The most frequent collocation for the word “punctuation” is “yawn.” Keep your lessons on these essential symbols from causing narcolepsy by adding humor and context.
We all know about life’s absolutes, death and taxes. Every school teacher adds a third to form a tortuous trio – punctuation. In order to develop a student’s writing ability, he or she needs to learn the basics and then the refinements of punctuation. e. e. cummings notwithstanding, punctuation clarifies meaning and aids the reader’s comprehension.
Even Punctuation has a History
Relatively non-existent before the 15th century, punctuation became essential as more and more printed material was made available to the general public. We can blame Gutenberg. His genius created the printing press and, voilà, text became a universal media. And, with text came great confusion. When people speak, they alter their intonation, pitch, tone and stress to convey emotion, importance, a hierarchy of ideas, and an ending. We also pause verbally to separate one idea from another, to articulate lists, and to emphasize a thought. Print doesn’t do any of that automatically, and the first pages from early printing presses were a mass of undistinguished verbiage, with no cues as to pacing, pauses, or emphasis whatsoever. This scriptio continua might have been the death of literacy had not man, in his wisdom, developed a set of marks to let the reader know what was being said.
Making Hen Tracks and Fly Specks Interesting to Students
Most teachers are familiar with the phrase, “teaching in context”, that is, connecting the material to something real or related. One example, in terms of literature, would be to connect the young men from the two families in Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets, to gangs in America. How are they different? How are they the same? This strategy certainly ups the interest ante in classroom.
Punctuation presents a different type of problem. Lesson plans usually put the punctuation in the context of the written word. How should this sentence be punctuated? What punctuation errors do you see in this sentence? While marginally effective, too much of this will cause students’ eyes to glaze over. However, setting punctuation instruction within a selection of creative contexts will transform the standard lesson, offer real-life examples of effective use, and may well bring a laugh along with a greater understanding.
Creative Contexts for Punctuation Instruction
- Cartoons – The internet has a vast supply of cartoons on every possible subject. Recently I did a 5 minute search and rounded up and downloaded 10 cartoons on different punctuation marks. In class, these can be used individually or as a group. Having students draw their own cartoons is one means of helping to anchor the rules in their minds and provide a creative balance to the pragmatism of the usual punctuation practice.
- Essays and Books – Rarely do students, or even their teachers, consider what other people have written about punctuation. If they have briefly pondered the issue, it was probably followed by a yawn. Two accessible essays in particular speak to contrasting views of this topic. One, by Pico Iyer, from Time magazine, waxes positively rhapsodic on the infinite wonders contained in the comma, while another, from Paul Robinson, delivers lessons for punctuation usage with the author’s deft touch and a philosophical bent. As a preface to punctuation instruction or a welcome relief, these texts can be used to deepen understanding or as a platform for creative writing.
- Bloopers – Eats, Shoots and Leaves occupies an honored corner of the punctuation blooper pie, but the Village of Crestwood’s sign exhorting its citizens to learn English runs a close second. “English Is Our Language No Excections Learn It”. A little spelling assistance and a punctuation mark or two, such as “English Is Our Language. No Exceptions! Learn It!” would have made this message more literate, if not more tolerant.
- People Dedicated to Punctuation – An office set up on Vauxhall Road in Boston, Lincolnshire, England exists solely to support the correct use of apostrophes. They are the Apostrophe Protection Society, a group of anywhere from 2 to 10,000 strong. The site offers short lessons on the correct use of this much-abused punctuation mark and detailed lists on the misuse of the same. Nearly 1.8 million people have visited the site since its inception, a testament to a growing concern for the apostrophe.
Each of these non-standard contexts stands as relevant and diverting. By introducing any one of them, a teacher can vary and enhance the curriculum’s inevitable lessons on punctuation use, perhaps truly evoking respect and understanding for the simple comma and the forthright period in the process.