The National Council of Teachers of English, whose directives shape curriculum decisions nationwide, has quietly reversed its long opposition to grammar drills, which the group had condemned in 1985 as "a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing."
I don't teach diagramming sentences in a formal way, as the instructors in the article do. I do, however, assume that students can follow the simplified versions (S-V-DO,S-LV-SC) once I've explained them, and yes, cruel taskmistress that I am, I do make them learn the difference between a clause and a phrase. (Mistress Undine cracks her whip and points to the board, and the students dutifully chant, "That's a direct object and not a subject complement, Mistress Undine.")
For the record, I did learn to diagram sentences at one point. I learned this concept late, and it was a revelation to me, as was the idea of the thesis statement, the topic sentence, and all the other supposedly repressive accouterments of traditional writing instruction. I had somehow gotten away without learning them for an embarrassingly long time (due to being a reader and hence a decent writer, I suppose), but when I did learn them, guess what happened?
a. My wounded sense of self went to sit in a corner because it was crushed by the cruelties of form, and I never wrote another creative word.
b. I began to march in lockstep with the other prisoners of the five-paragraph essay (which I had NEVER heard of until I began to teach first-year composition, at which point I learned that it was an instrument of the devil).
c. I loved the idea that there was a system, form, and structure to language that would not only explain it but would make me a better writer and a better reader, because I had tools for analysis. [If you picked this one, you picked right.]
If there are ways that we can help students to improve their writing, and if sometimes the lightbulb goes on because we've given them a concept and (gasp) even made them work on a sample that isn't their own writing once in a while, shouldn't we do it? Isn't that more productive than refusing to explain the concept of, say, an appositive because we want them to divine it from their inner consciousness even if it takes five drafts to do so?