Punctuation matters: an informal writing prompt

row of question marksPunctuation is one of the least interesting parts of English language arts to teach or to learn. If we can’t make it interesting, we ought to at least make sure students understand why it matters.

Below is an informal writing prompt to get students thinking about why punctuation matters. I recommend you use whatever technology is available to you so that you can read the prompt aloud while students follow along.

The informal prompt

Look at these two sentences about a sports competition  and think about when someone might say each of them:

  1. May the best man win.
  2. May the best man win?

Consider: Under what circumstances would someone use sentence one? Under what circumstances would someone use sentence two?

In no more than four sentences, explain the differences between the meaning of the first sentence and the meaning of the second sentence. You have 1 minute to write your explanation.

Notes on this informal activity

Unlike an oral question, informal writing gets every member of a class to do something with the information that’s before them.

Because this informal writing activity activity is brief, uncomplicated, and deals with sports, it’s fairly easy to get students’ attention for the two minutes it takes to read the prompt and write a response. The activity may even hold the attention of students whose acquaintance with sports gives them a more extensive list of reasons why someone would wonder whether it is possible for the best competitor to win a contest.

Reading aloud while students follow along is recommended because, for a variety of reasons,  many American teenage and adults students need help reading. Anything you can do to help them associate word forms with word sounds—even if its just a two-minute activity—is worth doing.

Pronoun reference: Analyze these sentences

I was reading a history of World War I and came across two sentences that I had to read three times: Twice to figure out the pronoun reference and a third time to figure out whether the pronoun reference is correct.

The two sentences could be turned into a good informal writing prompt about pronoun references.  Give students 30-60 seconds to respond to this prompt:

“Meanwhile, General Sir Ian Hamilton had been given the command of the MEF by Kitchener on 12 March. The next day, he crossed the English Channel to France and took a train to Marseilles, where he boarded a destroyer which brought him to the island of Tenedos on 17 March.”

The grammatical rule for pronoun reference is that a pronoun refers to the last preceding noun. Does the pronoun he in the second sentence follow that rule?  Explain your reasoning in no more than three sentences.

Follow up with this 30-60 second writing prompt:

Rewrite the first sentence so that there’s no doubt to whom he in the second sentence refers.

Using grammatical terms, identify what’s different about your rewritten sentence and the original sentence.

The he in the original second sentence is Hamilton.  The first sentence is written in passive voice.  Apparently Jenny MacLeod or her editor made the pronoun he in the second sentence refer to what would have been the last preceding pronoun if the first sentence had been written in active voice. I don’t know whether that’s normal practice in Britain, or just an oddity.


If you put the sentence in normal, active voice order (subject, verb, object), the two sentences would read:


“Meanwhile, on March 12 Kitchener had given General Sir Ian Hamilton command of the MEF. The next day, he crossed the English Channel to France and took a train to Marseilles, where he boarded a destroyer which brought him to the island of Tenedos on 17 March.”


You could use this set of informal writing prompts to introduce or review information about active/passive voice or pronoun referents or as a quick exercise in editing for clarity.

The quoted sentences are from Gallipoli by Jenny MacLeod, which is part of the Great Battles series published by Oxford University Press.

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

Commas à la carte for the punctuation-challenged

Today’s lesson is on commas.

Don’t freak out.

It has pictures.

A pair of commas work like a little cart or wagon.

A red wagon
Imagine the wagon wheels are the commas in the sentence.

You put the sentence content between the commas onto the cart.

If you can pull the cart into a new place within the sentence or move it out of the sentence entirely and still have the sentence make sense, the commas belong there.

If you can’t move cart without destroying the sense of the sentence, the commas don’t belong there.

Let me show you how this works.

Here’s a sentence culled from the local school district newsletter:

You may have heard that B-G is piloting a new ELA program entitled, Wonders, for our students in grades PK-3.

Put the comma-separated content on a cart and see what happens.

the title Wonders is on the cart.Goodbye, Wonders.

