Getting Those Silly Squiggles to Stick: How I Teach Commas, Colons, Semicolons, and Dashes

Note from Matt: Sorry for the brief post hiatus. College letter of recommendation season hit me particularly hard over the last few weeks, and while the storm of letters is still somewhat upon me, I caught some clearer skies this weekend, so I thought I would share a quick post. As I said when I wrote about how I get students to like grammar, October is a grammar focused month in my classes, and here is one of my favorites concerning how I teach those highly forgettable, silly little squiggles that students always seem to mess up: the comma, colon, semicolon, and dash. 

For years I approached punctuation in “the standard teacher” way, which is to say that I told my students rules for punctuation, parts of speech, capitalization, etc. and gave them worksheets to practice. And for years my students approached punctuation in what is definitely the standard student way, which is to say that they groaned about doing grammar and most of them showed minimal, if any, growth in their understanding after they did the worksheets.

What I didn’t know then is that there is actually a rather old, large, and impressive body of research that shows that a lot of the traditional grammar approaches—isolated worksheets, grammar terminology ad-nauseum, diagramming sentences (sorry, Sister Bernadette)—don’t work very well. In fact, one large study after another from the last fifty years has found that this type of out of context instruction generally has no impact on writing improvement or even a small, statistically significant negative impact on students’ writing abilities.

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An oldie, but goodie from George Hillocks Jr. in Principal Leadership that shows the effects each instructional activity has on writing improvement. Note the only one going the wrong way.

The best theory I’ve seen for how direct, out-of-context grammar instruction might make student writing worse is the one that I saw in this Atlantic article. It suggests that maybe standard grammar curriculums hurt writing ability because they undermine students’ confidence concerning writing and increase students’ antipathy towards the act of putting pen to paper.

Whatever the reason, as I stated above, the out-of-context worksheets/terms hardly made a ripple in my student’s writing ability, so a handful of years ago I adopted a different way of teaching grammar. I do still directly teach it, but I teach it as a fun tool that writers can use to get their point across better. I’ve found taking this “here are tools for your writing arsenal” approach, as opposed to “here are all the mistakes you make” approach, means that I get to directly teach students grammar without using it as a wedge that drives them away from writing.

With that in mind, here is how I use this new approach to teaching students about the often misunderstood members of the punctuation family: the colon, dash, semicolon, and comma.

I start by having students take out their phones and do the following:

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I do this so that students can see that they are already do the things that colons, semicolons, commas, and dashes communicate–namely, adding emphasis, breaks, and connections.

I then use the following inquiry-based worksheets to explore the ways that we can add emphasis/excitement and break-apart/add extra information when writing in Standard English.

The Emphasizers

The Connectors

After talking through the worksheets, fielding questions, and playing around with examples on the board, the students then take out their most current paper and insert colons, semicolons, dashes, and commas in ways that make the writing better. At the end of class, they send me screen shots of moments where these funny squiggles improve their writing, and over the weeks I make sure to revisit these little marks from time to time to look at other cool ways they can impact writing. Further, if I really want them to think about something, I will even put “bounties” on topics from class like dashes or colons, where I will give extra credit for finding mentor text examples of authors using them well or for the students themselves using them in interesting ways in major papers.

In the end, the key is that students need to understand that grammar isn’t a trap waiting to get them; it is a set of tools that expand what is possible in their writing. If they know that, each new grammar lesson not only sticks way better, it also improve’s the students’ confidence because they have another piece they can use to solve puzzles in their writing!

Yours in (grammar) teaching,


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