Saturday, 17 January 2015

Post script punctuation

Over the last few weeks I have been exploring punctuation on the blog. But, probably, more importantly, I have been focusing on how we teach it. Do we focus our teaching of punctuation skills before writing? Or, do we focus on supporting its use when students write? Or, is it a post-production special effect? The CGI of writing. Everything is green screen until we add the wizardry of punctuation.  

Don’t forget to check your punctuation. That’s probably the sentence that most teachers use in the conversations with students at the end of the writing process. Have you checked it? Have you proofread your writing? Often, the student’s response to this kind of comment is a nodding of heads and a lack of proofreading. We all know that some people cannot nod their head and rub their belly effectively. So when a student nods their head to proofreading, I know in the back of my head they haven’t really done it.  You can’t possibly nod your head and proofread at the same time.

In my experience, if a student hasn’t used full stops securely during the writing process, then it is unlikely that that student will have an epiphany afterwards and add full stops to their diet-punctuation-paragraph.  If you don’t think in sentences, it is then hard to turn that thinking into blocks of meaning.

Assuming that students have a certain level of proficiency, how can we help students use punctuation after the writing process? Step forward the speech writer. All too often, our students see punctuation as an issue at the point of use. It isn’t something to reflect on. It isn’t something that you look back on. Like buying a house, you don’t look closely at the mortar between bricks when you are deciding if this is your dream home. You are thinking if you can fit a bookcase in that space. Those of us that love writing adore looking back at a piece of writing and thinking about how to make it better. For students, it is purely a tick boxing exercise. Like spellings, I have to check my work or miss will ‘ave a go at me.  

Speech writers know the importance of a comma, full stop and a dash to transform as speech and clarify meaning. Edward in Year 10 knows that all writing must have full stops in it and if he wants miss to praise him then he’ll add one of those other marks that he hardly ever uses. The different levels of understanding is miles apart. One to make meaning. The other to satisfy an expectation. For teachers, I think the hard job we have is making punctuation a natural process, a priority and meaningful. Will students ever understand the purpose of a semi colon if all they do is equate it to something clever people do in their writing and only Level 6 students use? It simply becomes something that a student crams in to show off and not something that is used to develop and improve the communication.

Let’s have a look at a speech by Elizabeth I.

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

This is probably treason: But, what if I looked at the punctuation and tried to improve on things.

What if I added sarcastic inverted commas?

I know I have the body of a ‘weak’, ‘feeble’ woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.

She scorns what others think of her rather than admit her weaknesses. Put sarcastic inverted commas around ‘prince’ and she is questioning their nobility and royal claim in Europe.

What if I played around with the use of comas?

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble, woman; but I have the heart, and stomach, of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.

The relevance of things changes. The heart is more important than the stomach and Parma seems more important than Spain.

What if I tried to use other tricks in my arsenal of punctuation?

I know: I have the body of a weak, feeble…woman. But, I have: the heart; and stomach of a king - and of a king of England too! Think foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should ‘dare’ to invade the borders of my realm.

The punctuation can transform the writing and add a new level of the original meaning. Speech writers know this. A comma in the wrong place will probably do more damage than a single word.

If we get students to see that the punctuation can be modified post production, they will be able to make more meaningful writing.

CGI can be used subtlety. One use it has is to digitally hide satellite dishes on houses in a period drama. You don’t notice it has been done. It adds to the whole experience. It makes it seem more realistic. We need to get students to digitally improve their writing with punctuation. We don’t need any big bangs and flashes associated with CGI, just a comma moved about here or there.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 3 January 2015

I heart punctuation

I’d like to think that there are magical pixies in my head responsible for my punctuation choices in my writing. Most of the time they are making magic dust to feed the unicorns of my imagination, but every so often, when I am writing, they pop up and use their magic and help me use punctuation.

