A Favorite Language Lesson:  How to Breath More Life (and Meaning) Into Commas

As I mentioned last week, I am in the midst of finishing a manuscript about ways to make grammar and language instruction more interesting, valuable, joyful, inclusive, and generally more effective. As I dot the final i’s and cross the final t’s, I won’t have a ton of extra bandwidth to spend on the newsletter, but in some ways that is alright, as April is generally not a time for deep pedagogical reflection for most teachers I know. Instead it is often testing season for my secondary readers and the end of the year for my college ones.

With this all in mind, my plan is save my deeper reflections until the summer months and instead drop in a favorite grammar/language lesson each week. Specifically, I’ll share lessons that involve topics that always shows up on tests like the SAT or ACT (for my secondary readers) and are also a solid take-your-writing-to-that-next-level end-of-the-year lessons too (for both secondary and post-secondary readers).

My first lesson is a new favorite from this year about commas and cadence that has really helped some of my students to understand how to use commas and also why we use commas in the first place. Here is how it goes:

The lesson begins with me playing the background music we often listen to during independent reading and writing (the Lofi Girl is a favorite of my classes this year). I then ask my students: “Why is this background music? What makes it something that we tend to tune out?” It doesn’t take long for the students to figure it out: The background music does little rising and falling and the rhythm stays remarkably consistent.

Next I ask for (school-appropriate) student suggestions of something undeniably catchy—something so infectious that it has billions of streams/views. This year we listened to everything from Baby Shark (the most views in Youtube history) to pop music icons like Taylor Swift and Beyonce to viral hits like Old Town Road and Gangnam Style, and I asked the same question: “What is going on with the music that makes this impossible to ignore and potentially impossible to not get up and dance too?” Once again the students tend to see it quickly: The catchy songs are by design all over the place in their cadence. They oscillate between high highs and low lows, hold onto some notes while blowing through others, stop on a dime and accelerate just as fast, and inevitably elevate the entire song at the bridge in that exact right moment.

I then explain to the students that writing works in very much the same way. Many young and not so young writers tend to fall into the same sentence patterns over and over, and, if left unchecked, it can give their writing a certain background music feel. But if writers learn how to use and shift their rhythm, it can help them to stand out in the same way that viral hits stand out above the crowd. And one of the main tools we have to shift our rhythm is commas, as commas indicate a pause that is different from the ending pause that a period or a question/exclamation mark creates.

Next, my students do a notetaker where they look at the four main ways commas can be used to create different types of sentences. These four types of sentences—while related in some ways—are different from the classically given four types of sentences, but I’ve found the more practical grouping of them to be more effective at helping my students to understand both sentence structures and commas. Here is a notetaker that I use to help my students understand them (and here is a link to it):

Once students have a good sense of the different options, we then look at the rhythm and style different authors create with thoughtful attention to sentence structure. This year I used Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, and Ross Gay in three pieces that were about going home. Here they are:

Author #1: Kiese Laymon from “Bedtime Songs

“It’s something past midnight in Oxford, Mississippi, and I’m on my way home. Every night I throw on my hoodie, get in my truck, and drive around Lafayette County listening to New York love songs in Mississippi. Tonight, I drove to the Krogers parking lot, the recycling place on Molly Barr, the post office, and I circled the town square four times before heading toward Batesville. I didn’t want any food. Didn’t have anything to recycle. Wasn’t expecting any mail. I still don’t drink. I decided to drive because I didn’t want to be home. I didn’t want to be home because I didn’t want to be alone, quiet, still. I’m thankful to have a physical and spiritual place to call home in Mississippi, but there’s a loneliness I didn’t anticipate when I moved back after living in Poughkeepsie, New York, for fifteen years.”

Author #2: Jesmyn Ward in “My True South

“When I moved home in 2010, I packed my two-door car nearly to the roof and drove for three days from California’s Bay Area to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I took my preferred route, avoiding long, blistered I-10 through Phoenix and the very bottom of New Mexico and Texas in favor of I-40 across northern Arizona and New Mexico and into Dallas. Except for the bright puncture of pinwheeling stars across the night sky, I despised the desert. The dry air, suffused with heat, felt as if it were flaying me. The plants, so sparse and scraggly, offered no shade, no succor. When I crossed the 100th meridian west of Dallas, with moisture settling in the air and plants crowding the sides of the highway, tall pines and verdant vines and lush shrubs, it was as if the very water in the air buoyed me up so I could float through the heat.

When I crossed the Louisiana-Texas state line, I exhaled. And I exhaled again when I crossed the Mississippi state line over the swampy expanse of Pearl River. When I turned right on Kiln DeLisle Road, driving past my grandmother’s house, my grandaunt’s house, my uncles’ houses and my sister’s house, where my uncles were fixing the roof on the pump shed and my aunt waved from her porch, another exhalation. When I pulled into my mother’s rocky driveway and cut my car off, another; and then a deep breath to steady myself and gain my bearings.

When people ask me why I returned home to Mississippi after years of living in the West, the East and the Midwest, I simply say this: I moved home because I love the beauty of the place, and I love the people. But this is a toothless answer, as weak and harmless as a baby’s mouth.”

Author #3: Ross Gay in “Have I Ever Told You About the Courts I Loved?

“The very first would be the ones in the apartments where I grew up, where I have the firm memory of my father dunking while still wearing his Pizza Hut duds—my brother confirms this—, and where I marked spots (x’s with medical tape) to practice for the hot shot competition, shoveling snow from the court (cue little-kid-shoveling-snow-so-he-can-practice-basketball music) which, yeah whatever, Craig won. Sometimes at this court there were two hoops, sometimes one (a hoop can get pulled down by a big kid, you know? I have been that big kid. Who even knows what a big kid is anymore?), always it was crooked, often there were puddles, perpetually there were little craters in the asphalt which, if the game was serious, someone would probably take a little bit of that asphalt home in their palm or knee.

And then the courts—that’s overstatement, it was a hoop—at the public elementary school next to the apartments (where the court, the hoops, had been all the way ripped down by the big kids), where one night a couple kids from Bristol came by to play, and I probably had the very best shooting game of my life. In a 2 v. 2, 14 years old, in the dark as I recall, having a night like Klay Thompson would 30 years later, myself the sole verifier of the feat.” 

And lastly, once the students’ ability to observe and discuss sentence structure reaches a certain level, I have them turn it to their own writing and use what they find to begin to elevate their own voices:

If you want a copy of this notetaker, which I do over a couple days, here it is again. And if there are any grammar/language topics you’d like me to share, let me know, because, as I always say, we are all in this together!

Yours in teaching,


If you liked this…

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2 responses to “A Favorite Language Lesson:  How to Breath More Life (and Meaning) Into Commas”

  1. […] is the second entry in a series I’m doing on some favorite spring grammar/language lessons. Here is a link to the first […]


  2. […] like parts of speech, punctuation, and rhetoric, we now talk about the tools we have to capture the cadence of our voices, add emphasis, or—for this week’s favorite language lesson—add some style to our […]


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