Homeschool Discoveries

Sharing a few things I've discovered along the way…

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey April 29, 2015

Filed under: Books — kirstenjoyhill @ 10:56 pm
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I find the art of sentence diagramming to be strangely appealing, while simultaneously wondering if it is a waste of time.  My grammar education in school was mediocre — I seem to recall that each year we never got beyond learning to identify subjects, predicates, nouns and verbs. I got by in upper level college English classes with an intuitive sense of grammatical correctness. It wasn’t until I began doing freelance editing, and later homeschooling my own kids, that I felt a pull to improve my grammar education.

I’ve looked forward to learning to diagram sentences along with my oldest child.  We’ve already parsed sentences — labeling the parts of speech and other aspects of the sentence — and the ideal time to learn diagramming seems near.  Yet among all the other school subjects that beckon our attention, I have to wonder what we’ll gain by doing it.

I found Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Sentence Diagramming by Kitty Burns Florey while searching our library catalog looking to see if they hold copies of a few diagramming instructional books I’ve seen mentioned recently.  Being that it is one of the only books in the library catalog on the topic, I requested it immediately.

Florey writes in a very entertaining style, mixing her own educational and professional experiences into her narrative of diagramming’s history. I was surprised to learn that diagramming only appeared on the scene in 1877 — and as an improvement of an 1860 sentence classification system involving bubbles! Diagramming was all the rage in the first half of the 20th century, and nearly dead by the 1960s.  Homeschoolers, along with a few private and public schools, carry on the banner of sentence diagramming today.

With complex sentence diagrams sometimes taking up nearly an entire two page spread, Florey ponders the style and complexity of the sentences of various authors.  Did the diagramming instruction (or lack therof) of these authors make any impression on their later style as a writer?  Florey tends to think not. She argues that diagramming sentences doesn’t necessarily make one a better writer, or even a better student of grammar.

“Few people would deny that students need to master grammar in order to write decently. But there are other places to acquire it than sixth-grade grammar classes. And where brilliant writing “comes from” is always a mystery — the simple answer is that it comes from the deep psyche of the writer who perpetrates it– but there’s a lot more to it than correct grammar. The fact is that a lot of people don’t need diagramming or anything else…” (p. 110).

While Florey doesn’t see a lot of direct value in teaching diagramming, the book concludes with warm thoughts about its practice: “The teachers I’ve talked to who teach diagramming seem to have found a nice balance: the kids are free to express themselves, but they’re being taught the skills they need–and diagramming is one aspect of that teaching–to express themselves not only clearly but also in correct, intelligible English that’s a pleasure rather than a chore to read” (p. 154).

Tonight my daughter saw Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog sitting out while I was preparing to write this review.  We looked at a few diagrams together, and had fun trying to make out a few semi-complex diagrams in the book.  We laughed together over the diagram of Chomsky’s famous sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”  She admitted to be intrigued by diagramming as well.  I’m leaning toward thinking we’ll give it a try in the fall.  🙂

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Thoughts on Formal Grammar Instruction April 5, 2013

Filed under: Curriculum — kirstenjoyhill @ 12:07 am
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In my recent post about our experiences with The Sentence Family, Ashely asked in the comments if I would share more thoughts about my decision to delay grammar instruction. I thought about just writing a comment in reply, but as I gathered my thoughts I realized that they would be more post-like in length.  So here it goes… 🙂

I didn’t necessarily start out my homeschooling journey intending to wait until later elementary school to start grammar instruction.  As I read books about various homeschool philosophies, there was a time when the Classical model of education sounded a bit appealing.  One thing the classical philosophy of education recommends is extensive memorization in the elementary years, including memorization of grammar knowledge starting at an early age.

The closer I got to starting “real” homeschooling (not that teaching a 2 year old the alphabet isn’t “homeschooling” in some sense…but, I think you know what I mean!), the more I realized that many aspects of the classical model didn’t really fit me, and I wasn’t sure they were going to be a good fit for my oldest child either.  The truth is, I hate verbatim memorization.  I have memorized a sad few number of Bible verses in my lifetime.   Miss M showed no particular strength at being able to memorize things, and, in fact, seemed to struggle with even very basic memorization.

