One conversation that is repeated frequently in my lessons, and no doubt other lessons across the land, goes like this:
Teacher: "What should a question have at the end of it?"
Student: "Umm.a question mark?"
I am as guilty as others of diminishing the role of punctuation to a level that belies the complex effects it can have. Commas do more than just divide up lists. Exclamation marks do more than merely shout. Inverted commas snuggled cosily around a word can transform it into something ironic, sarcastic, shocking or joyful.
We need to convey this to students - not by making them use more punctuation but by educating them about how to use it better. How many times have I read a piece of writing with 50 exclamation marks in it? When I ask the student why they have used so many, the response is usually a blank face, or a mumble about wanting to impress something on the reader. They need to understand that using the exclamation mark just once, in the right place, has a far greater impact.
Less is more
So, how do we do this? When teaching writing, we tend to say, "Don't forget to use a range of punctuation marks", but we should be a lot more prescriptive. In the past I have experimented with this to great success. My instructions have included:
- Use one exclamation mark to draw attention to the most shocking thing you are saying.
- Use one exclamation mark to highlight your disgust at an aspect of what you are writing about.
- Use one question mark to show sarcasm.
- Use one question mark to make the reader doubt what they are thinking.
You can go to town with this approach and insist on three questions in a row to shock the reader. Or you can ask students to go back through their work and add inverted commas to one word that is particularly sarcastic. The key is to link the punctuation to the desired effect.
Doing this changed the way my students used punctuation. Questions were asked about the other functions of punctuation, prompting the kind of discussion that led me to scratch my head a few times.
Best of all, though, this approach made students clear about the explicit functions of punctuation marks. Soon there were no more meaningless spatters of them in the writing my classes produced.
We are all sometimes guilty of reducing our teaching to the basic elements to save time or to ensure that at least some knowledge gets through. We need to aim higher. Students need to see that punctuation is much more than a functional mark at the end, middle or beginning of a sentence. It is a powerful tool as integral to conveying meaning and mood as the words themselves.
Chris Curtis is a teacher in Derbyshire. Follow him on Twitter at @Xris32