Pulling out all the stops

7th June 1996 at 01:00
LEARNING ABOUT PUNCTUATION By Nigel Hall and Anne Robinson Multilingual Matters Pounds 9.90. I'll bet you're as guilty as I am of side-stepping the issue of teaching punctuation. And now, after reading Learning about Punctuation, I realise why: we don't know how to teach punctuation intelligently because we don't yet know how children learn it.

This collection of essays by people such as Yetta Goodman and Katharine Perera is the first fruit of "The Punctuation Project", and it consolidates what little we really know about how children learn to punctuate. One major theme is that children try to make sense of punctuation despite our teaching - they learn more from free writing than punctuation exercises, because in free writing they are trying to work out for themselves how to express their meanings most effectively .

Another interesting observation is that the national curriculum's approach to punctuation is not supported by research. It assumes that the sentence is non-problematic and that punctuation will follow from paying attention to pauses. In this way even the Level 1 child will "begin to show awareness of how full stops are used". Yet there are problems and ambiguities with all the traditional approaches to punctuation, whether based on intonation, grammar, "complete sense" or intuition.

I have PGCE students who still punctuate according to Kress's "topic" criterion, running discrete sentences together with commas because their meanings link. A sentence is a syntactic, not a semantic nor intonational unit - but try explaining that to a six-year-old!

The Project was partly inspired by reactions to the national curriculum. The book doesn't have answers, there are no recipes for teaching, but it illuminates the subject. What is evident is that children don't learn punctuation from grammarians; probably they learn it "organically" in a problem-solving way, as they try to make sense of what they observe, what they are told and what helps them express what they want to communicate.

Children's punctuation develops in the face of little if any instruction, but timely help can have dramatic effects. One effective kind of help is to discuss with children their reasons for punctuating as they do - because children's "errors" are no more arbitrary in this than any other area of language development.

This book is essential - and fascinating - reading for people professionally concerned with primary English: lecturers, advisers, language co-ordinators - and especially people at SCAA!

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