Picturing Sentences

Sunday, May 24, 2009.

Several years ago at SXU, I taught a course called “Modern English Grammar” for students who were planning to teach English in middle and high school.  Rather than focus exclusively on “descriptive” grammar and the tradition of parsing and diagramming sentences, I wanted to help prospective teachers learn a “generative” or productive grammar that would foster their students’  facility with and confidence in writing.

After some success with this course, I decided on 4 new strategies to include in my college writing classes for first-year students:

  1. a simplified vocabulary of sentences, including most prominently “phrase,” “clause,” and “sentence,”
  2. visual support for learning a limited number of sentence strategies,
  3. a series of sentence strategy mini-lessons spread over the course of the term, and
  4. brief assignments that call for students to incorporate specific sentence strategies in their writing.

Here below is one of the first images I used in my classes.

 writer's palette sentences

This image of a writer’s palette containing 7 basic sentence strategies was inspired by a powerful analogy contained in Harry Noden’s Image Grammar, a text I used in the grammar course.  Noden compares writing to painting; that is, the choices we make when we write are similar to the choices painters make when they call upon a particular color or use a particular brush stroke. 

Lately, I’ve become dissatisfied with the representation of sentences in my writer’s palette image, especially its failure to show the ingredients of sentences and how they are combined to create basic sentence types.  So I decided to try to map out some alternatives.  First, I sketched out a networked mind map:

grammar web

But this web of grammar relationships fails to represent the generative process of creating sentences out of smaller grammatical units.  

So then I tried a series of concentric circles or sectioned rings to show how sentences are generated out of punctuation, conjunctions, phrases, and clauses:

First Go at Basic Vocabulary of Sentences 5-22-09

As I was struggling with the concentric rings in this sketch and their relationships, I realized that I was also searching for the “right” metaphor that would capture the generative concept.  At the bottom of the same image above is my next attempt, a sort of “building block”  model of grammar that begins with the most basic of marks that we use to make letters, numerals, and punctuation. 

Here’s another sketched attempt at the concentric ring concept, now closer to a traditional pie chart or a color wheel:

grammar wheel 

And here’s another sketch of the building block image, now more appropriately termed a “grammar strata.”

grammar strata
These models are not meant to include all aspects of sentence grammar; for example, I haven’t accounted for word types (nouns, verbs, articles, etc.)  because I assume first-year college students bring with them some knowledge about sentences already.  (And I see that in the “grammar strata” model, I dropped out conjunctions.) 

In the end, the two latter models are combination models, both descriptive and process-oriented, and both contain the “outer” or “upper” levels of sentence strategies I want my writing students to practive and produce.

Moving forward, I have 3 questions about this sort of modeling. 

  1. Are these attempts at finding an image or metaphor for sentence grammar moving me away from my desire for a “simplified” or “basic” vocabulary of sentences? 
  2. Do I have to select one model over the others, or might they all serve to help students gain confidence and facility in sentence (and idea) generation? 
  3. How have other teachers attempted to picture or analogize sentence grammar for their students?