Ask Reading Kingdom: Does sentence diagramming actually help kids learn to read?

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Ilana (parent) asks:

Does sentence diagramming actually help kids learn to read?

Reading Kingdom answers:

A couple of years back, the New York Times had an opinion piece titled Diagramming sentences: what, after all, is it good for? The opening sentence that followed wasWell, for one thing, it’s obvious that it’s good for stirring up controversy.” The author went on to talk about the multitude of “passionate” comments he received ranging from massive praise to severe criticism.

The situation has not changed much since then. The controversy continues without any major evidence to cause it to swing towards one direction, rather than the other. This state of affairs is likely to continue since it would be extraordinarily difficult, and expensive, to conduct the research needed to settle the matter. For a start, with the decline in the teaching of grammar, very few students even know what it means to diagram a sentence, let alone how to carry out the procedure. So any sample population that would be tested would be significantly skewed and not representative of the broad range of students.

The topic, however, touches on a broader issue in reading that does deserve consideration. There are many language-based activities that correlate with reading achievement (as well as being useful for particular cognitive training). Cross word puzzles are an example. It’s the reason why young children are commonly given worksheets containing matrices with sets of letters and their task is to find words in the scattered arrays. Some children really take to this activity and execute it with relish. Others, often the less good readers, respond in an opposite manner—seeing it as one more misery in the set of miseries that reading has represented for them. This has led me to a general principle in the teaching of reading which I have found to be useful. Namely, activities essential to reading must be taught. However, if an activity has not been shown to be absolutely necessary for the mastery of reading, the child’s response should be the determiner of whether the activity is carried out. If a child loves the activity and wants to do it, (s)he should be given the time and materials to do so. On the other hand, if this ancillary activity evokes resistance, the child’s response should be respected and the child should be free to refuse, without any penalty or any sense of being judged.

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