Bringing Excitement to Punctuation Instruction with a New Context
The most frequent collocation for the word “punctuation” is “yawn.” Keep your lessons on these essential symbols from causing narcolepsy by adding humor and context.
We all know about life’s absolutes, death and taxes. Every school teacher adds a third to form a tortuous trio — punctuation. In order to develop a student’s writing ability, he or she needs to learn the basics and then the refinements of punctuation. e. e. cummings notwithstanding, punctuation clarifies meaning and aids the reader’s comprehension.
Even Punctuation has a History
Relatively non-existent before the 15th century, punctuation became essential as more and more printed material was made available to the general public. We can blame Gutenberg. His genius created the printing press and, voilà, text became a universal media. And, with text came great confusion. When people speak, they alter their intonation, pitch, tone and stress to convey emotion, importance, a hierarchy of ideas, and an ending. We also pause verbally to separate one idea from another, to articulate lists, and to emphasize a thought. Print doesn’t do any of that automatically, and the first pages from early printing presses were a mass of undistinguished verbiage, with no cues as to pacing, pauses, or emphasis whatsoever. This scriptio continua might have been the death of literacy had not man, in his wisdom, developed a set of marks to let the reader know what was being said.
Making Hen Tracks and Fly Specks Interesting to Students
Most teachers are familiar with the phrase, “teaching in context”, that is, connecting the material to something real or related. One example, in terms of literature, would be to connect the young men from the two families in Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets, to gangs in America. How are they different? How are they the same? This strategy certainly ups the interest ante toward Shakespeare as I have good reason to know.
Punctuation presents a different type of problem. Lesson plans usually put the punctuation in the context of the written word. How should this sentence be punctuated? What punctuation errors do you see in this sentence? While marginally effective, too much of this will cause students’ eyes to glaze over. However, setting punctuation instruction within a selection of creative contexts will 1)transform the standard lesson, 2)offer real-life examples of effective use, and 3) may well bring forth a laugh along with a greater understanding.
Creative Contexts for Punctuation Instruction
- Cartoons — The internet has a vast supply of cartoons on every possible subject.
Recently I did a 5 minute search and rounded up and downloaded 10 cartoons on different punctuation marks. In class, these can be used individually or as a group. Having students draw their own cartoons is one means of helping to anchor the rules in their minds and provide a creative balance to the pragmatism of the usual punctuation practice.
2. Essays and Books — Rarely do students, or even their teachers, consider what other people have written about punctuation. If they have briefly pondered the issue, it was probably followed by a yawn. Two accessible essays in particular speak to contrasting views of this topic. One, by Pico Iyer, from Time magazine, waxes positively rhapsodic on the infinite wonders contained in the comma, while another, from Paul Robinson, delivers lessons for punctuation usage with the author’s deft touch and a philosophical bent. As a preface to punctuation instruction or a welcome relief, these texts can be used to deepen understanding or as a platform for creative writing.
3. Bloopers — Eats, Shoots and Leaves occupies an honored corner of the punctuation blooper pie, but the Village of Crestwood’s sign exhorting its citizens to learn English runs a close second. “English Is Our Language No Excections Learn It”. A little spelling assistance and a punctuation mark or two,
such as “English Is Our Language. No Exceptions! Learn It!” would have made this message more literate, if not more inclusive.
4. People Dedicated to Punctuation — An office set up on Vauxhall Road in Boston, Lincolnshire, England exists solely to support the correct use of apostrophes. They are the Apostrophe Protection Society, a group of anywhere from 2 to 10,000 strong. The site offers short lessons on the correct use of this much-abused punctuation mark and detailed lists on the misuse of the same. Nearly 1.8 million people have visited the site since its inception, a testament to a growing concern for the apostrophe.
5. Games about Punctuation
A. America’s Top Editor — A GROUP or TEAM GAME (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdppWXEgHRk) Hand out a text that is riddled with punctuation errors and errors in punctuation. Working in teams, the groups have to determine where the errors are and how to fix it. The competition motivates students to use their critical thinking skills to figure out the answers, particularly if their is a meaningful reward.
B. The Lazy Editor — A PAIR ACTIVITY (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdppWXEgHRk) Give each pair a different prompt to make the review more interesting later. Each member of the pair team has to write for 10 minutes on the prompt, without letting the other person see what they are writing. In this game, students don’t just have permission to make errors in punctuation, they are encouraged to make a lot of errors. After 10 minutes, the students in each pair exchange papers and the receiver of the other person’s paper has to try to correct the paper he or she has been given. Us a document reader to review the activity and determine how each team did.
C. Strips of Paper Game or Writing by the Yard Game — GROUP or TEAM ACTIVITY (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdppWXEgHRk) Divide the class into teams and handout a really long strip of paper, as much as 36" or more. The team task is to write the longest possible sentence that is not a run-on and that has all the proper punctuation marks. NOTE: I use this same strategy for the Perfect Sentence game, a more advanced format in which students have to get everything correct to win, not just punctuation.
Each of these non-standard contexts support relevance and diversion. By introducing any one of them, a teacher can vary and enhance the curriculum’s inevitable lessons on punctuation use, perhaps truly evoking respect and understanding for the simple comma and the forthright period in the process.