Now, I know that Classical education isn’t all about the memorization, but some of the most popular Classically-influenced curricula for grammar instruction are basically about rote memorization of grammar information, possibly before a child is really old enough to need it or apply it.  I looked at a popular curriculum called First Language Lessons, and I thought it would drive me crazy repeating some of this grammar information over and over again in order to get a first grader who could barely read to memorize the definition of a noun.

I had to take a step back and ask myself, “What is the point of grammar instruction anyway? Can a student be successful without it?”  My own grammar instruction was pretty minimal.  By sixth grade I remember being bored out of my mind that we were learning again that year about nouns and verbs and subjects and predicates.  I don’t recall any formal grammar instruction after sixth grade, though I am sure we must have studied a few punctuation rules here and there in junior high.

Somehow, I made it through learning to write various forms of essays and research papers in high school, easily got A’s on nearly every paper I wrote in college, and got a degree in English with an emphasis in Rhetoric and Professional Communication.  And I did all of this without so much as a single higher-level grammar course, and without being able to diagram a sentence or really explain what a dangling modifier might be.

How I learned to be a good writer (at least, good enough for A’s in college), is still a bit of a mystery to me.  I think a good deal of it must be attributable to a natural skill or inclination toward writing.   So, I think it is very possible to be successful with a minimum of formal grammar instruction.  I have a desire now, myself, to study formal grammar — but mostly for the sheer joy of better understanding the English language (and to be a better editor — my co-editor corrects my punctuation way too often!).

Now, back to my journey in homeschooling.  Few people teach grammar in Kindergarten anyway, and at the beginning of her first grade year Miss M was still struggling to get beyond three and four letter words in reading.  Sometime during the late fall of her first grade year, her reading skill exploded without further intervention from me.   Her spelling skills did not take off, so we focused on spelling.

Meanwhile, we were not doing very much writing either.  Miss M started out her school years being pretty writing-phobic.  At first it was a fatigue issue — she couldn’t write more than a few words without getting very tired.  Later, I think it was more of an issue related to her difficulties with spelling (though I am not sure she could have articulated that).  Since Miss M wasn’t doing a lot of writing, grammar seemed relatively…irrelevant.  Yet, when Miss M would orally dictate to me something she wanted written down, her sentences were naturally full and complete, and typically quite grammatical.  So, even without formal instruction she was clearly picking up on something!

By second grade, I was still spending a great deal of time on spelling with Miss M.  We tried out a couple more spelling programs to see if we could find one that would “click.”   Writing was still frustrating — she would write something, and not only could I not understand what she wrote due to the spelling mistakes, she herself couldn’t even decipher it later.

By the spring of Miss M’s second grade year (about a year ago), I discovered Logic of English and we got on the road to better spelling in a way that really works for Miss M.  Spelling is still a bit of a struggle, but it is so much better now that she is finally this year willing to do some writing.   Now, Logic of English Essentials does have grammar instruction, but in order to spend more time on spelling we have simply skipped the grammar portions.  We’ll be going back through LOE-E next year with more advanced words, and we will probably cover some of the grammar at that time.

With smoother sailing in the spelling arena, I finally felt like a bit of grammar instruction might be welcome.  Curricula that teach in the form of a story are always a hit with my kids, hence my decision to try out first the Sentence Family, and now a classic public-domain book called Grammarland.

A final piece of that decision to wait until sometime “later”  for grammar was the advice my good friend and co-editor gave me.  She is a seasoned homeschooling veteran who has now graduated all her children (and several have gone on to writing or other language-related careers.)  D. V. recommends Winston Grammar and advises, “Instead of teaching them the same things every year from an A Beka workbook, which they will promptly forget, let them slowly go through these two work books, and that’s about all they need to know.”

This advice seems so wise to me! A common complaint about grammar programs is how repetitive the are!  Why not just avoid the repetition in the first place and teach this information at an age when the student is truly ready to remember it.

