Fixing Comma splices – the 7 point plan

Perhaps the bane of every English teacher’s existence ever is the crime of comma splicing. The crime is particularly pernicious in higher secondary education. The reason students commit comma splice errors is because they aren’t secure in their knowledge of what a sentence actually is. I’ve tried many times to solve the issue with well-intentioned activities, and strategies such as ‘if in doubt, use a full stop’ to using commas where a natural breath would be if you were speaking the sentences. Alas, these were but specious promises that rarely resolved students’ issues. 

The reason these methods don’t work is because they only take the student back one or two steps from where they are, and fail to acknowledge these students don’t have the foundational knowledge required. In reality, what these students need is to go back to the very basics of sentence construction, and slowly consolidate their knowledge of every piece of the jigsaw that makes up the summative understanding of punctuating their writing. 

Daisy Christodoulou’s seminal work ‘Making good progress’ identifies the need to design learning sequences that provide practice of tasks that may not reflect the final summative task, but in fact are individual components that make up the whole. What has really surprised me then is the lack of resources available that would provide a sequenced approach to building the required knowledge leading to such a summative understanding of punctuation, taking a student from the basics of grammar all the way through to being able to punctuate a complex sentence successfully. There are of course thousands of resources on individual elements of grammar, but any resource seems to be disparate from the the previous or next stage in the journey, and to be frank, mostly aimed at primary school students or ESL students.

I would have thought that the teaching sequence of such knowledge would be quite axiomatic, and given the large number of students who struggle to write adequately punctuated compositions, I am truly surprised that teachers aren’t given a standardised teaching resource to tackle what in essence is a form of illiteracy in older students.

So, I have decided to design my own. I have added a section titles ‘COMMAS’ to my resource website designed for my students, with sequenced activities students can use to develop the knowledge of the individual components required to successfully use commas correctly. Having said that, if you have found something suitable or in fact have your own sequenced scheme, I would really appreciate you pointing me in the right direction, as I think what I have produced is definitely a work in progress. In fact, this is very early doors, with me only implementing it with one of my classes in the last few days. I hope to use this class as a mini research project, but would welcome suggestions or advice if you think I am in the process of exposing my students to further errors.

Here is my 7 point sequence for teaching sentence construction and how to punctuate accordingly. 

  1. Subjects
  2. Verbs
  3. Verb forms
  4. Phrases
  5. Clauses
  6. Compound sentences
  7. Complex sentences

… and here is my rationale for the 7 point sequence for teaching sentence construction and how to punctuate accordingly. 

  1. SUBJECTS – Everything starts with the subject – without a subject there is no life. Subjects are nouns of course, and it is useful here to recap the most used types of nouns: common, pro, abstract, proper, collective. The first task then is to gradually build the ability to identify a subject. Begin with only 2 words in a phrase or clause (subject and verb), and keep adding words to the phrases or clauses or full sentences to increase the difficulty. Importantly, repeat this until the student understands it – that is, isn’t simply guessing. This may mean you add multiple slides to the ppt, providing a new activity each day. The final activity to ensure students understand what a subject is, is to have them design their own examples, as though teaching another student.

2. VERBS – In order for life to make any sense, subjects need to do things. These actions, movements, or states are verbs. Begin by providing verbs that are quite simple to detect, which means avoiding the verb to ‘be’ at this stage. Verb forms will be looked at next, so at this stage, very simple clauses and phrases with barely any conjugating (most will know what the past, resent and future is, so you will be able to have some conjugation), and certainly no modal or verb to ‘be’ should form the examples of deciding what’s a verb. Importantly, repeat this until the student understands it – that is, isn’t simply guessing. This may mean you add multiple slides to the ppt, providing a new activity each day.

3. VERB FORMS – Beginning with the infinitive, as how scholars assign definitions to verbs, to then explaining how finite verbs are then essentially conjugations of the infinitive, helps demystify what verbs are. An introduction to irregular verbs leads to what can be a complicated and difficult to understand concept of the verb to ‘be’. If we look at how this verb is used in our language, we see it is actually quite illogical, and therefore, for the novice, an obfuscation. Gradually introducing the conjugation of the verb to ‘be’ and providing immediate examples of its use is crucial here. Technically, this should be taught before verbs in general, as the verb ‘to be’ often becomes an auxiliary verb, accompanying a main verb: ‘I am swimming.’ However, in a sentence such as ‘The man is tall’, the verb is unapparent for the novice, potentially confusing the learner before any learning takes place. At this point, the other 2 weird verbs, to have and to do are introduced, as a means of leading into explicit instruction of auxiliary verbs, including modals.