When the cart content is removed, what remains is this:

You may have heard that B-G is piloting a new ELA program entitled for our students in grades PK-3.

Does that make sense?

Of course it doesn’t.

That means the commas didn’t belong in the sentence.

There endeth the lesson for the day.



Use cell phones to teach editing

Editing and teaching editing are not my favorite activities

Learning editing and editing are not my students’ favorite activities.

But neither of us enjoys being laughed at when we’ve let some silly mistake slip by us.

To help students realize the importance of editing their work for errors, I have students snap three shots with their cell phones (or grab screen shots) of errors. I ask students to submit each of their items with a single-sentence caption that indirectly indicates what the error is.

Below are three sample visuals.

ad in which chauffeur is misspelled
Any gifts for moms who spell chauffeur correctly?

ad containing misplaced modifier
I don’t think I know anyone with unwanted space.

ad for a two-sided box
This two-sided planter box is a one-of-a-kind item.


This is a simple activity that can lighten up a classroom and make the point that people notice errors.

Your students might even make news: A 9-year-old  shocked her teacher by finding 15 apostrophe errors in 15 minutes in a market in West Yorkshire.



Individual mastery plans: my best weird idea

As many people have pointed out, I do a lot of really weird stuff when I teach writing.

Sometimes the stuff I do becomes mainstream after a few decades: I began flipping my classroom during my first college teaching job back in 1970; I began doing backward design six years later as I wrote instructional materials General Electric’s Field Engineering School.

My best weird idea

One of my best ideas is a method of attacking the written errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling that are harder to get rid of than Lady MacBeth’s spots.

You know the ones I mean. They are intransigent errors such as:

  • Using it’s when its is called for.
  • Failing to put a comma after an introductory element in a sentence.
  • Writing unintentional fragments.
  • Using commas to splice sentences together.

They are often errors that happen because the writer was concentrating on getting ideas down, not thinking about the appearance of the text.

Or they may happen because the writer’s brain makes his fingers write the most familiar spelling of a homonym set rather than the less common spelling.

Such things are mistakes.

Let’s stop treating them as if they were tragic flaws.

Teach students to deal with them as editing issuesmistakes they can correct before anybody else sees them.

Individual Mastery Plans defined

I call my method Individual Mastery Plans. They are a bit like special education IEPs.

The IMPs identify each individual student’s habitual and serious errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling (GPS) — including homonym errors—and lay out a plan so the individual student can focus on his or her most serious habitual errors.

The goal of an IMP is for students to produce  clean first drafts, rather than error-free final drafts, because a large proportion of writing today is done with only one draft. Clean first draft is a journalist’s term for writing that’s been edited to contain very few serious GPS errors.

My procedure is to identify for each student a list of their most frequent serious errors and then turn responsibility for editing their own work for those errors over to the students. For courses of less than 12 weeks, I usually have students work on eliminating three errors. For year-long courses, I raise the number to five.

How I set up IMPs

I use Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list of the 20 most common errors in student writing as a tool for establishing students’ baseline performance. Early in a course, as students submit written work, every time I see an occurrence of only those 20 conveniently numbered errors  I put its number in brackets after the error.

I don’t correct errors or identify them other than by the bracketed number.

I use word processing software to tell me the word count, and I use find and replace to put each bracketed number into blue type. That process tells me how many errors of a particular type were in the document.

I make sure each student has access to the Connors and Lunsford list in multiple places;  I also provide highly-specific resources  so students can turn in their text or go online directly to the exact paragraph(s) where the rule governing error [13] is discussed.

When I return written work anytime throughout the course, I require each student to graph the type and frequency of their errors. Some students really like graphing their progress.

After students have written enough to give us a picture of their most frequent errors at course entry, I negotiate an IMP with each student based on that student’s graph.

