Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Problem with Punctuation

I've been back in school now since Aug. 8, classes filled with 27-30 junior-level English III kids all ready to tackle the world. It doesn't quite feel like we should be in school; after all, the heat wave of 95+ degree days began in mid-August and continues as I write this in mid-September, a day after mid-quarter progress reports. But here we are, weeks away from finishing the first quarter, and already the pressure is on. My school is fretting over a .1 drop in ACT scores (although those scores still remain above state and national averages). I'm already fretting over the very first ACT test that all junior-level students will take in the spring.

I have to admit that two of the biggest areas in which I struggle as a teacher are instructing grammar and punctuation. Long ago, I didn't seem so frustrated, but like cursive handwriting, grammar and punctuation have become lost in the shuffle. In a modern world of 140 character Twitter speech and acronym shorthand, proper English usage seems to have flown out the window. Kids feel that they can break the rules of writing, even when their doing so means that their writing — quite frankly — sucks. Worse, they feel they don't even need to learn the rules of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, etc. , except for when suddenly they realize that the ACT English test matters, as it's one-fourth of their total score. Yet by then, bad habits are hard to break. By then, trying to get the rules ingrained into student brains becomes a lot like pulling teeth for the non-dentist. Doable, but it's going to be painful.

I attended a grammar workshop last year, taught by Jeff Anderson, M. Ed. , a.k.a. the Write Guy. My district brought him in to speak with all middle and high school English teachers, and we crowded into the Board of Education meeting room and came away inspired and a little shaken. Jeff told us to throw out the "kill and drill" of Daily Oral Language and to reduce or do away with the focusing on what is wrong and how to correct it. Instead he urged us to focus instead on teaching students the rules by showing them great writing examples and by having them make sentences based on those models. He urged that we bring observation and discussion back to the grammar/punctuation lessons. He showed us great writing (from actual literature) and had us discuss it. The teachers had a great time — and I went five for five when he questioned what was right and wrong. Clearly, I was a guru.

So I tried in summer school — and failed. I figured my class of thirteen students would make a good guinea pig, and despite having to spend an entire six hours a day with me for two weeks to make up an English III credit, they were really enthusiastic about trying. I got pieces from Jeff's blog. The trouble was, though, great writers break the rules. These kids didn't even know the rules. It was like that time back in 1987 when my cooperating teacher told me after a lesson (of which my first graders paid such rapt attention) "They didn't have a clue what you said because you used too big of words." I'd gone right over my students' heads. They were with me, but clueless. They tried to model sentences. They tried to write. Together, we both missed finding the key to success.

As I am always the variable in the classroom — the one who can change, the one who can shape the instruction — I knew this wasn't going to work. While Jeff's approach is fantastic, I learned that for me, I can't use just this approach and this alone. There has to be some kill and drill. Some discussion as to why something is wrong. Some discussion as to why things are right. My instruction needed to be more than just one strategy.

Thus, my goal is to figure out how to create a multi-pronged approach to teaching grammar. Currently, I'm working on flipping the classroom — meaning that my students will learn the rules on their own time, by viewing the videos and PowerPoints at home and by bringing in the completed, assigned exercises. I'll then be working on taking that instruction further and having them actually using what they've learned and applying it in their writing. I will be able to integrate Jeff's approach as my students will have prior knowledge, even if that knowledge isn't necessarily completely understood. Basically, we will have some common ground, and the rules introduced in fun, personal and interactive ways.

Will I succeed? I don't know. My students know the ACT is important, and they do have buy in. If they do well on the ACT the school administers in the spring, that ACT can count as one they can send to colleges — and the test will have been free. Free is always good. I'll keep you posted in a future column as how it all goes.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 17th 2013, 7:03 AM
Comment by: Anne P. (Eden Prairie, MN)
Grammar with a Giggle series is particularly helpful to cement grammar rules in students' heads. I teach at a private school that does do a lot of grammar instruction in elementary grades, so my students do know parts of speech and punctuation rules, but they don't know why rules exist and therefore struggle to remember, and, most importantly, replicate, them. The Shakespeare version of Grammar with a Giggle series is quite good in connecting rules to writing while giving me a place to explain the rules. Best of all, retention has improved.
Tuesday September 17th 2013, 9:57 AM
Comment by: Jerry G. (Fort Myers, FL)
I have the same problem, but with Comp I freshmen at a state college. I really haven't found any solution other than continually reviewing the mistakes they make in their essays, discussing them in class, and gradually trying to eliminate them. Fact is, the secondary school system seems to have failed them completely. They don't know the parts of speech and they think semicolons can be flung about with reckless abandon.

