National Writing Project

Making a Successful Punctuation Lesson

By: Mary K. Tedrow
Date: January 2007

Summary: Tedrow describes the interweaving of elements that went into creating one effective lesson: appropriate material, pedagogical knowledge, collegial exchange, and her students' readiness.


While lingering over a final slow start to the lazy summer mornings of August, I read a column published by John Kelly on the comics page of the Washington Post (2004, C12). It celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Capital Beltway. The essay was interesting, but what attracted my attention as I turned my thoughts to the coming school year was the author's varied and adroit use of punctuation that seemed to recreate his spoken voice on the page. "I cross the Potomac over the American Legion Bridge—a bridge I've always found vaguely unsatisfying, since you can't actually see any water as you go over it—and then things start to slow. At Exit 44, Georgetown Pike, I encounter that typically maddening Beltway pause: no discernible reason, no mention on the radio, no idea whether you'll creep along for 30 seconds or 30 minutes."

An added bonus was the energy the students expended in looking at their own writing sentence by sentence.

I decided that the article might be useful for my students, so I cut it out, took it to school, photocopied it, and put it in a manila folder labeled "Punctuation Usage in Article." I didn't look at it again until late October, when it occurred to me that I had exactly what I needed to give my seniors a handle on how to use punctuation to enhance their writing.

The lesson given that October is one I have already learned from and plan to refine and use over and over again. It was successful for nearly everyone in all of my classes. It helped me achieve several goals that had been years in development and would not have been possible in my early days of teaching. It also wouldn't have been as successful if it had come from an online lesson plan site or the back of a teacher's manual inserted in the year without thoughtful reflection on why or how it might benefit the students.

Teaching the Lesson

The lesson itself was actually rather simple, as all good ideas are. After the seniors brought the final drafts of two college essays to class, I introduced the Post column and, through a series of activities, drew their attention to how the author used the punctuation to recreate the spoken word on paper and to enhance his intended meaning.

In a minilesson, I introduced and explained my holistic chart on the uses of punctuation (see below). Pairs of students then looked to the published piece to see how the author had used the differing marks. By referring to the chart, students determined which other pieces of punctuation the author could have chosen and were asked to reflect on how a change in punctuation might make a subtle, rhetorical difference in the reading of the sentence.

Holistic Punctuation Chart

To terminate and separate To combine and separate To introduce To enclose
Period (.)      
Exclamation point (!) Comma (,) Comma (,) Comma (,)
Question mark (?) Semicolon (;)    
  Colon (:) Colon (:)  
  Dash (—) Dash (—) Dashes (—)
      Parentheses ( )
Brackets [ ]
  Hyphen (-)   Quotation marks (“ ”)

Finally, students were directed to do a close reading of their drafts, paying close attention to the meaning of each sentence and to how they would like to have the piece sound if read aloud. Sharing, questioning, and reading aloud were encouraged.

I considered the lesson a success because my students immediately showed a level of confidence in the use and placement of punctuation that I had not observed at other times, when they appeared lost in the fog of punctuation rules. An added bonus was the energy the students expended in looking at their own writing sentence by sentence, determining if they were communicating their intended thoughts. In addition to punctuation marks, students made other changes in their drafts, sometimes making substantive revisions even though this was a third look at the essays.

The Elements of Success

The origin of the invisible decisions made daily by classroom teachers is what intrigued me.

Though it seems straightforward, when I trace back the seeds of that single lesson, I can identify countless sources and my own state of readiness as a teacher as the key to its success. Like a duck floating on the water, the teaching looks simple and serene from above, but from below there is a lot of paddling going on.

The elements of the lesson I identified as necessary to its success were its placement in the teaching year, an active observation of my students, confidence in both pedagogy and writing theory, and the assignment of an authentic piece of writing. The origin of the invisible decisions made daily by classroom teachers is what intrigued me as I considered all the hidden influences on how the lesson developed.

Timing: The lesson was introduced when the students were ready and eager for it. Because they had been working on college application essays which would soon head off in the mail, the seniors had an immediate, pressing need to know how to refine their writing. We had discussed how the essays were often the only opportunity to represent themselves on paper in their best light. The students wanted to publish their ideas in their most literate fashion.

Learning to watch for these moments in teaching came from countless great writing teachers: Nancie Atwell (1995) and her "Teach with a capital `T'" minilessons; Jim Burke, who said "In the course of the writing process, moments arise when we should stop and teach our student writers what they next need to know" (2003); Donald Graves in Investigate Nonfiction (1989) where he recommends that teachers watch for opportunities for real writing experiences; Donald Murray's A Writer Teaches Writing (2004); Ken Macrorie's Searching Writing (1980); Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers (1973); and on and on.

The small decision of when to teach the lesson had been reinforced by my peers in the writing project and supported through the modeling of successful lessons, whose successes were revealed over and over again in the writing of real students. This training helped me understand what to hope for in student writing at the end of a lesson and how to look for evidence that an intervention had worked. My peers had modeled this habit of thought for me.

I had already tried and abandoned the conventional route to helping students with commas.

