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Syllables, Diagramming Sentences, and Other Thoughts

I recall clapping out the syllables to words when I was very young. Did it help me as a writer? Probably? I mean, I know where to hyphenate a word when I’m actually writing with a pen (and not using a computer, which automatically breaks the word from line-to-line for me). Therefore, when I started reading “Spelling in Parts: A Strategy for Spelling and Decoding Polysyllabic Words” in the April 2008 Issue of The Reading Teacher, I was initially taken aback that the authors were suggesting clapping out words, by syllable, to help kids spell. That’s so old school, I thought.

But, as I read on, I realized that Powell and Aram were not actually suggesting that kids clap out the word, syllable by syllable, since that kind of instruction doesn’t really take place anymore. Instead the authors said:

I accept any reasonable subdivision as long as each syllable contains a vowel (pg. 568).

Ah! How refreshing! This made me realize that since rules of syllabication aren’t generally taught in most classrooms that have a balanced literacy philosophy, the authors are willing to accept something that deviates from the traditional syllable-break-up that we were taught to clap out as kids. Yea Powell and Aram!

I’ve also been thinking about diagramming sentences. WHAT WAS UP WITH DIAGRAMMING SENTENCES? I remember that instruction like that pervaded my life in middle school. We used Warriner’s Grammar Books for drills at school and at home. And while, quite frankly, I understood exactly how to diagram a sentence, I don’t really think that knowing how to put a prepositional phrase coming down from the main line actually taught me how to be a better writer. Teachers, who had me writing authentic pieces of writing, did! However, I realize that diagramming sentences still pervades many English classrooms in this country and I’m not sure why. Shockingly, there are even websites that are dedicated to the “art” of diagramming sentences (Just do a Google Search for “diagramming sentences” and you’ll find a big long list!)

There are other things that perplex me since differentiation of instruction happens for all 20 kids in my classroom everyday thanks to conferring and strategy lessons. For instance, in a few years, my kids are going to high school and they might have a teacher who plops down one of the great books in front of them and says, “Read this. And next week, you have an essay due where you’ll have to respond to this prompt… (insert prompt here)” This troubles me since they’re going to be coming from classrooms where their differences are allowed and are celebrated and they’re going to have to read the same book and essentially write the same kind of paper as the other kids in their class who may or may not be on the same reading and writing level as them. I know I have to prepare them for this, but there’s something about academic choice in the elementary classroom that keeps popping back into my head and guides me to teach the way I teach each and everyday.

I grew up in traditional classrooms: clapping out syllables, diagramming sentences, reading the same books as my peers, and writing essays about those full-class texts. I turned out, in my opinion, just fine. I was capable of holding my own in college English and through two master’s degrees. Many people might say it is because I had such a strong, traditional foundation. However, I’m not sure that is the reason. I had some wonderful teachers who really pushed my thinking when I was in high school. I tend to think that I became a better writer because of them. In fact, my greatest English Teacher was a man, Frank Dippery, who never had me diagram a single sentence in tenth grade. He had us developing our vocabularies, reading great books (albeit the same as the rest of the class), and responding to literature in authentic ways (crafting our own thesis statements and proving them with evidence from the text). It’s teachers like Mr. Dippery and articles by authors like Powell and Aram that make me realize one can pepper a balanced literacy curriculum with some of the “traditional stuff” and make it an environment in which all learners can independent thinkers who are successful in everything they try to accomplish.

Stacey Shubitz View All

I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.

I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).

7 thoughts on “Syllables, Diagramming Sentences, and Other Thoughts Leave a comment

  1. I thought diagramming sentences went out when I was a child…and I’m 55….I’m glad it is alive and well! (ok, diagram that one!) thanks so much…will use it in our school where my husband and I volunteer! blessings.vonny

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  2. Laughing out loud at this one today as I recently had my own rant about diagramming sentences! (http://writingframeworks.blogspot.com/2008/05/what-really-matters.html)

    My high school English teacher was the bane of my existence then and I still recall her comments after the AP English exam when she told me my interpretation of a poem was just “dead wrong.” That 5 I got on the exam sure did make me feel better!

    Great thinking points here – thanks as always!

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  3. I used the SIP Strategy with my kids today. (They were able to break down the syllables too!) It was awesome! I’m looking forward to seeing how they do on their tests at the end of the week.

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  4. Kudos to Mr. Dippery! May all teachers of writing and reading learn this lesson & learn it soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ruth

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