Examples of IMPs

Here’s a sample IMP for Josh who has a real problem with commas:

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Missing comma in a series
  • Missing comma(s) with nonessential (nonrestrictive) element
  • Unnecessary comma(s) with restrictive element

Here’s a sample IMP for Caitlin who has a problem with sentence boundaries and distinguishing its from it’s.

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Comma splice
  • Run-together sentences
  • It’s/its confusion

You’ll notice the IMPs specify a numerical error limit.  Depending on how long the course is, I set my error limit at no more than 1 or 2 IMP errors per 500 words written in class in an hour on a writing prompt the students did not know in advance.

IMPs and the grade cap

If students exceed the error limit set in their IMP, I impose a grade cap. Typically a student who exceeds the limit cannot get a grade higher than C, regardless of the quality of the writing. The grade cap policy eliminates a lot of sloppy papers.

Once the baseline is established, when I grade papers I flag only errors on a student’s IMP plan, and stop flagging when the error limit is reached.

Having fewer errors to flag when I grade papers saves me a lot of time over the course of a year. It makes no difference to Caitlin’s grade if she had 3 or 30 comma splices in 500 words, but seeing 30 comma splices flagged might well make Caitlin give up trying to master comma splices.

Value of IMPs

Setting up a system for establishing and using IMPs take a bit  of work, but it is a good investment.

IMPs make students responsible for applying their learning to their writing.

Students who historically have not been successful in a writing classroom find reassurance in having an aspect of writing that they can measure and control. Having the same number of errors to work on as the class genius has is good for a weaker students’ self-images, and mastering their IMP items is wonderful for their self-esteem.

An IMP is the only method I’ve found that works for such things as eliminating homonym errors and getting students not to use possessive apostrophes when the context requires only a plural. Those are errors that publisher-created exercises can’t touch.

Other blog posts about IMPs are here and here.

Competition adds bit of fun to eliminating errors

Although it’s only May, it is not too early to plan a major push to get rid of some persistent writing mechanics errors next school year.

Instead of the usual test-prep methods of working on grammar, punctuation, and spelling, try drilling down into the problems students actually have when they write.

Organize a contest to see which students can do the best job of eliminating habitual writing mechanics errors from their own writing. A contest can be done within a class but it’s far more interesting if the competition is between classes or between grades.

chart of top 20 errors in student writing with associated  resources
The most-common student errors and resources for mastering them.

Before the school year starts, pick a specific number of errors that all contestants will attempt to eliminate by a specific spring date. I recommend using between three and five errors as your standard across all classes and all grades. Such small numbers won’t scare students, but even small reduction in habitual serious errors have significant impact on students’ written work.

Also before school starts, identify a restricted list of specific errors to work on. I suggest the 20 errors identified by Connors and Lunsford in their “Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research” as a starting point. Depending on your students, you might need to add other items such as “A sentence begins with a capital letter” or “Texting abbreviation used instead of full spelling.” If you add items, be sure to keep the same syntax on all items.

Before announcing the contest, teachers must establish baseline performance in a 10 to 20 day period for each student in each of their classes class participating in the contest. Establishing a baseline requires multiple writing samples; a single sample won’t work. Having students write individual sentences won’t work either. Students must write at least full paragraphs so teachers can tell what errors students make when they compose.

After baseline performance has been established for each student, teachers can introduce the contest to students.

If the contest rules specify eliminating three serious, habitual errors in the year, then using the writing in which the teacher has flagged the errors from the master list that Josh made, teacher and student together identify that Josh’s three most frequent serious errors. Those three errors become the only errors that affect the writing mechanics aspect of Josh’s grade for the year.

Through the year, each time students write, teachers focus students’ attention on whether they have corrected any instances of the errors on their personal mastery plans before submitting their work. (Note, please, students don’t need to write error-free; they need only to edit their work to eliminate their habitual serious errors.)

This procedure lets diverse groups compete (sixth graders vs. sophomores, for example) without favoring one over the other. Each student is personally responsible for eliminating the same number of habitual serious errors regardless of which particular errors plague the student.