Ok, maybe this isn’t the case. But, I am becoming increasingly interested in how we use punctuation and, more importantly, what makes us use those funny little marks that some use with glee abandon and others use like they are some form of anthrax. We have all sat before a piece of work that is drowning in commas, but is a desert for full stops. What makes a student write pages and pages of writing and not use one single full stop? Ask that same student: ‘What do you need to do to improve your writing?’ They simply say: ‘Add full stops.’ Yes, add. But maybe the problem really is they should ‘think’ in full stops.


Often the case with students’ writing is that they are so concerned with getting ideas on the page that the casualty of speed is punctuation. Students often know how to use punctuation. We get it in our heads as teachers that they know diddlysquat about using it. They do; they just haven’t applied the rules or they have forgotten them. I am in essence talking about full stops, commas, exclamation marks and question marks. I have endlessly circled errors and the students have always been able to say ‘oh, yeah I missed a full stop’. When writing, they are in the eye of the storm. Everything looks fine to them.

The race to capture a set of decent ideas means that communication of these ideas is neglected. The simple manta is often used: As long as I have it on the page, I am fine. Teachers know the value of crafting writing. We plan the appropriate time for students to write effectively. We make them plan. We make them proofread. We do everything we can to help them craft, but still I am left with one student finishing thirty minutes before the allocated time and one student always needs an extra day to get the best piece of work.  Possibly, we need to get them to use punctuation in more of a functional way. I alluded to being explicit with the purpose of punctuation in my last blog, but what if we were explicit with the function of a piece of punctuation.

The cat sat on the mat.

The cat sat on the mat, but it was cold.

The cat sat on the mat; it was dead.

The cat (a flea ridden orange thing) sat on the mat.  

The cat sat on the mat, waiting for its food: a plate of fish.

The cat sat on the mat – like it usually does.  

Yep, I have ditched the question mark and the exclamation mark as those pieces of punctuation are set in stone. I mean: you commit to a sentence being an exclamation or question from the start. You might change to a question or exclamation afterwards, but usually you think of them at the time of writing the sentence.

Over the years, I have taught students explicit sentence structures to help them learn automatically where the punctuation should go. It works, but to develop more sophisticated writing my students need to know how to develop and extend an idea. After all, that’s the purpose of punctuation. It isn’t to make the English teacher happy. It is about how we take one idea and shape and form it. In the past, I have discussed our reliance on discourse markers to shape ideas. The sad drawback of this is that students don’t really develop an idea; they just play table tennis with an idea. Additionally… this. Furthermore… this. However…this. In contrast…this. Writing is about communicating an idea effectively. That means developing and exploring it. Not endless listing of things.

I have an idea  - It is about a cat!  

The cat sat on the mat.

I want to explain more about the idea

Comma + another sentence

The cat sat on the mat, but it was cold.

I want to carry on discussing the topic but I want to add an idea that only partly related to the original one

Semicolon + another sentence

The cat sat on the mat; it was dead.

I want to give more information about one particular thing in the sentence

Thing, bracket, phrase, bracket, sentence

The cat (a flea ridden orange thing) sat on the mat.

I want to introduce something new to the idea.

Colon + phrase  

 The cat sat on the mat, waiting for its food: a plate of fish.

I want to interrupt the original train of thought by adding an idea. I could use the word ‘therefore’ instead of a dash in this situation.

Dash + phrase

The cat sat on the mat – like it usually does.  

At every stage, the punctuation helps add detail to the original subject/idea. The sentences are pants, but they give you an idea of how the sentence (original idea) can be developed. Students tend to list ideas rather than develop them. Looking at exam board specs, it is all about the depth of ideas and not the quantity of ideas. Maybe, just maybe, we need to look at punctuation as a way to develop those ideas. All too often we get students to write more in the vain hope they will develop their ideas.

We often focus on accuracy with punctuation. Or, we focus on there not being a variety of punctuation in a piece of work. What if we concentrated on how students use punctuation to develop and extend ideas?

Look at the writing of Charles Dickens and you see what ‘the cat on the mat’ does. He plays with ideas like a cat plays with a ball of wool. He pushes it one way really far. He pushes it another just as far. He will also focus on a strand for ages. Or, he will go for the whole ball and pounce.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog. Maybe a few pixies died trying to get the punctuation right in this blog.