In the past ten years of my teaching career, I’ve avoided doing worksheets of punctuation practice because I haven’t seen students’ writing improve. Instead I’ve seen students work on them, seem to be proficient at using punctuation marks because all of the fill in the blanks are correct or the sentences have been edited appropriately, and then submit drafts without a lick of proper punctuation! Although *I* could fill a book the size of Oxford’s Dictionary with all of the conventions and grammar worksheets *I* did as a student, I don’t believe this single method made me proficient at using correct punctuation. Since this approach hasn’t shown me evidence of its effectiveness, and with time already weighing heavily on my daily routine, I tried to find a more beneficial use of classroom instruction for my students.
So for years, I attended to conventions instruction in one-on-one conferences and small group strategy lessons during writers’ workshop or in my thirty- minute blocks of language study. I would meet with students and do mini-lessons on the proper use of quotation marks in their narratives or making words possessive before asking them to edit their own drafts. Although this process was more fruitful than the wasteful worksheets I had used early in my career, I still felt students deserved something better, more meaningful.
When I saw a session at Literacy for All 2015 titled, “Practical Punctuation: Teaching Mechanics In The Writing Workshop (Grades 3–8),” I signed up. I was not expecting to be thrilled by punctuation instruction possibilities. I mean, how exciting can punctuation be?
Turns out, this session was by far my favorite at Literacy for All 2015! The presenter, Dan Feigelson, shared his inquiry-based approach to punctuation during his session by asking, “How can we make students thoughtful punctuation decision-makers?” His thesis really struck me: punctuation is as much of an author’s choice as word choice. For instance, we’ve all read a piece of student’s writing that spans a page or more with no periods. Yet, no one would argue with Charlotte Bronte’s status as an eminent author for composing a sentence such as this in Jane Eyre:
Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. (page 123)
Mr. Feigelson’s constructivist methods allow students to explore the nuances of our language and make sense of the musical-like markings. This way, students come to see punctuation as purposeful rather than rules that have to be followed.
The general procedure for a punctuation inquiry mini-unit follows this framework:
- allow students to explore a collection of mentor texts with the focus of noticing the author’s use of a certain punctuation mark, like commas or quotation marks
- students collect sample sentences from mentor texts and classify them by common traits; this could be part of their daily independent reading (at school and/or home)
- students create their OWN names and definitions for these traits
- students experiment with this new punctuation on drafts they’ve already written
- celebrate the revisions using a document camera; show the before and after drafts and have the author describe his/her punctuating choices
With this approach, the amount of ownership and creation makes punctuation seem less like rules imposed from a higher, unknown being and more like a useful tool for self-expression.
After the mini-unit, there are many extension possibilities:
- have students copy one of their own sentences and then justify every punctuation choice
- after an interactive read aloud, pull interestingly punctuated sentences from the text to examine and discuss the author’s choices
- choose a model sentence from a mentor text, and have students revise one of their own sentences in the manner of the mentor author
- create a classroom how-to punctuation manual
Mr. Feigelson’s balance of inquiry and direct instruction strikes the perfect balance between teaching skills and purposeful, meaningful writing composition.
Heinemann has a sample of Dan Feigelson’s book, Practical Punctuation, to whet your punctuating appetite, or you can borrow my copy of the book from my office! If you’re a MPS elementary teacher, let me know if you’re interested in coplanning a mini-unit on punctuation inquiry! I also drafted a punctuation mini-unit that you can roll out and tweak.