wonderful if instead of merely reintroducing a musty 19th century tool for teaching formal, written English, schools began to teach students what languages are really like and how to find out for themselves?

Posted by Bill Poser at November 7, 2004 07:10 PM