TEFL For Newbs: Punctuation

Basic, Important, But Tricky Topics in TEFL Grammar and Usage (2016 Edition)

by Coleen Monroe-Knight, M.A. Linguistics (UCL)
<–That is the very first time I’ve used my master’s letters! Wheeeee!

In this series for new TEFL teachers abroad who have no previous experience with prescriptive grammar and usage other than that time in Language Arts class in like, 1997:

Phrasal Verbs
Parts of Speech
Punctuation
Verb Agreement
Conjugation

Today’s topic: Punctuation

This one is technically not a grammar topic, but it is nonetheless very important. In fact, punctuation is so important as to have its (note: no apostrophe) own National Day in the USA on September 24th each year.

Let’s (note: an apostrophe!) get started with the very basics. Here are the most common forms of punctuation in English:

  • . = Full stop/period 

  • , = Comma 
  • ‘ = Apostrophe 
  • ” = Quotation Mark 
  • : = Colon 
  • ; = Semi-Colon 
  • – = Dash /Hyphen 
  • ! = Exclamation Point 
  • ? = Question Mark 
  • () = Parentheses 
  • [] = Brackets

These are used in many ways, and I do not claim to be an authority on the finer nuances of usage. I’m not an Oxford Journal copy editor, after all. However, the basics of punctuation should have been emphasised in your schooling. For TEFL students, there may be confusing differences in punctuation between English and their L1. In addition, national and local curricula tend to be inconsistent in how to use punctuation .

My high-level students write an essay for me every week. I see a few problems over and over here in China, some of which were common in Korea as well. For example, the use of commas as full stops:

Then I went home, I found my mother, I went to work after that, My mother is nice.

Then I went home. I found my mother. I went to work after that. My mother is nice.

This is very common. I often find myself writing, ‘Commas are not full stops!’ on the essays. Another one is the use of a comma as a replacement for ‘and’ or another conjunction:

I like to play basketball, baseball. They are nice, easy. 

I like to play basketball and baseball. They are nice and easy.

The one above was fairly common in Korea as well. It seems like it might be that commas are occasionally used this way in East Asian languages, which would explain a lot. An error that is extremely common and pervasive in my experience is the inability to properly set up a quote or part of a dialogue. Observe:

Then my friend said I don’t want to eat that! It’s disgusting!!!

Then my friend said, “I don’t want to eat that! It’s disgusting!”

The important thing is that they show someone else was speaking, by putting a comma before the reported speech and quotation marks on the outsides. This is very important for academic writing as well, since they will need to quote authors of articles and cite sources (or, as some of my students do a lot, copy word for word from an article and attribute nothing!).

Examples of why punctuation is key to good writing and even simple communication abound on the Internet. When I teach punctuation to a high-level class, I sometimes put up examples of the ways it can change the meaning. These are not original to me, but some are pretty funny. See if you can spot the problems!

A notice in the woods: Please use caution when hunting pedestrians using walking trails

A sign on the fridge: NO, Popsicles! (What did the popsicles ever do to you?!) 

A sign on a toilet at a store: Attention! Toilet only for disabled elderly pregnant children!

A headline: Chef finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog

Sales sale: “BRA” $1.99 “UNDERWEAR” $3 per pack 

My personal favourite: Let’s eat grandpa! 

The perennial: The Panda eats, shoots, and leaves. 

It takes repeated practice from a young age to learn how to punctuate properly. This is important to keep in mind, since most students will not grasp the concepts immediately and they may continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

The best place to start, in my experience, is to make sure that the students actually know what the marks are called. This sounds simple, but it is very confusing to many of them. I make small signs with the Big Six (full stop, comma, exclamation point, question mark, quotation mark, colon) and put them on all the walls of the room. Then I ask a student to stand up and find one of them. Their classmates can help them by pointing.

Eventually, I ask for teams to stand up and move to the punctuation, going faster and faster so that the students have a fun time running between them. I’ve done this with tiny kindergartners and high school students! It works to make them quickly remember which one to use.

Another way to teach punctuation is to require complete sentences at all times in your lessons. Tell students when they are writing in their books that they are not allowed to use only one or two words, but must have a full sentence. Using the parts of speech from last time, you can say my complete sentence mantra:

“You need a subject, a verb, and an object. You need a big letter and a full stop.”

You will find yourself saying this over and over and over again. It will eventually stick in the students’ brains and they will hopefully always remember that a sentence needs a big letter at the start and some kind of punctuation at the end.

If you have essays that the students are writing, you can also do a peer-marking activity. Give them an essay that is not theirs, and a marker. Tell them that they need to put down three punctuation corrections in two minutes. Then change the papers and repeat.

You can either give the corrections back directly to the students afterward, or if you are concerned they will not have made good ones you can take them to correct yourself. This will give you an idea of whether the students know that they are making mistakes, and how to correct them. This is designed to get the students used to reading essays again and editing their own work, a fundamental skill for academic writing.

Additional Resources:

Eats Shoots and Leave by Lynne Truss

Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White 

Next time: Verb Agreement

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