Punctuation for the "I Hate Grammar" Crowd
- Wednesday, March 24, 2004
Do you or your children belong to the I-hate-grammar crowd? If so, you have plenty of company. And if so, this article is for you.
From under my curriculum specialist hat, I have been saying for years that you are better off eliminating grammar teaching during your children's elementary grades. There is not room here to go into the many reasons for that. I just add that you should teach usage (to, too) when the need arises, and you should teach the mechanics of writing. The mechanics include punctuation. Here we will focus on that.
Teach End Punctuation
Your children who can write sentences probably already know to end them with either a period or a question mark. If they have not learned that yet, a simple procedure for teaching it is the dictation method. You can adjust this method to any level for any child.
First, choose a sentence, possibly from a story you read to the children or they read to you. Choose from very short (Jesus loves me.) to a bit longer. But choose only simple sentences, not one with clauses and phrases and other parts that require complex punctuation.
Sentence length is one way to adjust the difficulty. Other ways are to choose between copying and dictation, and between studying the sentence first or writing from dictation without seeing the sentence ahead of time. Start at any of these levels where you and a child feel comfortable. You can use a new sentence each day or use the same sentence for several days, perhaps copying it one day and writing from dictation the next.
After writing, let the children find their errors. Give them points or M&Ms for each error they find that you do not have to find. Or simply commend them for their ability to see differences between the model sentence and their sentence. The goal is to work up to the level where a child can correctly write from dictation a simple sentence that he has not seen before. He should tell from your tone of voice or from the meaning whether to end it with a period or question mark. Of course he also begins it with a capital letter and learns some spelling along the way, too.
If your child writes what we call an incomplete sentence, the grammar teacher in you may panic and want to red pencil it and teach rules about subject and predicate, the definition of a sentence, and the need to use complete sentences. Instead of panicking, just remember that native speakers of English learn plenty of grammar by age five. Use that natural ear for language. You could try reading the non-sentence, letting your voice indicate its incompleteness. Or just add the words needed, and tell the child to write it that way. Sometimes the child may be able to add the words himself.
This method of studying one sentence at a time is a powerful way to transfer children's innate oral grammar to their writing. It reinforces the feel of natural sentences. (Those who teach non-native speakers of English should spend most of their time on oral language until the grammar becomes natural.)
Remember that some natural sentences are not "complete." If you ask what the capital of California is, it is unnatural to answer, "The capital of California is Sacramento." Some children's workbooks require this form, and I would like to tear out those pages.
At children's simple-sentence level, the mechanics of end punctuation and beginning capitalization take care of most of their sentence needs through the elementary years. They may need a few commas at sixth grade and more in later grades, because they write more complex sentences then. This section focuses on commas for grades up to six.
Younger children have only a few comma needs. They sometimes write lists in their sentences, so teach about separating items in a list with commas. That is easy to learn when they write the lists and need the commas. It does not work so well if you teach "comma rules" ahead of their need.
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:
- quotation marks around the words a person says,
- a comma to set off the "tag" of he said,
- 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.
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.
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