Active learning: make a drama out of teaching punctuation

Let’s face it, Spag can sometimes be a drag for students and teachers. To make the topic more engaging, Laura Beatty tried introducing ‘active learning’ – with some promising results
8th November 2019, 12:05am
Make A Drama Out Of Punctuation


Active learning: make a drama out of teaching punctuation

The Year 8 boys are all frozen in different positions. Some are mid karate chop, others have clenched fists punching the air. One is curled up in a ball and another is being suspended above the floor, supported by two students.

This is not a drama lesson, it’s an English lesson. And we’re not acting out a play, we’re learning about punctuation.

Whether we view it as the glue that holds our words together, the signposts indicating pace and direction or those little marks that cause continual bewilderment, there is no doubt that punctuation reduces confusion in writing.

It’s quite difficult to teach, too. We often try humour to get our students interested: many English teachers are familiar with the famous classroom poster where the phrase “Let’s eat, Grandma!” is written with and without the comma. This is followed by the caption “Punctuation saves lives”.

But beyond that - in contrast to teaching novels, poems and plays - there are no imaginative catalysts to inspire the teaching of these rule-bound skills. Teachers and students often note the lack of zeal when spelling, punctuation and grammar (Spag) is mentioned in the classroom.

I decided to try something new. And my energetic Year 8 boys seemed to be the perfect test subjects.

Uninspired by traditional gap-fill literacy lessons, I decided to use my education master’s thesis to investigate how to enhance students’ understanding of punctuation. In the hope of injecting enthusiasm into literacy lessons, I experimented with active learning: a process that engages students kinaesthetically, socially and cognitively.

Better comprehension

Research suggests that “embodied learning” (the use of the whole body) coupled with dialogical (open-ended) discussions can encourage better comprehension and memory of a topic for students.

More specifically, the use of metaphorical gesture has been shown to improve students’ ability to retain knowledge.

Trying to incorporate this style of learning into punctuation lessons appeared challenging until I stumbled on a transformative approach: John Dawkins’ hierarchy of punctuation (

The table encourages pupils to use punctuation to create meaning rather than to avoid error.

It sets out what degree of separation between independent clauses each mark brings - for example, a full stop gives maximum separation, a comma, minimum.

The hierarchy can be used to help a sentence to gain emphasis or to create a rhetorical effect. For example, “I want to leave now” could be raised to “I want to leave - now”.

So, how did I combine embodied learning and Dawkins’ hierarchy?

I divided students into groups and asked them to create a tableau to physically represent Dawkins’ hierarchy. They were encouraged to use creative, metaphorical gestures, levels, positioning and facial expressions to embody the various punctuation marks.

Students then analysed each tableau, which enabled the class to discuss punctuation in a playful setting. They debated the rhetorical effect, purpose and usage of different marks based on the positioning and expressions of their classmates.

Responses included: “I thought Frankie [lying on the floor] was the dash but he’s not really putting any force into it. So, he’s got to be a comma” and “Tommy and James [the two students suspending another student] could be the dashes because they’re on either side pointing at, well, holding up the important bit in the middle”.

Without the possibility of error, students seemed more confident when analysing the force and impact of punctuation. Moving away from the traditional, rule-bound context of punctuation encouraged an increased awareness of the intricacies and ambiguity of punctuation.

We can’t generalise to say that this playful, abstract style of lesson could be beneficial for all students. However, in questionnaire and interview responses, the participants reported that their memory of punctuation had improved, and that they had enjoyed the physical nature of the task.

Learning in context

But I needed to then push this further and assist the class with using punctuation in context. Traditional rote learning or cloze activities (where students are asked to fill in the blanks) have been found not to be effective. Meanwhile, studies have shown that learning punctuation in context can enhance students’ use of it.

So, in an attempt to encourage my students to consider punctuation in context, I gave the class two sentences: “There’s someone behind you. He’s running.” I asked the students to decide what was happening in this scene and what impact they would like to have on their reader. They then had to punctuate their sentences accordingly and perform them to the class.

Their peers were asked to evaluate and interpret the performances to infer what punctuation may have been used. Students adjusted their pace, volume and emphasis depending on punctuation choices. The group began to discuss punctuation as a tool to alter tension and pace for an audience, as well as analysing the “sound” of punctuation.

What impact did all this have? My interviews, observations and questionnaires suggested enhanced understanding and metacognition. To prove this, I set a creative writing task to assess whether students’ ability to use punctuation had improved compared with a similar task before the interventions.

The average number of punctuation marks had increased from 3.9 to 6. In the first creative writing task, only four out of 16 students used ambitious punctuation (semicolons, colons, dashes), compared with 15 out of 16 students in the final task.

Obviously, punctuation use is not only about quantity; overusing ambitious punctuation can actually make writing less effective and coherent. So, the quality of punctuation was also taken into consideration. In the second task, more students tended to use punctuation marks from the top of the hierarchy to build tension or to stress significant words and phrases.

Admittedly, as there was no control group, it is difficult to conclude whether it was specifically the use of active learning interventions that produced these results or whether the same outcome could have been achieved through alternative methods. One could tentatively suggest, however, that enhanced metacognitive understanding encouraged students to experiment with and utilise a wider range of punctuation.

Having tried alternative methods, though, I would certainly urge teachers to trial different approaches when teaching literacy, and to experiment with and disseminate examples of effective active learning tasks.

It would be foolish to argue that these activities are the only or most effective way to bring about progress. Nevertheless, one student epitomised a belief of mine when I asked for feedback on this project: “I think teachers should just try and make it fun and enjoyable so we actually want to learn more. Then, I think we will actually learn more.”

There is a relationship between understanding and engagement: if we can enthuse a love of learning, then students’ motivation and ability may also escalate.

Laura Beatty is academic projects coordinator at an English secondary school

This article originally appeared in the 8 November 2019 issue under the headline “Do make a drama out of teaching punctuation”

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