FOCUS on Punctuation: Why is this a problem?!

Punctuation is an aspect of language conventions that can be quite complicated for teachers.  In Australia, there are at least two generations of teachers (myself included) who were not explicitly taught punctuation for writing.  We are the direct result of an education theory known as the Whole Language model.  This model has been in common use since the early 1980’s and is based on the theory that students who are exposed to accurate language conventions — including: spelling, punctuation, grammar and text structure — and immersed in accepted convention will learn these conventions easily.  The whole language model reduced and even eliminated explicit teaching of language conventions.  So, it was not until we reached university that we learned the difference between a recount and a report, an apostrophe of possession and an apostrophe of contraction, correct spelling and appropriate grammar rules.  Well, we had the basics, but we didn’t know the why and how of language conventions and we didn’t know or understand exceptions to the rule.


The direct result is the two generations of teachers that struggle everyday with accurate language conventions.  While they are expected to explicitly teach punctuation and grammar rules, they have little to no confidence in their own skills.  Some have an abundance of confidence but are actually quite wrong in their usage of commas, semi colons, brackets and other advanced punctuation (not to mention incorrect spelling and grammar).  Therefore, the indirect result is another generation (maybe two) of “blind” students being led by “blind” teachers.  The explicit teaching of punctuation in the early and middle years of school is inconsistent at best and at worst: non-existent.  Teachers can’t even model language conventions accurately as they don’t have the skills to do so in their own writing.

These days the Balanced Literacy approach is favoured as it incorporates strategies from several pedagogy theories and involves a balance of both indirect and direct teaching and learning activities.  The theory behind balanced literacy is to take the good things from each theory in moderation and find the best strategy that works for the learner in the classroom.

It is easy for department/ district leaders and principals to direct classroom teachers to explicitly teach punctuation (and other language conventions).  Unfortunately, if the teachers are not provided with professional development about the correct use of punctuation, students will continue to be given misinformation.  

Another obstacle to ‘fixing’ the problem is the fluidity of the English language.  This is especially true when we consider that British/ Australian and US language conventions differ in many ways and more often than not, the US convention is more widely accepted.  Some words have several acceptable spellings while maintaining the same meaning, for example: focussed and focused are both considered appropriate.  Chat-rooms and the infamous “text message” language (that has no real rules at all), have caused many of the technological natives to question the need for punctuation at all (unless it is used to indicate a facial expression or mood).  The words we use, the rules for spelling, punctuation and grammar depend — now, more than ever — on the context of the writing.

When I was told that “Punctuation and Grammar” was the focus for the second semester this year, I cringed.  I know that there are some teachers who have in excess of 20 years of teaching experience and they know the rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar.  They know them because they were taught the conventions by rote and they were corrected relentlessly by their teachers and they were expected to use the correct conventions all the time.  I also know that many more of the teachers at my school do not know all language conventions with certainty and confidence.  They are not prepared to teach Punctuation and I must admit: neither am I.  


My first step for  supporting this ‘focus’ was to split it into two smaller areas.  This term we will work only on punctuation.  I have introduced kinesthetic learning activities for teaching and revising punctuation.  This week, I handed out a quick reference guide for teachers to use so they can know the basic (and some advanced) punctuation symbols and uses.  Next, we will begin working on specific activities for all teachers to use in their classrooms (regardless of subject area).

TOMORROW: Style Guides and Web Resources for Teaching Punctuation as well as a FREE Download of my Quick Reference Guide.

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