Teaching Sentence Structure

If your students are using the Riggs program, they already know that spoken words are the signs of ideas. They also know that written words are symbols for spoken words. 

If you have gotten past lesson 36, your students also know that words can be strung together to form sentences, which are the signs of thoughts.

By now your students have begun to write sentences from dictation, and they have begun to write sentences which illustrate their new spelling-vocabulary words.

In fact, by lesson 72 your Riggs students will have written so many sentences (dictated and original) that they will be ready to begin a formal study of syntax. This formal study will now become a part of each day’s regular work. From now on, syntax work should be a consistent part of your English studies. You will want to have your students working on structured writing activities as a part of their daily practice. 

Since your Riggs students will have mastered all of their phonograms by now, and since your daily spelling and decoding lessons will have become more streamlined, you will have a large block of language arts time for these focused, deliberate writing activities.

At this time, you will want to introduce your students to a fun and powerful new learning tool: the diagram. What is a diagram? A diagram is a visual tool for the study of syntax. It's a graphic representation of grammatical structure. It helps us see and grasp word relationships. (For example, adjectives and articles modify nouns; diagrams show this.) Diagrams are powerful tools that can dramatically increase comprehension!

In the same way that the Riggs marking system helps your students spell and read new words, diagrams will help them write and read sentences. As a bonus, your students will become more critical readers, writers, and thinkers with the help of sentence diagrams. Diagrams are amazing tools.

In the Riggs program, your practice has been to keep things clear, to go from the known to the unknown. This practice will continue as you move into syntax study. You did not begin reading instruction by asking your students to read whole words, and you will not begin syntax study by asking your students to analyze and diagram long sentences. You will start at the beginning.

Since your students will have already learned what nouns and verbs are by this point (see lessons 56 and 67), and since they will have been talking with you about nouns and verbs on a daily basis, they will begin their sentence studies with diagrams that contain only subjects (nouns) and verbs.

As always, your students will need only pencil and paper for these learning activities, and you will teach all of your lessons through conversation and modeling. In this case, you will introduce your students to diagrams by putting some simple diagrams (two-word sentences) on the board and leading your students, through questioning, to an understanding that these diagrams show how a sentence can be divided into its two main parts: subject and verb. (See pages 249-251 in your Level I Teacher’s Edition for the kind of dialogue you may wish to use for this activity.)

I like to practice with this first topic by asking my students to give me the names of some animals, which I then write on the board. Then I ask my students if they can give me one word that tells what each animal does, and I put these verbs on the board. My students then take turns making simple oral sentences from these words. (Fish swim. Dogs bark. Horses run.) After this, I put up some blank diagrams and ask my students to help me fill in a few of them.

Since my students can easily decode, I don’t need to limit what I put on the board (every child can read the words). Since they also know what nouns and verbs are, they quickly grasp the truth that is being shown with these illustrations: every sentence contains a subject and a verb.

I keep this first diagram lesson short, then I ask my students to make some of their own diagrams, using any of the animals that we have come up with as a class. As my students work on this project (using plain, unlined paper), I walk around the room to assist any child who may need my help.

Once my students have constructed their own two-word diagrams, I ask them to write sentences from them. They use lined paper for this task, writing carefully and neatly now, and adding the proper punctuation (capital letters and periods).

Before the next lesson, I will let them help me start a diagramming chart. At first, this chart will illustrate only our two-word model (Snow melts). We will add new diagram models to this chart as we learn to diagram each part of speech, and our diagramming chart will eventually show how each part of speech modifies the sentence in its own unique way.

In the Riggs program, everything is taught directly and is immediately useful to the students. Sentence analysis is taught for the purpose of synthesis—so that students can apply what they are learning to the writing of their own sentences.

Since I use the Riggs program, all of our spelling, grammar, and syntax concepts are illustrated on reference charts as they are introduced, and all of these reference charts are created with my students. (I never overwhelm my students with charts they can’t read and understand, and I make sure that every child knows what is on each chart.) We start working on our noun chart together when we study nouns, we create an adjective chart when we study adjectives, and so on.

In the Riggs program, we help students refer to the charts they have created whenever a question can be answered by doing so, which means that Johnny and Suzy soon begin to answer their own questions by referring to the appropriate chart while working independently. They love this! They love knowing that they can answer their own questions! Me too. It empowers my students and frees up my time; it allows me to work with those who need extra help. Even better, our Riggs charts help me individualize sentence writing activities to keep every child engaged and challenged.

For example, as my students learn the job of each new part of speech, I can encourage them to expand their simple sentences by giving them truly helpful suggestions. Instead of saying something vague and unhelpful like, “Can you make a longer (or more interesting) sentence, Johnny?” or “Can you tell me more, Suzy?” I can say, “You really worked hard on that sentence, Johnny! Can you add an adjective?” “Can you add an adverb and a prepositional phrase, Suzy?” And so on. This not only helps them with their current sentence work but also gives them tools for the future. My students are learning that words have different jobs. They are learning that they can make their sentences more interesting or informative by adding different parts of speech.

Notice that in your Riggs classroom, everyone may be writing sentences about your choice of topics (today’s science or history lesson), but Johnny may still be writing simple sentences that contain only one adjective, while Suzy may be asked to add an adjective, an adverb, and a prepositional phrase. As always, everyone is being kept on the edge of challenge. Everyone is being asked to work to their highest ability.

Syntax study is deep work, and when it is combined with sentence construction it is work that enables your students to write clear, complete, and interesting sentences. This is work that increases their ability to understand what others have written, which is no small thing.

Using diagrams for this work can accomplish far more than can be accomplished by labeling the parts of speech in written sentences. Labeling does not help students understand how the words in a sentence relate to each other and work together to represent thought. Diagramming does.

In the late nineteenth century, Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg developed this tool to help their students analyze the structure of written sentences. In the introduction to their 1889 elementary grammar textbook, Reed and Kellogg explain how these diagrams are aids to comprehension:

In written analysis, the simple map, or diagram . . . will enable the pupil to present directly and vividly to the eye the exact function of every clause in the sentence, of every phrase in the clause, and of every word in the phrase—to picture the complete analysis of the sentence, with principal and subordinate parts in their proper relations. It is only by the aid of such a map, or picture, that the pupil can, at a single view, see the sentence as an organic whole made up of many parts performing various functions and standing in various relations. Without such map he must labor under the disadvantage of seeing all these things by piecemeal or in succession.

Diagrams make word relationships clear. They are systematic visual presentations of grammatical structure. They are powerful tools for the study of syntax. They are excellent aids to comprehension.

Notice, for example, how a diagram of the Preamble to the Constitution can help you understand at a glance exactly why the Constitution was written. (Note: I’m not suggesting that beginners should do this kind of diagram work, although Level II & III Riggs students certainly could.)

As you can see, teaching children to diagram can help them learn far more than how to diagram. Diagramming can be overdone, granted. But when diagrams are taught systematically and used as aids to the teaching of syntax skills, they are powerful tools that can dramatically increase comprehension.

If you are unfamiliar with diagrams, and wish to dive more deeply into them with your Level I students, I highly recommend Mary Daly’s The Complete Book of Diagrams (the public school edition is published by Riggs and used in Level II). It is loaded with information on how to use this powerful teaching tool, beginning with two-word sentences. It will help you understand how to use systematic explicit instruction to teach syntax skills. You will love it!


  • The goal of syntax study is to have your students understand how each word contributes to the meaning of the sentence.
  • Syntax study reveals the relationship of ideas within a thought.
  • Diagrams are tools that help you explicitly teach syntax skills.
  • Diagrams aid comprehension.




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