Observation: A shift in my teaching style occurred when I began to look at my classroom as an opportunity to learn from the students. Exposure to the view of the teacher as researcher, picked up from working with the Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP), had nurtured my curiosity. My colleagues fed this curiosity as they enthusiastically, even joyfully, puzzled over how to unlock a student's understanding. I looked forward to learning from the combined wisdom of other teachers when we described student behavior and discussed catastrophic failures or apparent successes in our teacher workroom. The culture of sharing our observations grew naturally out of the energy created as we learned and celebrated with each other. It's clear that the physical addition of a large workroom contributed significantly to spontaneous sharing over lunch or at the end of a day. Collegial sharing in this informal fashion has been key in restoring and sustaining my teaching energy level.

When I read the newspaper column, I noticed the punctuation because I was still wrestling with ways to help students sort through their confusion as they told me over and over again "I'm not good with commas." I remembered all the students I'd seen who couldn't even name some of the less frequently used marks like the colon, semicolon, ellipses, or hyphen. I had already tried and abandoned the conventional route to helping students with commas: teaching the rules in isolation. Except with the most conscientious student, the knowledge was rarely transferred to their writing. Students' eager attempts to use semicolons in particular often resulted in papers strewn with marks in widely inappropriate, sometimes nonsensical locations. Because of all these attempts, failures, and continued observations, I was ready to see that the column read in August might help me show students how punctuation could be a friend in their effort to communicate their unique voice on the page.

Professional Knowledge: My confidence in explaining the lesson came from years of reading about and understanding the uses of punctuation, spurred by discussions and observations by a community of peers in the NVWP. Because my interest in pedagogical theory had been raised as a result of the summer institute, I had recently read Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (2004). Much of the material in the book on the origin and use of punctuation was not new to me, but the act of choosing the book for leisure time reading was nurtured by an ongoing search for new insights—a teacher attitude planted, watered, and grown in the project. The reading jogged memories of other statements about punctuation I had come across in the literature, and these experiences began to coalesce into a working theory I thought I could articulate for the students.

Excellence in teaching requires a commitment of energy and enthusiasm that can be borne only through a supportive community.

A background in journalism made it clear that many usage rules were arbitrary, as evidenced by the style books all publishing houses use to create uniformity in their publications. Teaching some of the specific rules wasn't going to help my students if they would only be broken later.

Also in my head was a five-year-old memory of an inservice lesson from a teacher who had introduced a chart that simplified the usage of punctuation marks. Back then I had tried with limited success to recreate the lesson in my room, and I was still trying to figure out how to make the chart more useful to both my students and myself. A handout created by a colleague based on that chart was still in my filing cabinet.

All these voices were speaking to me when I began to form the lesson.

Authenticity: On numerous occasions I had attempted to get students to invest the energy needed to look at each sentence with the vigor and attention good communication requires. My journalism students are always involved in producing a newspaper for a real audience. Their need to know the usage issues of our language is immediate and real and I struggle to make classroom work just as immediate and real. This time it worked.

Donald Murray writes that "[e]diting is done to communicate meaning." Because the students were desperate to communicate who they were to faceless admissions counselors or employers, they were willing to expend some energy in editing their papers sentence by sentence.

Teaching punctuation in the context of an ongoing struggle to create meaning forced the students to look at their writing a sentence at a time, a goal I have been striving for in all my years of teaching. In Elements of Style, Strunk and White say, "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

Though the lesson involved punctuation, it forced students to slow down and consider each sentence as an individual thought. They had to determine their intention and use punctuation to enhance the message. In their struggle to create their own vision of the writing, they discovered the rhetorical implication of choosing one piece of punctuation over another.


A single lesson on only one of the 180 days that we face students in the classroom grew out of all the voices of master teachers who had come before. All of the reading, sharing, student watching, and observation of other teachers came together on a single day in a matter of moments, and I was finally ready to teach that lesson.

From the outside, teaching appears to be a simple, straightforward profession. But true pedagogy grows out of the layering of experience, observation, prodding and questioning by peers, sharing, reading, attempts and failures, and willingness to take risks in the classroom. Excellence in teaching requires a commitment of energy and enthusiasm that can be borne only through a supportive community. Without a teaching community, I do not think I would have ever found the key to helping my students embrace the tedious task of closely editing their text. Without a teaching community of published authors, presenters, and the willing teachers next door who share their own successes and failures, I do not even think I would be aware that I could be looking for more and different ways to increase student effectiveness.

Continued growth in our profession relies on actively observing students, looking for their readiness; creating authentic, meaningful assignments; reading widely in the study of our discipline looking for ways to simplify the complex for the novice; and exploring every dimension of teaching in the company of our peers. And ultimately, the student benefits from this collected adult voice.


Atwell, N. 1995. In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning. 2nd ed. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Burke, J. 2003. The English Teacher's Companion: A Complete Guide to Classroom, Curriculum, and the Profession. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Elbow, P. 1973. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Graves, D. 1989. Investigate Nonfiction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kelly, J. 2004. "John Kelly's Washington: The Road Most Taken." The Washington Post , August 25.

Macrorie, K. 1980. Searching Writing . New Jersey: Hayden Book Company.

Murray, D. 2004. A Writer Teaches Writing. 2nd ed. Boston: Heinle.

Truss, L. 2004. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. New York: Gotham Books.

About the Author MARY TEDROW is a National Board Certified Teacher in Winchester, Virginia, where she teaches high school English and journalism. She is co-director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project and a Teacher of Record at Millbrook High School.

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