Some writers, teachers, and librarians take a "zero tolerance" approach to punctuation. They focus on finding errors and teach by showing the dire consequences of incorrectly punctuated phrases and sentences. This approach may have some merit when dealing with adults—after all, for lack of a quotation mark, a banking law case went all the way to the Supreme Court. However, for children just learning punctuation, I suggest that a more creative approach may yield better results.
Educators are teaching the mechanics of writing, including punctuation, at younger and younger ages—apparently it was a major focus on the first grade standardized test in Georgia this spring! The problem with the traditional approach is that it's a little dry and it's too abstract. Students in the primary grades are just grasping the abstract notion that letters stand for sounds that combine to form words and sentences. Funny looking marks that somehow change the meaning of these words and sentences can flummox even the sharper students. Consequently, teaching by showing, even with cute pictures, what a phrase or sentence means with and without an apostrophe, or by teaching kids when not to use one, is not necessarily the best approach for young children. I recently spent time signing books at the International Reading Association's annual conference and I spoke to a number of teachers about how they teach punctuation. Only one told me that she liked the "error" approach to punctuation used in other books on the subject. The rest shared some of the tricks they use and were excited about trying new techniques.
In my books, I have used a positive approach to punctuation, telling stories, colorfully and enticingly illustrated, that use the function of the most common marks to give children at least a clue that can help them remember the use for the mark. For example, several teachers told me that they tell their students not to forget to use their "ALFIE" (the apostrophe) for a possessive. And when I visit schools, I explain why I chose certain jobs for certain marks (the period is a safety patrol; the question mark, the school newspaper reporter).
David Crystal, author of a plethora of books on the English language, argues against the "zero tolerance" policy towards punctuation. I am not an expert and dare not wade too far into the waters of this debate. However, when it comes to teaching children, I would challenge writers and librarians who are wedded to the more traditional notion that children are best taught by showing them errors to think creatively and to try other approaches.
So, are you a zero-tolerance person or a tolerant punctuator? How do you think punctuation can spark a child's interest? I'd love to hear your views!!!!!!
---Moira Rose Donohue, Author
PENNY AND THE PUNCTUATION BEE and
ALFIE THE APOSTROPHE