Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

Over the years, I’ve become aware of the art of diagramming sentences. This is one method of teaching composition at the basic level of the declarative sentence. I’ve wondered, and continued to wonder, if this might be a method  to help struggling students learn to compose grammatically complete and even stylish expository prose. Moreover, I wonder if the act of drawing the diagram could help students with motor skills issues get some practice with holding and using a pen or pencil. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I was and remain curious about whether diagramming sentences could help struggling learners attain a sense of achievement and the psychological satisfaction that attends it.

Kitty Burns Florey’s Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog (New York: Harcourt, 2006) answered few of my questions, in terms of planning lessons, about diagramming sentences. However, it allowed me an afternoon of pleasant respite from a particularly dreary turn at jury duty. This is an elegant and highly readable cultural, educational and social history of sentence diagramming. Ms. Florey owns a wonderfully warm and and wry sense of humor. She offers a broad range of cultural references in her discussion. Do yourself a favor and be sure to read her touching afterward in the more recent editions of this fine book.

Ms. Florey’s history helpfully includes several discussions of the books that informed instruction in sentence diagramming in classrooms. One of them, Brainerd Kellogg and Alonzo Reed’s Higher Lessons in English: A Work on English Grammar and Composition is available as a freebie if you own an Amazon Kindle. There is, fortunately, a contemporary exponent of sentence diagramming, a man named Eugene Mouton. It looks like his books are the place to go if you want to learn to teach sentence diagramming.

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