Comma rules part 1: S & C #AskDon’tTell (1/3)

How confident are you with comma rules?  Did you memorize the rules, or do you punctuate based on your gut?  I struggle to feel confident about some or most of the technical aspects of writing.  I second guess myself, and I hesitate to press publish because of this lack of confidence.

As a young learner, I fell in the category of a memorizer.  I learned the rules as expected for “the test” and them promptly lost them.  This lack of learning continues to impact my confidence and my performance.  I will admit that I usually put commas in my sentences when I pause when reading aloud.  I’m pretty sure that is not the best criteria.

It is possible to lead learners to an understanding of commas by asking them questions? Could we offer young learners the opportunity to develop an understanding of the rules for themselves through the use of examples and visual metaphors? Could learners decode how to correctly place commas to separate the elements in a series and in compound sentences without being told the rule first?

My friend and colleague, Marilyn Bauer, has set off on this quest.  I have been a student in her 6th grade writing course to learn more about 6 comma rules.  The younger learners have partnered with me to construct the rules based on examples and visuals.

Can you use the examples and the image to help write the rule for comma placement in a compound sentence?  Can you describe how the image connects to the rule?

Can you use the examples and the image to help write the rule for comma placement in a series?  Can you describe how the image connects to the rule?

As a learner, I loved this experience.  I had something to decode.  There was a puzzle to solve.  I have only highlighted one part of the lesson.  Marilyn’s plan involved so many experiences for learners.  Once we attempted to verbalize the rule, she came to coach.  She listened as we talked through the rule and asked questions to clarify and support our learning.  Formative assessment was offered in multiple ways.

How will we exercise our creativity to design lessons that ask our students to question, experiment, and learn?  Will we engage in practicing the art of questioning?

Ask; don’t tell.


  1. A talented mathematician, you have courageously conquered commas, and I bet you can identify the commas used in this sentence now, too!


  2. As an old English teacher, I couldn’t help clicking on this link from your post on “Waypoints on the Path to Wisdom.” I love Ms. Bauer’s pictures and the connections they provide to punctuation. I used to ask my students to get up in front of the class and use their bodies to explain the purpose of certain marks. Later, when they were writing, they said they’d find themselves remembering the postures and positions they formed.

    For some reason my kids always got a kick out of the interrobang (‽) or quesclamation mark, the only new punctuation mark we’ve had in the last two centuries. Invented in 1962, the interrobang was widely used in the 60’s, even becoming its own key on many Remington and Smith-Corona typewriters in the 70’s. For some crazy reason, it never really caught on. My kids and I use to debate whether the times truly call for the resurrection of the interrobang. After all, how do you properly write the following sentence so that the reader understands the appropriate inflection: “Are you sleeping with my mother‽” Oh, I forgot to mention I was teaching high school. They always had other punctuation marks they felt we should create suggesting disgust, irony, even boredom. Who knew punctuation could be such fun.

    Thank you and Ms. Bauer for this walk down memory lane.


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