Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sentence Diagramming for Visual and Kinesthetic Learning

An example sentence diagram of a sentence with a compound verb.

How often do English teachers find that as they’ve been lecturing or drilling on subjects, predicates, participles and gerunds, the students have either been tuning out completely or rushing though the homework - incorrectly? 

It was happening to me much too often in my first few terms teaching university-level Developmental English, so I was forced to change my methods. I set aside the assigned textbook to use "in emergencies only." I set aside my notion that diagramming is too elementary for college use, and I turned to the students’ self-identified learning style strengths - visual and kinesthetic.

Although it may seem to be a learning activity only for grade school, diagramming sentences makes learning or reviewing sentence construction engaging for learners of any age. It’s hands-on, and it allows students the opportunity to step back from the abstract and actually see grammatical patterns in action. Daily diagramming helps students learn to see how words work together to construct meaning, in sentence after sentence.  This, in turn, can help them learn to communicate more clearly in any given situation.

Grammar for Visual and Kinesthetic Learners

Once I decided to make a change in the classroom, I informally polled my classes about their learning styles by asking how they think they learn best. The example I gave them as a prompt was the example of fixing a watch. I asked them if they would ask a watchmaker to tell them how to fix a watch, look at a watchmaker’s pictures and diagrams of how to fix a watch, use trial and error on their own, or use another method. The overwhelming majority of students responded they would use trial and error, and then they would ask a watchmaker to show them pictures and diagrams of how to do it if they couldn’t figure it out. On my simple survey, their answers corresponded most closely to the learning style known as kinesthetic or active learning, with a “back-up plan” of visual learning.

In broad terms, kinesthetic or active learners need physical activity during a lesson. At the end of a class, they remember what was done or what took place more so than what was said or shown (Hutton, 2007). Visual learners learn best by seeing colorful charts, diagrams, and tables. They retain information by taking their own notes or highlighting ideas in a text (Clark, 2011). This is not to say that kinesthetic or visual learners cannot learn to be auditory or verbal learners, those who learn by hearing, speaking, or reading. It means only that they learn best by doing and seeing.

Physically Engaging and Visually Stimulating Lessons

Within the first few weeks of daily diagrams in the classroom as the basis for establishing the patterns of grammar, I noticed a difference. Attendance improved (partially due to the threat of losing out on a daily in-class assignment grade), and students started waking up and paying attention. It wasn’t just that we were diagramming in lieu of drilling exercises from the book, however. I gave them a chance to do and see.

I made the process physically engaging: Students rearranged the classrooms in order to work in groups, drew diagrams on the whiteboard for discussion, stood up and created visual aids to help present patterns of grammar to the class, and even found ways to compete by racing to complete complicated diagrams on the whiteboard. They were allowed to make noise, make messy and colorful mistakes, make friends, make connections between ideas, and come to conclusions on their own. The rules for grammar were “discovered” by the students, then validated in short wrap-up sessions at the end of the lesson. Grammar became an active experiment, a way to visually absorb previously mysterious and complicated rules dictated, in black and white, in a textbook.

Exercise Consistency

Additionally, during that first course, I learned that diagramming as the basis for learning requires consistency. Since diagramming is a skill in and of itself, it is important to make the drills and activities a daily activity with short homework assignments as reinforcement. If a student cannot remember how to diagram a simple sentence's subject and predicate, for example, he or she cannot get to the point of diagramming a modifying phrase. That disconnect could be discouraging, so it is vital that students learn proper diagramming techniques.

An example sentence diagram for the sentence "To fogive is divine." A diagram  of a sentence with an infinitive.
Although it may seem a lesson most suited to elementary school students, sentence diagramming can be an invaluable resource for students of all ages and levels; it all depends on the learning styles of the students. Lessons involving sentence diagramming are most suited to visual or kinesthetic or active learners because of the visually stimulating and physically engaging nature of the activity. With repetition and consistency, students can learn to pick out patterns in language use, discover how to properly construct sentences, and learn a new analytic skill in the process.

Want to know more about diagramming sentences?

Diagramming sentences is a playful way to analyze everyday language.
For more information about sentence diagramming, please take a look at my complete course on sentence diagramming on Udemy.  

Use the coupon code link "Blog" to sign up for a Udemy account and get $15.00 off the regular price of my course!  The course is appropriate for all ages.

My complete textbook, Diagramming Sentences, is also available in Kindle edition on Amazon.  It includes 150 exercise sentences and answer keys!


Hutton, S. (2007). Helping Kinesthetic Learners Succeed. Retrieved from

Clark, D. R. (2011). Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learning Styles (VAK). Retrieved from

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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