Commas also appear in letter forms and perhaps headings of school papers. Use a comma before the year in a date: July 4, 1776. And use it before the state in an address: Golden, Colorado 80403. Treat the zip code and state as a unit, with no comma between. (Some foreign addresses use a comma.) On envelopes, people usually use the two-letter, all-capital abbreviation of the state: Golden, CO 80403. With this abbreviation, the original plan was that the capital letters would obviate the need for commas, but people clung to their old habit, so the comma form has won its place in the style books. But some people still like to write: Golden CO 80403. Your children can notice the various forms used on mail that comes to your house. To complete the letter form, teach that a comma follows Dear Jack and Sincerely yours.

To summarize, your task is simply to help children use commas in 1) lists and 2) letter forms. These two uses take care of practically all their needs for common informational writing—reports, journals, letters.

Narrative writing requires more involved punctuation. For that, wait until your child writes stories with conversation. Though at first it appears complex, your child can master it in a lesson or two if you use the child's own story. If the story is unfinished, help by asking: What did he say next? What did she answer? And so forth. As you move along through the story, help the child with these mechanics:

  1. quotation marks around the words a person says,
  2. a comma to set off the "tag" of he said,
  3. a new paragraph each time a different person speaks.
    Keep a children's storybook handy to refer to for getting the details right.

Within a conversation, you may need a comma to set off the name of a person spoken to. Remember the familiar Mother, may I go play? This comma may appear in letters also: We hope you can come, Grandma.

Encourage Writing
The simple secret for success in teaching punctuation is to teach at times when children need the information for their writing. The not-so-simple teacher's job is to get the children to write. Solve that at the sentence stage by having the children copy or write from dictation. At least use that approach when children do not have something they want to write. Later, at the paragraph stage, use any ideas that you hear. Children can write paragraphs about a science or history lesson. They can keep journals. (That appeals to about half of children.) They can write real letters—to the editor, to politicians, to relatives and friends, to missionaries. A family night for writing to missionaries works well, because that gives you time to write also. When you write, you run into little problems that need solving, and that gives you ideas for helping the children.

Children learn to write by writing. You can speed the process by helping with items such as described in this article. Learning end punctuation and elementary uses of commas can go a long way toward good writing. Encouragement and appreciation go a long way too. Use these instead of red-pencil "corrections."

Many researches have shown that teaching grammar does not improve writing. Fill-in-the-blank workbooks are also a waste of time. So store your grammar workbooks on a high shelf to wait for seventh or eighth grade. Join the productive I-hate-grammar crowd.

Dr. Ruth Beechick is a retired educator writing from her home in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She considers homeschoolers to be the greatest hope for the future of our society. Two of her books for homeschoolers are: The Three Rs for grades K-3 and You Can Teach Your Child Successfully for grades 4-8.

This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr '04 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more information, visit http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com.