Category Archives: Writing

Punctuation for meaning

Could we improve children’s understanding of punctuation by making a more explicit link between punctuation and meaning right from the start of the learning to read process?

NC English wordle

I’m going to share a poem that I encountered many years ago (top infants, as it happens; I’m in my early 40’s now).

One day when I was feeling sick,
I paid a call on Dr. Nick,
Now Doctor Nicholas said to me:
“You must use hair oil in your tea,
Put plenty of sugar in your ears,
Use cotton wool when the weather clears,
Take country walks when you go to bed,
Use feather pillows on your bread,
Use butter for your daily dip,
Good soap and water you should sip,
This tonic for you I will prescribe,
And if you do as I describe,
Rarely, if ever, will you feel sick.”
“Oh thank you! Thank you, Dr. Nick!”
I took my coat I went my ways
And I’ve been healthy all my days
I’ve followed the doctor’s words to the letter
To tell the truth I’ve never felt better.

I’ve tried to find the author of the poem, but to no avail. All I know is that appeared in an British reading scheme book. It was paired with an article about the loss of an American space rocket on launch, because of an erroneous hyphen in the launch programme code.

I do have a good memory, I suppose, because the poem has stuck with me. What I love about it, as the sharp-eyed reader has already spotted, is the way that shuffling some of that punctuation actually renders Dr. Nick’s advice fairly sensible, if of questionable medical benefit.

Paired with the space article, they made concrete the idea that punctuation itself is often the final arbiter of meaning. You put that comma there, your sentence now means something a little, or a lot different. This is a point which is often overlooked during the process of teaching pupils to punctuate. I think that there may be a sound reason for this. As they learn to read, children encounter punctuation in the texts they are learning from. Generally this will happen substantially before children are dealing with punctuation in their own writing. In this context, it makes sense to teach punctuation from a reading-focussed perspective. In reality, I suspect common practice reinforces the idea that punctuation’s purpose is as an aid to the reader, rather than an aid to allow the writer to convey meaning more effectively. Yes, I’m thinking of the dreaded “small breaths at commas, bigger breaths at fullstops” habit. Worse still I’m-thinking-of-the-teacher-reading-a-text-without-expression-pause-or-modulation-and-certainly-without-any-nod-to-any-kind-of-punctuation-to-try-to-show-what-writing-without-punctuation-sounds-like. I’m sure we’ve all done it at some point!

The corollary of this is that by the time children encounter punctuation as writers, many of them still have a preconceived idea of the main purpose of punctuation, which is not often enough debunked. By the time they start using “more ambitious” punctuation, many children will take an approach that treats punctuation as little more than cake decoration, chucking in exclamation marks as though they are going out of fashion, not daring to use anything as mundane as a full-stop.

The wordle at the top of these page is made from the full text of the UK National Curriculum document for English Trying to find the word punctuation in there is a little like “Where’s Wally?” That’s “Where’s Waldo? for my American readers.

I’m not going to say much more than to repose that opening question:

Could we improve children’s understanding of punctuation by making a more explicit link between punctuation and meaning right from the start of the learning to read process?

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The pen is mightier than the sword Part 1

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Handwriting is not dead. Despite reports to the contrary, despite a plethora of technologies for creating text, nothing yet matches the speed and immediacy of a quick note jotted down with a mark-making implement on a scrap of paper.

It’s probably not a stretch to suggest that a handwritten letter or card remains one of the most intimate means of non-verbal communication of thoughts, ideas and feelings. It is certainly true that the majority of students hand write the bulk of their work, at least at primary level. This will likely remain the case for the foreseeable future.

With this in mind, it is frustrating to witness students struggle to master basic ‘stylus skills’ (a non-gendered alternative to ‘penmanship’). In the UK, we are also in the unfortunate situation where handwriting quality has historically counted for only a few percentage points in Y6 English tests.

As with many things that we could do better in schools, a focus on improving handwriting sits comfortably with the concept of marginal gains, beyond the opportunity to clinch a couple of extra test points.

1. The physical act of writing something down makes a stronger memory than typing it. It improves learning

2. Fluent/neat writers are better able to keep pace with their own thoughts. Laborious writers struggle with this, leading to a loss of coherence, or a tendency to use simple, workaday language.

3. The fluent/neat writer generally suffers lower levels of muscle fatigue; they can sustain their effort for longer and produce more writing for a given time increment. How can a student demonstrate their abilities if they are not able to produce an adequate body of work.

4. The fluent/neat writer can create documents that are visually pleasing in and of themselves. Laborious writers can obviously see the gulf between such documents and their own, yet lack the skills to produce them.

As with any physically expressed skill, we are all at different points on a continuum, and as with any physically expressed skill, there are almost non of us who could not make improvements. There is no ‘just can’t’ get out clause. It will be difficult. It will take work and a certain amount of dedication, but improvements can be made and should be sought.

This is really a plea for systematic, properly taught, properly supported and properly resourced handwriting teaching for every child. More than this, it’s a plea for non-acceptance of bad handwriting.

This is part one of a two-part post.

Why every teacher should be blogging…

I’m going to throw down a gauntlet. Are you a teacher with access to a computer, tablet or smartphone? Are you blogging? No? Why not? You should be!

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At risk of breaking my question mark key, a couple more questions. How many times a week are you asking children to draft, edit, redraft, pieces of writing, to develop a topic from a few simple ideas into a coherent, well edited piece? How often do you make that demand of yourself? (For clarity, school paperwork doesn’t count!)

The first thing that I’ve found as a newly-enthusiastic blogger is that the more I write, the more ideas I have, and the more I want to write. That’s not in itself any kind of quality control; you should see my drafts folder. What it has achieved is to ensure that fresh ideas are not a prerequisite when the o’clock ticks round to ‘writing time’.

This next realisation took a little longer, but I think it’s key. It’s also at the heart of the (good natured) challenge that was set in the opening sentence. I can feel my writing skill improving, even after only a short time, which I attribute almost entirely to the fact that I am writing for an audience. It’s the simple difference between writing for private consumption and opening yourself up to others’ judgement. That potential makes me think much harder about each sentence:

1. Does it communicate what I intend?
2. Is it grammatically correct and properly spelled?
3. Is it reasonably elegantly and economically rendered?
4. Am I still satisfied when I read it 24 hours later?

Simply by addressing the four questions above, I am gaining emotional and analytical insights into the process of writing, and discovering that it takes a certain amount of persistence, a fair amount of effort, and a liberal splash of honest self-critcism. Is there any better platform from which to teach our students to do the same with their writing? The fact that you also get to be a writing role-model is a bonus.

Yes, it’ll make demands on your already over stretched daily schedule, but come on! Can you really not commit just a few minutes a day to making the first steps? If nothing else, when you do get round to writing that epic work in your chosen œvre, you’ll have done at least a little bit of the donkey work!

So there you go. My aspiration for 2013; every teacher, a writer.

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