Message from Dr. Reilly
Dear Teachers and Staff,
During the last 10 weeks, I have joined the ELA office led by Jazleen Othman on site visits to elementary schools. While there, we have been reading students’ writings posted on the walls. It’s evident that in some classrooms and schools students have been learning how to use conventions well when writing. Thank you to those teachers. Also true are classrooms where such instruction is less evident. As you know, all punctuation rules do not matter equally. Some carry far greater weight and these must be attended to explicitly. Of great importance is end punctuation. Learning to create sentences with accurate end punctuation must be mastered.
In Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, he explains, “The period is the stop sign.“ Whether the sentence winds like a country road or plows straight ahead like a highway, the end punctuation be it period, question mark, or exclamation point signals stop. Our students must learn how to correctly signal STOP when writing.
Clark explains that students need to understand that they punctuate for two reasons:
- To set the pace of reading.
- To divide words, phrases, and ideas into convenient groupings.
Recently, I worked hard to read a second grader’s writing because the child did not include any end punctuation, save for the period at the bottom of a full page of writing. The sparse teacher feedback on the paper complemented the writer and told him to work on punctuation. No where on that page was even a modest attempt to signal how to do so. Feedback needs to be present and actionable.
It would have taken a few minutes to sit with the second grader and show him how to include stop signs for the reader using the paper he had written. I like to think that perhaps his teacher did so separately from the writing. When I teach end punctuation, I ask the child to hold his hand with his palm facing close to his mouth so he can feel his breath as he reads. When the breath stops hitting the palm of the hand, punctuation is needed. Punctuation is musical notation for the breath. Children tend to learn this quickly and after a bit of practice and reinforcement, end punctuation becomes routine.
A second method I use when teaching end punctuation is explicitly teaching students how to combine sentences. When it comes to correct syntax, a leading cause of student confusion are fragments. Students are amazed when they begin to see the pattern of fragment followed by the remainder of the sentence. This issue can be caused by the limitations of short term memory. The writer holds the first and then the second part of the sentence as two separate memory chains. Helping students reread, combine, and add accurate end punctuation leads to correction. My favorite resource for teaching sentence combining is any book by the Killgallon (see link at the end).
Imagine if across all of our schools and in all classrooms everyone took the next two weeks to ensure students wrote sentences with correct end punctuation? It would be a revolution! During the next two weeks let’s get this done. Please review the writing your students have done and ask yourself how you are explicitly helping them to learn accuracy with end punctuation. Read work to ascertain if all of the sentences end correctly. If not, show students how to correct these errors. If so, then continue on to see how secure the flows and ebbs are of students’ sentences. Again, Clark writes, “If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks? The comma is a speed bump; the semicolon is what a driver education teacher calls a ‘rolling stop’; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important” (Location 732). I love this visceral description of punctuation. I bet your students will too.
I look forward to reading students’ writing that shows they have learned how to write sentences with correct end punctuation.
Below is a link to blog post listing professional resources for teaching writing and editing: