In my first discussion of grammar on this blog, I mentioned that one of my favorite words is shibboleth, which comes from the biblical Book of Judges. Here is what Dr. S. Kemmer of Rice University says about it:

shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by one set of people to identify another person as a member, or a non-member, of a particular group…The purpose of a shibboleth is exclusionary as much as inclusionary: A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider and thereby excluded by the group. [It comes from the Biblical Book of Judges where] two Semitic tribes, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, have a great battle. The Gileadites defeat the Ephraimites, and set up a blockade across the Jordan River to catch the fleeing Ephraimites who were trying to get back to their territory. The sentries asked each person who wanted to cross the river to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimites, who had no shsound in their language, pronounced the word with an s and were thereby unmasked as the enemy and slaughtered.

-Dr. S. Kemmer

What I love about this rather grotesque word is that it so exactly captures why we focus so much energy on things like punctuation. We know that our world is full of shibboleths–hidden passwords and tests that our students will face that will lead to either their inclusion or exclusion from certain groups.

And I would argue few shibboleths are as dangerous as punctuation and specifically commas. Part of what makes commas such a tempting shibboleth is that they are instantly recognizable on a page. While a reader could easily overlook a moment of dull word choice or muddy phrasing, even one comma error stands out automatically to the seasoned reader. Further, commas are one of the few areas in writing where clear right-and-wrong rules exist (except the Oxford Comma, but that is the story for another post).

Add these two together and mix in the fact that it is largely acceptable (and even celebrated in a certain way) to judge people for their punctuation, and you get the answer for why commas tend to be a heavily-covered topic from elementary to high school.

And yet despite the fact that most students likely hear about commas dozens of times over their years in school, a lot of them continue to struggle with them. For many of the high schoolers I see, the year-after-year struggle and confusion has led them to feel that they are “just bad at commas,” as if those little squiggles are written into their genetic code somewhere.

So why is it that commas often don’t stick, even after being discussed every year from the middle of elementary to their senior years? Today, I want to unpack that and walk you through how I seek to eliminate comma (and other punctuation) errors by going through the following steps:

Step 1: Demystify Commas

There are any number of worksheets and websites that list all kinds of comma rules. CCC and the OWL lab list 11 major rules, GrammarBook has 16 rules, and Grammarly gives 27 rules in its ironically labeled “quick” guide to commas.

Many students and adults alike see this and mentally turn away, sure that they will never internalize that many rules. And yet, as I wrote in the fall, nearly all commas boil down to four pretty straight-forward rules: lists, introductory clauses, connecting two independent clauses, and extra information (read more about that here). There are other rules, but for the lay person, these four tend to suffice. Making this fact and these rules clear is an important first step in demystifying commas for those students who’ve built them up into a monster that is beyond their command. While knowing all 27 different rules well enough to deploy them correctly in the midst of writing sounds daunting, doing that with four relatively straightforward rules is distinctly doable.

Step 2: Show Them Examples

Grammar topics discussed in the abstract will remain tenuous for many students. The good news is that commas are omnipresently around us, meaning that finding good mentor texts that show grammar in the wild is as easy as pulling up nearly any article from any site. For example, I just used this one last week in my composition class, which is a thoughtful article about race and professional sports by basketball player Kyle Korver called “Privileged” (it is from The Player’s Tribune, which a great site for thoughtful mentor texts written by athletes).

In it, all four types of commas are used in the first few paragraphs, and as a class we went through them, figured out what rule they fall under, and then examined the reasons why the author would use those commas in those spots. The key here is the last part where we discuss the usage of the commas. I’ve found students can find commas and link them to a rule without fully understanding them, but it is much harder for them to explain why an author uses a comma to connect two independent clauses in any given moment if they don’t fully grasp the rule.

Step #3: Give Commas Serious Focus

The first two steps are commonly done by many teachers, but the third step–which is far more rare in the classroom–is where the commas lessons are truly translated into understanding.

I am convinced that the biggest problem with comma instruction is that it always a subplot and never the main focus. Every year, students get a comma worksheet or two and maybe commas appear as a sub-bullet on grading rubrics under some larger category like “mechanics” or “punctuation.” But the poor comma tends to always be a bridesmaid and never a bride.

If we want students to truly learn commas, we need to give them some time to focus on commas and get comfortable with them. This time isn’t always easy to find (as most of us have too much already to cover), but it is key that we find a way to make it happen. For me, I look at it as an investment that might save me time down the line. I know that if I take a class or two to dive deeply into commas early in the year, it usually means that I have to spend way less time talking about them the rest of the year.

This need for focus is also why one of my first papers in many classes is something I call The Comma Paper. It’s premise is simple. The students can write about anything they want in a one page free-write , but they need to have at least twenty commas, encompassing all of the rules, that are used in thoughtful, interesting ways and with no comma errors. The use of those commas is the sole criteria for the grade.

I’ve found that after this paper a huge number of comma errors evaporate, often for good, because it gives students the space and time needed to grapple with and internalize commas–a space and time that doesn’t exist if commas just occupy a few worksheets scattered over the year. Also, it should be noted that this assignment is really useful for getting students who are already strong with commas to begin using them as tools, as opposed to just rules that need to be followed. I often nudge the students who already largely grasp commas to use them to play with the rhythm of a piece through doing things like adding appositives to make a sentence feel fuller or using conjunctive commas to link sentences and thereby improve the flow of the piece.

Step #4: Revise As Needed

I have very mixed feelings about grades, but in the end I do grade the comma paper in my classes. My grading system is pretty straightforward. I deduct a point for each error and highlight (using Google Classroom) each line that contains an error (either a misused comma or a comma not present where it should be). I do not make the change for them or explain what is wrong. The paper only comes after lots of instruction and materials, so fixing it for them would be doing the work for the students.

Afterwards, I give the students the option to figure out what went wrong and make corrections to get full points back by making the change. Of course, the “option” here is closer to a requirement, as I give students class time to make these changes and make sure to seek out those who struggled for short conferences.

This step might seem superfluous, but I’ve found that it is the other key for truly knocking out most comma errors for good. As a seasoned writer, it can be hard to remember how tricky commas can be and how large they can loom in the students’ imaginations. Having this time to sort through and fix errors and misconceptions often makes all the difference for those students who struggle with commas the most.


In the end, commas are little things, but they loom large in both our students’ minds and the minds of others who will potentially be judging them in the future. For this reason I can think of few things that are ultimately more important to invest the time into than really learning the humble comma!

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on best practices in writing instruction.

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