The Period and the Sentence

How do you know where to put the period? Use your brain. Use your ears. Use your whole body.

The period is near the top of the list of mechanical things to teach when you’re working with beginning writers. But However, it’s hard for students to grasp the idea of putting a period “at the end of a sentence” when they don’t have much of a grasp of what a sentence is.

Language Experience Approach

If I’m using LEA, I’m secretly glad that I get to teach periods from the start, rather than having to do remedial work with students who write their own stories and have problems with punctuation. I say that the period is a “stop sign” for the reader, to make sure the reader reads the story the way the writer wrote it.

  • When the student dictates the story, I write the periods VERY LARGE (about the same size as the ball of the letter “a”) and make a big production out of doing so.
  • When I read the story back to the learner, I ask him to circle the periods as I read. This lets me know he’s following as I read, and reminds him of the function of the period.
  • When the learner reads the story back to me, I ask her to tap the desk or stamp her foot at each period.
  • When the learner copies the story onto paper or onto the computer, I ask the learner to check that every period has been copied correctly, and I check and ask him to make corrections if necessary.

Grasping the Idea of the Sentence

But when we’re working with students who don’t need the language experience approach, we still find that often they don’t have much sense of what a sentence is. Following are some multi-modal activities for helping all students get familiar with that basic unit of thought.

Separate the Sentences

In pairs, have students read a piece of text together, sentence by sentence, one student reading the first sentence, the other student reading the next, taking it turn about. This requires students to pay attention to the periods, and lets them hear each sentence as a unit. The text must absolutely be easy to read!

The “Pop-In”

To focus on the sentence as something that is a complete thought, I model a “pop-in.”  I go out of the room, close the door behind me, then pop in, say a sentence or a fragment, and pop out again. Then I come back and ask people if what I said was a complete thought. Did they get a message, or are they confused about what I meant? Would it need a period, or would it need to be joined to some other words? There is something about the opening and closing of the door that isolates the words and makes them easier to examine. Then I ask individual students to pop in with their own set of words, and we figure out if it is a sentence or not. You could use a door or a screen to pop in from, or simply stand up, say the words, and sit down again.

“Whenever da da da da da Comma BOOM Period”

I explicitly teach the complex sentence, because most sentence fragment errors in students’ work are the result of putting a period where the comma should be in a complex sentence. I give them a subordinate conjunction (if, after, when, whenever, since, because, although) and another word and ask them to write a sentence that fits the pattern, e.g., “Since da da da da da comma BOOM period.” I go around to help with spelling, then ask everyone to write their sentence where everyone can see (on the board, in a tweet, or…). We read the sentences, with emphasis on the pattern. To encourage interesting sentences, I remind people that we refuse to be bored.

Writing on Your Feet

I prepare some sentences with two clauses, then type each clause on a separate sheet of paper. I shuffle the papers, distribute one to each student, and ask them to match themselves up into complete sentences. When all have found a  match, each pair reads their sentence to the group.

There are a couple of versions of this matching game:

  • All the sentences are complex (“If it’s raining, I’ll give you a ride.”) I provide the cards with the clauses, and students go around to find another student whose clause will go with theirs to make a sentence.  It is easiest if the clauses on the sheets have capital letters and punctuation as needed. When students find that too easy, I write the clauses with no punctuation or capital letters, and students find their match; then the two of them pick punctuation as needed from a pile of periods and commas. If the subordinate clause comes first, they need a comma. If the main clause comes first, they don’t. Their choice.
  • All of the clauses are principal clauses with no capitals or end punctuation. Students match themselves up, then choose from a pile of sheets with “and,” “but,” or “or” to join the clauses together, and take one from a pile of sheets with periods. If you belong to the school that says a comma is needed before the conjunction, put out a pile of commas, too.
  • All of the clauses are principal clauses with no capitals or end punctuation. Students match themselves up, then choose from a pile of sheets with “since,” “if,” “because,” “when,” “whenever,” “although,” and use periods and commas from a pile as needed.

The Thorny Question of Teaching “Grammar”

A diagram of the sentence "The very young...

A diagram of the sentence “The very young elementary school children were misbehaving during the annual Christmas performance in the school’s auditorium.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I’m dealing with second language learners who have a good grasp of grammar, then I can use the grammatical rules to explain, although usually people who can talk about subjects and predicates already know where to put the period.

Those of our students who speak English as a first language already know English grammar. You can tell they know grammar because they never say things like “I the dog kicked,” or “I saw very old two men.”

English: A parse tree of an English sentence t...

English: A parse tree of an English sentence that describes the villanous slaying and consumption of a cat by a villainous bat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, they usually cannot talk about grammar. It seems to me that by first teaching people how to recognize a noun and a verb, then introducing the idea of subject and predicate, we build a very shaky foundation for teaching where to put the periods. I’d rather use the methods outlined above, and short circuit the grammar lesson. Basic literacy students need to know where to put the period long before they tackle talking about grammar (IMHO).

Don’t get me wrong–I love grammar. It’s just that I like to build grammar lessons on a firm foundation of what students already know, and help them use those interesting words to describe the speech they hear, rather than to prescribe what they should be doing.

12 thoughts on “The Period and the Sentence

  1. Pingback: Learning from Our Mistakes | Working in Adult Literacy

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  3. Hi Kate

    As an editor of a journal for literacy teachers in Australia, am I able to reproduce the blog The period and the sentence?


  4. Pingback: Trust Your Ears | Working in Adult Literacy

  5. I had to giggle at your struck-out “but” replaced with however. HOw many times have I told students that we’re not allowed to start a sentence with but — but all you have to do is replace it with “however, ” and you’re legal again and it means exactly the same thing.

    I love the emphatic, multisensory, foot-stomping approach to the “stop sign.”

  6. I was looking at the tags and categories you have. It would be great if there were others like power (social), unlearning oppression, that sort of thing. because your posts are useful to anyone in a relationship where they have more power. boss. parent. doctor..etc etc, including power of difference : being white in relation to a person of c olour, being male in relation to women, etc etc

    • Thanks, barbara–I have been thinking about the categories I use and trying to figure out how to re-do them to make them more useful to people–hadn’t thought of your angle, though. I’m not really sure how they all work in terms of search engines, WORDPRESS categories and so on.

  7. I think we (I??) too often assume students have a grasp of sentence structure and focus too much on the punctuation without ensuring they understand sentence function first. I’ve always been a strong proponent of having students read their work aloud. It’s the best way for them to recognize the pauses they haven’t punctuated. Thanks for sharing.

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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