Punctuation. Undoubtedly one of the most engaging topics we can hook our students with. Like a fly to honey, it comes naturally to all students and they automatically see its intrinsic value. Let’s be honest, the world loves punctuation more than it loves The Rock.
OK. Maybe not.
Still, there’s a lot of conversation around punctuation and how internet writing may be causing the downfall of writing as we know it. This Chicken Little mentality is not particularly helpful, either, however. There’s great research going on around this area, and I’m very much looking forward to Gretchen McCulloch’s upcoming book on the topic.
Without having read her book (and by default, making a ton of loose assumptions about the claims that will be made) I fall somewhere in the middle of the argument that the internet is killing writing on the one hand, and that everybody just needs to keep up with the changes, on the other.
Terrible Writing Everywhere
I often find myself reading through online reviews and finding excellent arguments for using proper punctuation. Whether it be Yelp, The Apple App Store, or Google Play, reviewers are spending time writing poorly developed sentences with little to no care for punctuation:
Here’s another review for the same app:
Writers like these go out of their way to tell potential users what the problems are, but as a potential user, I will likely disregard the reviews because
- I have to work too hard to figure out what they’re saying
- Minimal effort in a review probably reflects minimal effort with the service they are discussing
- If the review seems to be zipped off quickly, it may mean the writer was writing in a quick moment of frustration rather than an attempt to clarify any issues they are having.
The problem is that these people do have legitimate complaints that should be heard.
Likewise, reviewers who write positive reviews with terrible structure are bound to be ignored. In fact, these may be seen as fake reviews   and could lead to negative results for the service they are trying to praise.
So how do we bring this into the classroom?
A Challenge to Students
In my own field of English as a Second Language, I’ve noticed a marked decrease in understanding of punctuation over the years. Students are more lax, seeming to think that what their friends write via text message is standard. In their classroom writing, they tend to focus more on finding academic (read: longer) vocabulary words than on simple punctuation to ensure clean sentences.
One of the most common arguments for having students blog, create YouTube videos, make podcasts, or otherwise share their work to the world (rather than just to the teacher) is that the stakes are much higher when they know the world is watching.
So why not bring these issues together?
Having students write reviews is certainly no new concept. My colleague Eric Roth has encouraged his students to do it for years to great effect. Usually, though, teachers use this to focus on grammatical features such as modals or verb tenses.
With punctuation in mind, we can focus on shorter, structurally coherent reviews. These may be built to demand less cognitive stress in terms of figuring out content (preempting the “I don’t know what to say” argument), but instead focus on saying two or three things succinctly and with accurate grammar.
We can scaffold this work by first explaining the problem and breaking down a few examples like those in this post. You can build your own, or use the google slides I’ve made here:
Keep in mind that these slides are for my college-level ESL students, and it may need to be adjusted for your classroom. Feel free to copy it here.
Next, have students search out poorly written reviews. In pairs, have students jump on a phone and look for reviews for places, apps, or services they really like, or really dislike. Next have them search out individual reviews that are poorly written.
In groups, they can discuss what makes the reviews poor or incomprehensible (sneaky bonus, they do a lot of extra reading of “good” writing in search of the bad). Students should be encouraged to break down the reasons the writing doesn’t work and to suggest changes to improve it.
At this point you may need to review specific punctuation rules you want to focus on, or challenge students to find mistakes they have made in the past and be intentional about fixing them here.
Finally, students should write their own reviews. They need to be public and they need to be accurate. Most review sites have a “share this review” section where they can get the link and submit it to you via your LMS (or a shared Google Form).
Consider keeping this going as a rolling assignment or have classroom discussions around shared reviews. This can be an evergreen assignment as there are always new reviews being posted and your students are always exploring new places. If they aren’t, then you’re helping them to live a little more outside their regular bubbles, which may be the most important lesson of all.