Activities of spotting these types of verbs in various tenses is next in the sequence of learning, allowing students to confidently spot verbs in any form. Subject verb agreement naturally stems from this, however, it is more of a grammar thing and not necessarily punctuation related, and so I won’t go into detail here. To consolidate the understanding of verbs, mix the verb to ‘be’ and ‘have’ with irregular and regular verbs as well as auxiliaries and modals in multiple spotting activities.

4. PHRASES – defining what a phrase is: a group of 2 or more words that add extra information to a sentence. This means that a phrase doesn’t have to contain a subject or a verb, but often contains at least one of them. Because phrases add more information in sentences, there are various examples of phrases that match other grammatical terms: noun phrase, adjectival phrase, verb phrase, adverbial phrase, prepositional phrase etc. Most importantly, a phrase CANNOT exist on its own as a sentence, and spotting them is important for understanding what a sentence is. Understanding this idea should be consolidated before moving on, and this can be achieved via activities with lots of examples of phrases. This activity also restrengthens the understanding of nouns and verbs, and can be an introduction to prepositions and adverbs, as they are both common types of phrases (not essential to do this however).

5. CLAUSES –  clauses do contain BOTH a subject and a verb, and so are the closest thing to comprising a complete sentence, and therefore requiring punctuation. But there are two types, with only one actually being a complete sentence: the independent clause. Students therefore really need to understand the difference between independent clauses and dependent clauses. Fortunately, the names make it easier to decipher their purposes. Students should also be introduced to the different connectives that turn independent clauses into dependent clauses at this stage.

FRAGMENTS – students with poor sentence construction knowledge often write fragments, which is essentially writing a dependent clause and believing it to be an independent clause. Taking time at this stage to provide examples of fragments is important here, so students can see them in action, but be explicitly guided through the fact they are actually dependent clauses, and therefore cannot be real sentences.

LOTS OF PRACTICE AT THIS POINT IS ESSENTIAL. This may take the form of providing examples of phrases vs independent clauses on their own, or phrases vs dependent clauses, or like the example above, all 3.

The final activity in this section is to then ask if it’s a complete sentence: containing an independent clause, as modelled below. The temptation here would be to move on quickly to the next stage, but I really believe lots of time should be spent here until this becomes automatic, requiring little working memory.

6. COMPOUND SENTENCES – are sentences that combine 2 independent clauses. These are important as it’s the first time students will need to punctuate. Independent clauses are combined using connectives (coordinating conjunctions = and, but, so, for, nor, or). If the sentence is sufficiently long, when we combine the clauses we MUST use a comma after the conjunction. If it is quite short, we don’t have to.

This must be taught as joining independent clauses, and the imperative is the use of coordinating conjunctions. At this stage, remind students that as soon as you add other connectives, such as subordinating conjunctions, you render the clause dependent, which eliminates the need to add the coordinating conjunction, and turns the sentence into a complex one.

7. COMPLEX SENTENCES – are sentences that contain a mixture of independent clauses and dependent clauses. Where the dependent clause comes in the sentence determines if a comma is used to separate them. Activities should focus on: determining which part of the sentence contains the dependent and which the independent clauses; whether the comma is needed depending on the position of the clauses; to finally, is the complex sentence punctuated correctly.

The final activity would be to focus on punctuating sentences that add a phrase to an independent clause. This then essentially covers all the possible punctuation scenarios as indicated in the image below.

An extension from here is to discuss restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, which use relative pronouns as the dependent conjunction. This idea is well explained here. However, this is now moving into more sophisticated punctuation, a level that can only be attempted once the 7 basics are mastered. 

TOWARDS LITERACY

There are always going to be exceptions and extra things that could be discussed at each of the stages above. However, bear in mind the intention of this scheme: it is not to turn struggling punctuators into professors of linguistics, but more so designed to make them competent punctuators, students who can confidently understand the basics of sentence construction and as a consequence most definitely desist from comma splicing, and using fragments. It will relieve such students from the shackles of writing illiteracy.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English based resources, and other educational things.

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