Would welcome further discussion/suggestions.
Tuesday September 17th 2013, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
I'm no English teacher, nor, even less, any kind of scholar, but I have read pretty voraciously for probably 56 of my 61 years. I find proper grammar and punctuation comforting, or, at the very least, invisible. Awkward and erroneous instances of either make me stumble and itch.

That said, I dispense almost entirely with capitalization when I'm texting or when I'm emailing friends, and I'm pretty loose with some punctuation when I'm going digital. Somehow, there, it doesn't bother me--to me, those seem more like speech than writing.

Jerry G. said that the secondary school system seems to have failed, and I would probably agree. But just recently I began helping a young friend who is writing a "big" story. This kid has just entered high school, so I can see in his writing the results of his primary education, and it's already bad. His understanding of punctuation is almost entirely absent, which is curious to me because his understanding of sentences is pretty good (especially since he's not writing in his mother tongue). I know that high school will not correct the cracks in his language foundation, so I guess I'm saying that waiting until secondary school to focus on that is probably too late.
Tuesday September 17th 2013, 4:11 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Sue, I couldn't agree more. I firmly believe that those foundations should be laid sooner.

And, I can ditto your comment about the net. I am careful about spelling and punctuation when I post something, but in IMs, and some e-mails, I relax. Or get lazy, or just comfy.
Tuesday September 17th 2013, 9:16 PM
Comment by: Stuart A. (Brooklyn, NY)
It's discouraging to hear from Jerry that college freshmen have such poor grammar skills. I think he's doing the right thing, though, by confronting writing problems directly . . . and not giving up. I've taught taught business writing to adults in early career mode at a university in New York, and my students clearly understood how central good communication is to succeeding in business. Many were in my class (some were Directors of Communications) because they lacked linguistic confidence. So Michelle, by all means stick with your "kill and drill," by whatever means. I was lucky enough to get my "K & D" in 6th grade from Mrs. Clark, in the days when sentence diagramming was required. So I was grammatically confident by the time I entered high school.
Tuesday September 17th 2013, 10:27 PM
Comment by: carlos C. (miami, FL)
English is my third language and get my attention that sometimes I write better than first language speakers and even the vocabulary is poor for many born in here.I need a good reference book for english grammar,most of my english came from Hemphill Schools old books and I thank them.If aanybody can refer me a good Granmar book I will appreciated.
Monday March 17th 2014, 5:42 PM
Comment by: Melissa C. (Cambridge, MA)
I would never date someone who hasn't mastered:

its and it's;
your and you're; and
their, they're and there.

I just wouldn't be able to respect them, in the morning, the evening or ever.
Tuesday March 18th 2014, 2:45 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I got a three way dose of using 'proper' grammar. First growing up. Neither parent would accept what wasn't 'right'.

Then, the nuns. You couldn't escape grammar with 12 years in a Catholic school when I went. It stayed drilled.

Then I married someone born in France who had to learn English as a teen, and went on to become a French Language Prof. He and I actually discussed the whys and wherefores of English grammar.

Finally, a sort of fourth way, I had to teach it. I'd hoped to teach history, but there you go. Or there I went, into Junior High English. Back then, grammar was still taught and drilled, so it sort of came naturally. To me, anyway. (Fragment, I know, but they are okay.)

At one point, I had the French immersion class for 2 years. The French teacher and I worked together, using similar or identical terms, and teaching the way a French construction worked in English and vice versa.

My husband helped.

We also used diagramming, that old-fashioned no-no. And the class loved it! I couldn't construct a complicated enough sentence for them to do a schematic of.

I think the dropping of cursive writing is a sad happening. Sometimes education 'experts' don't consider either the age of the student, or his or her physical and mental development needs. Sad...

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