I picked up a book on sentence diagramming by Phyllis Davenport and I’m totally hooked.


I read a lot as a young child. I was always reading. As a result, I acquired a sense of just “knowing” if a sentence sounds right or wrong. I was never taught much grammar in primary school or high school. I think I was taught plural and singular forms of words, as well as the differences between present and past tense, and that was it.

Unlike the majority of my classmates at the time, I often came out tops in English when I sat my high school exams. With such crappy English teaching in school, it was no surprise that many of my classmates scored Cs for English – they also happened to be kids who didn’t read much in their spare time. I guess I was surprised that I made the grade despite not being taught by good English teachers. However, what happened to me probably was just a result of a gradual subconscious absorption of language rules as a result of all the reading I did. From age 7 to 16, I was a major library user. I read a couple-hundred-paged novel a day by the age of 14. I was by that time, reading like I was breathing. I read widely and had a thirst for knowledge and excitement in many subjects. I borrowed all kinds of books to read, from Jilly Cooper/Danielle Steel novels to Carl Sagan. I think it was the diverse variety of books I read that probably helped me in my ability to write and comprehend.

At the same time, I was completely, utterly clueless about what nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc. were. It may seem shocking to some – how can a so-called A grade English student not know about these things? But it was true. I did not learn about the parts of speech were until maybe less than a year ago, when I set out to teach my eldest daughter grammar. She has been going to a state school which, just like the school I used to go to, does not teach much grammar. My eldest did not inherit my love of reading – she is quite the opposite of me – and I worried that her lack of reading coupled with a lack of grammar will put her at a disadvantage when it came to crafting good pieces of writing for her English exams.

She is starting to struggle now with higher level English instruction. When she writes, she still uses very simplistic words. Her vocabulary is rather limited because she hardly ever reads. I used to be really averse to the idea of forcing a child to read. I read so much as a child because I truly loved it. I lived for it. But to force a child to read like I did – to read every day – when the child isn’t anything like me?  I have been living in the hope that if I continue to give my daughter free reign with regards to reading, one day she will discover a joy of reading and… well… start reading!

With the GCSEs looming ahead, I cannot help but decide that this is it. English is a “core” subject and she cannot do badly in it. I have to do something. So I did some research, and decided that first, I am going to learn about parts of speech, and then teach them to her with the help of grammar books. So far so good. Then I found out about the technique of sentence diagramming, which seemed really fascinating to me. Sentence diagramming used to be taught in schools a long time ago to help kids understand the structure of the language and to form coherent sentences. Although I was never had to be taught parts of speech or sentence diagramming, I did well in English because I read so much and so widely. For a child like my daughter who doesn’t read much, however, I think a different strategy may be better for her.

Enter Rex Barks. Enter her sentence diagramming book.

Can I just say something? Ever since I picked it up yesterday night, I was completely hooked myself. I’ve never expected this, but I find sentence diagramming really fun! I don’t know about my daughter. She may struggle a little with this, but I think she will really benefit from learning this. I think they should bring back sentence diagramming teaching back to schools. I wish I’d always known how to do this. It would have helped me understand why I intuitively know whether the sentences I craft sound good (or bad). For so long I’ve been writing on intuition alone. It’s so hard when I help my daughter revise for her English, when I “mark” her essays, and then have to tell her “This doesn’t sound right. You should put it as… ” but am often unable to explain why that is. With sentence diagramming, I can now actually explain why a sentence sounds right or wrong in a technical way. None of that fuzzy-sounding “It just sounds wrong” kind of explanation I’ve been giving her so far.

Since last year, I’ve been thinking of going back to University again this September to start on an English degree. This book has kind of reaffirmed what I always thought – I might just really enjoy it. There’s no denying. I am a word geek.