For 10-20 days after the contest end date, do to a post-test by counting the errors in all student work again.

The class that comes closest to reducing the number of errors in their written work to zero is the winner.

Connors, Robert J. and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research.” *College Composition and Communication* Vol. 39, No. 4 (1988), pp. 395-409. Web. JSTOR. 23 Dec. 2014. Access to the original study is restricted by paywalls but as of 23 Dec. 2014, by selecting *read online free* at JSTOR, teachers could get free [access to it](http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/357695) for 14-days. The 20 errors are listed in numerous places.

Writing mechanics build feeling of mastery

The number of serious mechanical errors most students make routinely is small. Even students who seem to make all sorts of errors can profit from learning to focus on eliminating a handful of them.

Serious mechanical problems often result from misunderstanding some concept that underlies several rules. If they can master one grammar concept, students can often solve several mechanical errors.

If students can be induced to master a small number of serious errors and to edit their own writing to eliminate those errors, students’ work will appear more polished.

Even when eliminating habitual errors produces only modest improvement to students’ written output, the psychological benefit to students of mastering a few of their routine errors can be immense.

graph of student errors

Instead of requiring students to  master “correct punctuation” or “comma rules,” require students to master between three and five individual rules in a school year.

(For high school and college students, I use Connors and Lunsford‘s classic list of student errors for my master list; younger students may need rules such as “begin each sentence with a capital letter.”)

There’s nothing fuzzy about a rule. Someone who understands a rule can determine whether it was or was not correctly applied.

For example, if you understand the rule that an introductory element before a sentence is set off from the sentence by a comma, you can look at a sentence and tell:

  • Is there an introductory element ahead of the sentence?
  • Is the introductory element  set off from the sentence by a comma?

Because correct use of individual rules is countable, students don’t have to wonder if they are doing better. If the number of times they failed to set of an introductory element with a comma declines from five errors per 400 words to two errors per 400 words, students know they are making progress.

I usually require students to graph their errors. Students who struggle with the mechanical aspects of writing find great satisfaction in seeing the graph of errors tip toward zero.

The post based on material in The Writing Teacher’s ABCs, © 2015 Linda G. Aragoni

Why punctuation matters in 21st century

Jason Renshaw, who teaches English literacy in a vocational program for students 16-18 in Australia, blogged recently that his students have given up using punctuation:

Evidently, the apostrophe is obsolete to my learners, as are capital letters for proper nouns (though, curiously, they do occasionally capitalise the starts of other words for what appears to be something along the lines of emphasis).

At sentence level, commas are very infrequently used and even full stops are sporadic at best (and almost never followed up with a capital letter to signify a new sentence). Question and exclamation marks are seldom employed; colons, semi-colons, dashes and brackets are quite positively extinct.

Jason discusses the reasons students give for their disuse of punctuation, which range from “that’s what computers are for” to the difficulty of punctuating on a mobile phone.  He notes that punctuation-free prose does not look wrong to students. One student him there’s no need to use punctuation when everyone already knows what you mean.

Unfortunately, everybody does not know what you mean.

The 21st century is experiencing an explosion of English users around the world. Most of them will learn English rather than acquiring it. Those new English learners will not know what you mean unless they can parse what you say or write.

Since punctuation is handmaiden to grammar, only those who understand grammar at more than a superficial, acquired language level, will be able to make themselves understood internationally.

Teens tend to have a cosmos that is all ego, to borrow Henry Syndor Harrison’s phrase. A major function of education is to teach students that the world is a bigger than their circle of Facebook friends. That should include teaching them to use punctuation to make themselves understood by people who do not already know what they mean.

Jason’s  Twitter name is @EnglishRaven.
Novelist Henry Syndor Harrison’s 1911 novel Queed, which contains the phrase noted above, is reviewed here on my vintage novel blog.