She also mentions that standardized testing is often not done until 2nd or 3rd grade anyway (it’s age 7 by Oct 1st here in MN, so some test as early as 1st grade) — and even those first standardized tests only expect a knowledge of the most very basic grammar terms like noun, adjective and verb and a few common-sense things about writing (like using a period at the end of a sentence).

The Winston Grammar website itself offers this advice on when to begin instruction: “Most grammar concepts are abstract with the exception of nouns (things a child can hold in their hand), action verbs (things children do) and adjectives (descriptive words such as colors or numbers). State of being verbs, helping verbs, nouns that are concepts (such as a May 1, or love, happiness, etc), many adverbs, all the ways nouns and pronouns are used (direct and indirect objects, predicate nominatives, etc) are all quite abstract. Until a child has developed their abstract thinking skills, which usually occurs about 5th-6th grade or 10-12 years of age, trying to teach and have him/her retain abstract concepts is very difficult. My advice is to not worry much about grammar until 5th grade. If you feel a great need to do grammar, then just start with the very basic concrete nouns, action verbs, and adjectives.”

So what will I do with Miss M? Next year, when she is in 4th grade, we will try Winston Grammar along with some of the LOE-E grammar instruction.  But if it is a struggle, we will wait again.  I think most of what is truly key to know about grammar could be learned in a very short time when a child is at the right age and stage of maturity. Meanwhile, I will be looking for my own reference or text to help me become a better editor.  Commas, clauses and dangling modifiers watch out! I may finally learn some editing based on technical details rather than intuition!

 

Curriculum Discoveries: The Sentence Family April 4, 2013

Filed under: Curriculum — kirstenjoyhill @ 12:11 am
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It’s been my plan for a while to delay formal grammar instruction until at least 4th grade.  A friend I really respect in this aspect of homeschooling gave me advice that tended in this direction, and given that a big priority for me with Miss M has been to work on her spelling, I was eager to follow this advice.

With spelling going quite well, I decided that it might be time to add in a little bit of “fun” grammar as a preparation for more serious grammar studies next year. I had read some good reviews of  The Sentence Family, so I decided to give it a try.  It’s available as an inexpensive download at currclick.com, and this was the format I purchased it in.

The Sentence Family takes the parts of speech, as well as four main types of sentences, and sentence family notebook page 1turns them into characters that are all part of the same family. Each member of the family has a short story about him/her, and these comprise the chapters or lessons of the text.  Each lesson also has suggestions or directions for drawing a picture of the character, and sample pictures are provided.  The chapters are quite short and take only a few minutes to read, though there is also the additional time for drawing to consider.  The drawing is really a pretty key part of his program, as the drawings help the student remember key details about how each part of speech or type of sentence operates.

Since no student workbook or notebooking pages are provided for drawing each character, I created my own simple notebooking pages to go along with The Sentence Family.   I bound a little notebook together for each of the three older kids using my proclick filled with one page for each Sentence Family character.

sentence family color codingAfter the four sentence types and several of the parts of speech are introduced, there is a brief lesson on diagramming sentences. We skipped this portion, as I didn’t want to take our study to that depth.    Example sentences are provided in several places in The Sentence Family, and we did use these sentence to do some “color coding.”  Each part of speech is assigned a favorite color, and Miss M coded the sentences using these colors.

I originally assumed that only Miss M (3rd grade, age 8.5) would participate in The Sentence Family.  Much to my surprise, Mr. E (Age 6, Kindergarten) and even Mr. K (age 4, Pre-K) wanted to listen in and draw pictures for each character as well!  While I am not sure the boys will remember the parts of speech very clearly, early exposure to grammar concepts certainly won’t hurt anything!

We read Sentence Family two or three times per week, and possibly even missed a few weeks here and there all together.  It’s a fairly short book (only 14 chapters if you don’t count the section on diagramming), and we completed it in less than three months.  All the kids were sad to see it come to an end!

sentence family notebook page 2sentence family drawing