"I'm Working It Out," Said John: An Active Learning Approach to Mastering Punctuation: John Atkinson Describes How He Changed His Practice in the Teaching of Punctuation, Including Active Learning Approaches and Improving Students' Learning by Making It Fun

Article excerpt

I didn't know how to use punctuation. When I was at school, it didn't matter. What was far more important was writing an exciting story or emotive description, but the mechanics of writing didn't really crop up. When I came into teaching, all the talk of phrases, compound sentences and, mainly, parenthetic commas, semicolons and demarcation of clauses left me clueless. So I read and read and read and, finally, felt I had an understanding of grammar and punctuation decent enough for me to be let loose on a group of Year 7s... just.

I realised then that it was one thing to learn about punctuation but a very different matter to teach it and get students to remember to use it.

This article is a description of the development and implementation of a set of stand-alone lessons, which took place at Bingley Grammar School, a large comprehensive secondary on the outskirts of Bradford, in which students worked out how to use punctuation for themselves, were given strategies to aid their memory, and given time to fix their understanding.

What is Active Learning and why should I use it?

'Learning occurs through the brain making its own meaning, making its own sense of things...' (Ginnis 2002: 17); active learning 'has as its aim the need for students to take charge of their learning' (McMorrow 2006: 321) and 'happens when students. take a more interactive relationship with the subject matter of a course, encouraging them to generate rather than simply to receive knowledge.' (Teaching Resources Center 2007) so 'students achieve deep learning as they construct knowledge and create meaning...' (Haack 2008: 396).

Simply put, students learn best when they work things out for themselves.

Why is this preferable to more traditional learning? By engaging with the material and working things out for themselves, students use Bloom's higher-order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation (Bonwell & Eison 1991. See also Atherton 2009). As active learning makes students create their own meaning, they put much more mental effort into the learning, creating far more synapses in the brain (the connections which create memories and allow them to be recalled), making the learning deeper, more embedded and more easily recalled (see Curran 2008: 26-30) and creating connections across the two hemispheres of the brain leading to 'global learning' (Ginnis 2002: p21).

Once I understood the benefits of active learning, I had to create lessons, resources and activities which allowed students to work things out for themselves. I chose punctuation for several reasons. Firstly, it has distinct rules which can be learned. Secondly, it's boring; I wanted to show that these methods could be used to make a rather dry topic more fun. Thirdly, my students' punctuation was often error-strewn or simply forgotten about; I believe this is because it can be boring and, therefore, little emotion is used in its learning, which stops it from being deeply learned (see Curran 2008: 62-64).

Punctuating Direct Speech

My first target group was a low-ability Year 11 set who were targeted Es and Fs at GCSE, and who struggled to get a variety of punctuation into their writing, and often forgot the most basic punctuation marks when employing direct speech. As these were C and D grade descriptors, I knew I was challenging them to punch above their weight, but believed that these methods could really help them by creating a greater zone of proximal development (ZPD) in which to work due to student engagement (see Harland 2009): if they were switched on, they would try harder, learn better and be capable of mastering work more difficult than usual.

After choosing punctuation of direct speech as a topic, I looked at my existing resources: I was particularly proud of a cloze exercise I'd created. The sheet gave the rules surrounding punctuating direct speech (All of the spoken words and any punctuation should be surrounded by speech marks, etc. …