Grammar | Reading Comprehension

How teaching punctuation can improve reading comprehension

By Sara Snelling

25 Jan 2023

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Punctuation can add expression to a sentence, or completely change its meaning. This makes it as essential to teaching reading comprehension as it is to writing instruction. In this article, we focus on key punctuation to help learners with reading comprehension.

The purpose of punctuation is to help readers understand what they’re reading.

Punctuation marks are powerful symbols used by writers to direct reading pace, add emotion and illustrate relationships between words, phrases and clauses. It makes sense, therefore, that readers need to understand punctuation in order to get the true meaning of what has been written.

The need for explicit teaching of punctuation for reading comprehension

For educators, this means teaching punctuation explicitly to aid reading comprehension, not just as part of writing instruction.

Reading aloud to children is a great way to introduce them to punctuation. It’s a chance for teachers to model how text sounds with and without specific punctuation marks, with the help of intonation, voice volume and dramatic gestures. Learners can then practice themselves and receive feedback and direction as appropriate.

This helps connect spoken and printed punctuation and starts the journey towards independent reading, one that incorporates an understanding of punctuation and its impact on meaning.

How punctuation can change the meaning of sentences

Let’s eat Grandma is a well-known example of the potential danger of mis-punctuation.

The correct comma placement would put Grandma in a more pleasant situation with the invitation, "Let’s eat, Grandma." However, without the comma, the sentence is much more sinister: "Let's eat Grandma." This, and other similar examples, help demonstrate to children the meaning that punctuation brings to a sentence.

A single word, such as ‘no’, can take on many meanings thanks to punctuation:

  • A statement of fact: No.
  • An exclamation: No!
  • A question: No?

Demonstrating different punctuation marks in action is a good way to change learners’ perceptions of punctuation: it moves punctuation beyond simply being a set of grammar rules to experiencing its impact as a reader.

The following are six key types of punctuation learners should understand to improve their reading comprehension.

1. Understand the many uses of the comma

Commas are a great tool for creating meaning and organising words in a sentence. Commas are useful for structuring clauses in a sentence, improving the legibility of a paragraph, segmenting lists and even setting the overall pace of a piece of text.

The introduction comma

Where a clause, word or phrase is used to introduce a sentence, it’s usually followed by a comma to create a pause and build anticipation for the main information that follows. For example, Once upon a time, there were three bears who lived in the woods.

Direct speech

A comma is used between the introduction to direct speech and the actual direct speech as an indication of where one ends and the other starts.

Direct address

When addressing someone by name, a comma is used to separate or highlight the name.

Interrupting commas

These work mostly in pairs to insert a piece of non-essential information into a sentence. The sentence makes sense without that information, so the reader knows it has been added for reasons such as emphasis or tone of voice.

The joining comma

This comma is used before a coordinating conjunction (‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’, ‘for’, ‘nor’, ‘so’, ‘yet’) to join two or more independent clauses of equal importance within a sentence.

The listing comma

This is used to separate words or phrases in a list. It can be interchanged with the conjunction ‘and’, with the comma replacing the conjunction to create a shorter, neater sentence that’s easier to read.

The gapping comma

The gapping comma is used in place of repetitive words or phrases.

Commas and adjectives

A comma is used between two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Coordinate adjectives have equal status in describing a noun; they can be used in reverse order or joined with ‘and’ instead of the comma.

Non-coordinate adjectives don’t have an equal relationship with a noun and don’t need a comma.

2. Recognise punctuation for speech

Inverted commas enclose direct speech or a quotation.

Also known as quotation marks or speech marks, they always come in pairs to tell the reader that the text between them represents spoken word (“…”).

There are other uses for inverted commas, such as highlighting or separating unusual words or titles. When used as punctuation for speech, there will also be a direct speech comma to help the reader identify their purpose.

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3. Identify questions, commands and exclamations

Different punctuation marks at the end of a sentence tell the reader more about the tone or purpose of the sentence.

For example, a question mark at the end shows that it’s a question rather than a statement. An exclamation mark expresses a strong view, a command or an interjection, such as ‘Stop!’ or ‘Help!’

4. Understand brackets and dashes

These are interrupting punctuation marks used to give the reader additional information.

They indicate that there is non-essential information within the flow of the sentence. The additional text marked by brackets or dashes could be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Brackets (also called parentheses) always come in pairs and surround the extra information. Dashes can come in pairs to surround the additional information or they can be used singularly if the interruption is at the start or end of a sentence. Readers should be able to recognise a dash (--) from a hyphen (-) from the dash’s longer length. The hyphen has a different purpose and is used to join words or parts of words.

5. Be clear about apostrophes

Apostrophes have two main purposes that create two different meanings.

The first is to create the possessive form of nouns. For example, the girl’s bike for the possessive of a singular noun, or the girls’ bikes for the possessive of a plural noun.

The second is to represent letters that have been omitted in contractions. For example, I don’t know instead of I do not know, or I’m not sure instead of I am not sure.

6. Know colons and semicolons

A colon has several purposes. It is used after a clause to tell the reader that additional explanatory information follows. For example, I know it was you: you broke the plates. It can be used for emphasis, by creating a pause in the reader’s flow.

A semi-colon is used to indicate to the reader a close relationship between the main clauses within a sentence, showing they are connected and of equal importance. Other uses for semicolons are to add clarity to a sentence, by separating items in a list that already contains commas; and before some adverbs when they are used to connect main clauses.

Understanding punctuation is the key to reading fluently

In literacy terms, fluency is reading with accuracy, automaticity and prosody.

This means being able to read words correctly, at the right speeds and without great effort, and with appropriate stress and intonation. This requires word recognition and decoding skills, but also good use of pace, expression and punctuation for it to flow and feel effortless.

Fluent readers can focus on higher cognitive processes, such as creating connections and calling on prior knowledge to read between the lines, identify subtext and truly engage with the meaning of what they’re reading.

How Bedrock supports schools to teach punctuation

Bedrock’s core curriculum includes a rich grammar curriculum, differentiated for primary and secondary learners.

In Bedrock’s grammar curriculum, fundamental skills set out by the UK National Curriculum - such as punctuation - are taught through engaging teaching videos, bespoke fiction and nonfiction prose, and mastery activities, ensuring long-term retention. Low-stakes formative assessments provide data on each learner’s confidence, giving insights into where further support is needed and where high-achieving learners can be stretched.

Using Bedrock’s core curriculum, students learn vocabulary and grammar in tandem, boosting literacy skills across the curriculum.

With a free trial, discover how Bedrock’s core curriculum can support learners at your school to make great progress.

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