Rethinking College Writing Instruction

If only they could diagram!

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Talked with Prof. Sue Roberts from Boston College yesterday, and together we bemoaned the lack of diagramming experience in our students.

When students don’t see the sentence as a structure they just feel it as a stream of sound, the way my 3-year-old grandson does. For him, a sentence is just talking, just a bunch of sounds that comes out of his mouth, and people understand him. For too many freshman, it’s about the same. A sentence is a stream of words without hierarchy or structure, in some kind of natural talking order. Those are the students who’ll ask you, “Is of a verb?”

When kids can’t see sentences as having structures they are lost.

The question for instructors is—what do we do? The kids need to understand sentence structure, yes, but we can’t take them back in a time machine to learn diagramming and practice it for years.

Nor can we teach diagramming. Yes, we could introduce the topic in Writing 101, but there’s not enough time for practice. Diagramming doesn’t sink in unless you do it for years.

However, in talking with Sue Roberts yesterday, it hit me that the noun-circling and verb-circling games in my College Writing Guide amount to a kind of diagramming.

As with classic diagramming, circling games are a form of drawing. The drawing is simple, just circles rather than branching lines, but it does require kids to be analytical just like diagramming does. The student has to decide whether a noun is concrete or abstract (or an active or passive verb) and then draw a circle appropriately.

I have always told instructors “We can never teach diagramming in freshman comp,” but now I think I was wrong.

The word-circling games in Readable Writing give students an easy and partial experience of diagramming. They get to see the bones of the sentence that you and I see instinctively: the nouns and the verbs. And that’s what they need to do to become self-reliant writers.

So–we don’t diagram sentences.  Correct. But we do draw some analytical circles around nouns and verbs–and that’s almost the same.

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John G. Maguire
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