Marks of confusion;Reviews;General;Primary

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Elaine Williams finds a practical guide to teaching punctuation to young children

Most of us have bad memories of being taught punctuation at school, of being lectured on a series of incomprehensible rules about bothersome marks that simply seemed to get in the way of what we wanted to write.

When even the most eminent writers continue to argue about when, where and how punctuation should be used, when it's a question of personal style as well as principle, how can we expect five and six-year-old children to understand its purpose? Teachers often say that a sentence is a group of words that make complete sense, but is a six-year-old's "complete sense" the same as an adult's? Teachers often tell children to put a full stop where they take a long breath, but young readers often only take long breaths between sentences when they exaggerate their reading.

These are just some of the confusions mapped out by Nigel Hall, Reader in Literacy Education at Didsbury School of Education, Manchester Metropoli-tan University, and co-director of the Punctuation Project, with colleague Anne Robinson.

The project came about when they realised that, although the national curriculum required young children to achieve particular levels of knowledge about punctuation, teachers hadnever been trained to teach the topic and there was little research to help them. It is a trial for teachers and pupils alike, yet in their national tests, seven-year-olds are assessed on their use of it.

Their research has attracted more than pound;50,000 of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. Through it they have attempted to establish how children understand the uses of punctuation, editing Learning About Punctuation, the first book on the subject. In a newly-published booklet Punctuation in the Primary School, Nigel Hall has established some practical guidance for teachers.

Punctuation marks are small and fiddly, an obvious but important reason why children often don't acknowledge them, forget to use them and become confused. The quotes from children are revealing. On full stops, the most confusing mark of all: "It's so you don't bump into the next word." "When it's a full stop you don't mean what you're talking about. You stop what you're talking about and then you write something else."

Now Dr Hall is seeking funding to find out how teachers teach punctuation. From the body of his research on children's understanding, he provides the following tips:

* Teachers should not view the bizarre ways young children use punctuation as mistakes. They should try to understand the reasoning behind the use.

* Reminding children to put in punctuation is less effective than explaining why it is needed.

* Young children seem to respond to explanations about punctuation when they are related to the sense of what they have written, rather than intonation. For example, to say "put in a comma or a full stop when you take a pause" might not work as young readers tend not to use pauses. It might be better to say, "You have written this and now you have gone on to say this, so you could put in a full stop."

* Help children to see that punctuation is not about a set of rules but about something that is effective for them as writers, a set of tools to use.

* Create a climate of curiosity by including displays of punctua-tion marks, including poems about punctuation or artwork using punctuation.

* When using big books look at how writers use punctuation and what purpose it serves.

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