looking across a piece of student writing that has limited punctuation and few or no paragraphs can make writing difficult to understand even if the content and ideas are strong. we know that conventions are important if our purpose is to share our writing with readers, but how can we help students to recognize the importance of using conventions consistently when writing?
the mechanics and conventions of writing are, arguably, not the most exciting topics in writing, although some resources have approached this subject in witty and interesting ways.
we’ve found using an inquiry approach when learning is one of the best ways to help students take ownership of their learning and to let students construct their own meaning rather than what we’ve imparted. one place that we’ve found inquiry to be effective is in having students think about writing conventions including punctuation, capitalization and paragraphing.
if we’ve decided to target punctuation use as a learning target within a unit, it may look something like this:
step 1: use a current on demand writing piece to assess student needs for punctuation. for example, if you notice four students who all seem to have sentences that go on forever without any sign of ending punctuation, place them in a group to study use of periods. if you have another three students who are using end punctuation perfectly fine, you may want to place them in a group to study more unusual punctuation like semi colons. (it’s perfectly fine as well to make heterogenous groups, but this is one way that you might use assessments to plan for differentiation.)
step 2: break students into chosen groups with a large piece of chart paper, markers, and several photocopied text excerpts or typed texts that you know contain examples of the punctuation they will be studying. the inquiry question for each group will be to research when and why authors use a particular kind of punctuation. (a note about choosing the texts: the texts should be familiar (i.e. the students have read them once already) so that students are able to focus more on the punctuation than the content of the text. we love using typed copies of picture books that we’ve read aloud or mentor texts that we’ve studied in writing already.)
step 3: groups will look within the texts they are given and will mark the places where they notice the punctuation mark that they are researching by highlighting.
step 4: students will read and think carefully about the author’s purpose for using the punctuation mark before drawing a line from the highlighted part of the text to the outside margin to annotate the author’s purpose for using the punctuation mark.
step 5: the class will come back together to construct a class anchor chart that shares the findings of their inquiry. the first one above is how a chart created during a punctuation inquiry may look and the second one was used to share the findings of a paragraph inquiry. these charts remain posted a resources to use for students. these are resources that are not just created WITH students but BY students!
when it’s time to edit writing (or really anytime in the writing process!), students can and will refer to these charts with mentor examples of how and why to use punctuation and make decisions about punctuating their writing purposefully.
do our students make some errors on where to use a semi colon or overuse commas at times? yes, of course they do. if we’re being honest, so do we. what’s most important to us is that they can name their purpose. if our students are making mistakes because they’re trying out new teaching, then we know they are in the process of learning and that’s what we’re here for – to help guide them through this process.
how do you use inquiry in your reading and writing workshops? how do you help students to punctuate and paragraph with purpose?