Dot, Dash, Slash, Comma (And All That Other Stuff, Too…)

We have been on a journey these last few weeks.  It’s a journey many of my students have never been on before.  And it’s related to these piles of books:

Can you see it?  All the punctuation goodness on that table?  No?  Well my kiddos can now.   Let me tell you about it. 🙂

Punctuation is a funny thing.  No?  You never thought of it that way?  Well, it’s one of those things that has gotten a bad wrap for a long time, and without good cause–in my opinion.  Many people (including most kids!) think of punctuation as a bad word.  It’s just a you-have-to-go-back-and-add-it-in-the-right-place-at-the-end-because-your-teacher-told-you-too kind of a thing.  Not a this-really-matters-and-helps-me-as-a-writer kind of thing.  And that’s too bad.  Punctuation is a powerful tool for a writer, and I want my kiddos to know that.  But it’s only a powerful tool if you know how to use it, and most of my kids don’t.  At least not yet.  With this goal, we started 2nd quarter Writer’s Workshop.

After spending a bit of time on what they already knew (or thought they knew) about punctuation, I asked them to tell me if they’d ever thought about what it meant.  Most said no.  Some even groaned a little bit at the beginning of this conversation when I said the word.  It was obvious that they’d never had a positive experience with this topic, and that made me a little sad.    As a means to hook them in, and get them to understand my goal for this study, we visited a section of a book we have read together and all love: Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea.  I found a place in the book I knew we could all chew on together; the paragraph right before the big action in the book was a great place to dig in.  I asked them to talk to a partner next to them about why the highlighted sentence was written the way it was, and how it would be different if it had been written without the given punctuation.  We discovered that the punctuation (which was mainly a series of commas) was there to force us as the readers to slow down.  The part just before was fast-paced, crazy and choatic; the commas made us slow down and pay attention to what was happening next.  And what happened next was the climax of the story–without it, the rest of the book wouldn’t have happened.

So remember that pile up there?  After we set the table, and got them feeling a little more love for this idea of punctuation, I put them into study groups.  They had one goal (ok, I guess it was really two): find examples of punctuation in the texts they were given, and figure out what it means when authors use it.  They had a chart to fill out with their partners and a big chunk of time to search.

After the groups had a couple of days to study (yep, you heard right–they worked diligently on this treasure hunt for 2 days!), we gathered to collect our thinking on a big class chart.  They took turned sharing the marks they found and telling the rest of us what they thought it meant. For some this was hard thinking, since they hadn’t done it before.  By the end of the first day we had this:

Ok, that’s not exactly true.  We had all but the hyphen part, but hey–good stuff, right?  They were amazed that they had figured all this out, and that they did it all without me telling them what it was.

The second day we added some thinking about hyphens:

I wish I would have recorded this conversation, because it was so great!  It started with the discovery that a hyphen (-) and a dash (–) are actually two completely different punctuation marks, which mean (and are used in) completely different ways! (Did you know that?) This totally blew some kiddos’ minds and so we had to dig in a little deeper to figure out what each meant.  And hyphens were first.  The first two meanings were hard to explain, but once we started to find examples in the texts we were reading that fit each one, it became more clear.

Since then, we’ve come back every day to add a little more smart thinking.  So far (and we’re only a little past halfway done), we have another whole chart the size of this one, plus we’ve started a third.  The things they are discovering are amazing.  The most amazing–and meaningful–part is that they’re doing it all for themselves.  I’m not pouring the information into their heads, or having them spend time correcting sentences in an isolated exercise for morning work; we’re learning together and really focusing in on what these marks mean.  They’re beginning to care, and they’re beginning to notice these marks more and more–in their reading and now in their own writing!  They are aiming to use them in new ways, and can even tell you how a paragraph is punctuated as I read it aloud to them.  Often I’ll stop after we’ve read something in our chapter book and ask “What do you think that looks like?” and they can tell me exactly what kind of punctuation is there!

Teaching about punctuation is not hard.  But it is time-consuming, and it does require me to know more than I may have first considered about the topic, as well.  But the time that is definitely well spent.  These friends are walking away from each conversation we have with a new understanding of how to they can use punctuation just like word choice, organization, paragraphing, and voice to create a more meaningful experience for the reader.   Pretty cool, right? 🙂

Now the first section hangs on our windows, where it will be there for us to use for the rest of the year!  The goal (and I think they will make it!) is to make their punctuation chart “6 windows” long.  So far we’re at 4 or 5, and still going!  SO MUCH LEARNING!!

What are your feelings about punctuation?  How did you learn about it when you were in school?  How do you teach punctuation in your class?  If you’re a parent, what are you noticing (or hearing) about punctuation with  your student?  Please comment and let us know what you’re thinking! 🙂

5 thoughts on “Dot, Dash, Slash, Comma (And All That Other Stuff, Too…)

  1. Great post! My students enjoy learning about the ways that punctuation adds meaning, and they love seeing how incorrectly used punctuation can comically distort meaning. Thanks for these wonderful ideas for collecting and discussing punctuation in context–I can’t wait to start a class chart like yours!

  2. I am reading aloud to my 5th grade students Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea with the help of Kindle Cloud Reader. This great book as so many great things to point out that the author shows us. By using the Cloud Reader, I can bring a highlighted part up and have the students notice a technique I want them to notice. This post has me thinking I need to help my class figure out all there is to figure out with punctuation. Thanks for the ideas!

  3. Pingback: Trying Something New: Writing Warm-Ups « 20somethingkidsand1kookyteacher

  4. Pingback: Punctuation Study–First Grade Version | 20somethingkids and 1kookyteacher

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