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.


During

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,

Xris

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.

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