Patterns and Punctuation – Learning to Question Language

By Elizabeth Schlessman

Illustrator: Diana Kraft

Illustration: Diana Kraft

Look, Teacher! Moss! I see moss!” Ana exclaims as we cross the street during our 5th-grade class field trip. My eyes follow Ana’s index finger past the grates of a storm drain. “Where?” asks Daniel. “Oh! I see it, too! Moss!”

Moss is not new to my students. It has been a part of their lives in the Pacific Northwest since they were born 11 years ago. We can find moss growing around the perimeter of the rubber seal of car trunks and the base of car windows. We can find moss in sidewalk cracks and curb joints. Moss proliferates in Oregon.

Punctuation is not new to my students’ lives, either. The books they have been reading since kindergarten are full of capital letters, periods, commas, quotation marks, and exclamation points. We can find punctuation on signs, in letters, and on labels. Punctuation proliferates in text, though not always in student writing.

There are more than 20,000 species of moss on Earth. Most of us, however, have only one word to describe moss. So “moss” is what we see. We pass by the green without noticing or thinking about the patterns.

Whether or not we are asked to notice and question patterns in the world around us can depend on who we are. A well-known study by Jean Anyon contrasted the education at a school in which students’ families were working class with a more affluent school. It showed that students in the working-class school were asked to complete mechanical and routine tasks while students in an affluent school were invited to problem-solve, develop, and elaborate on ideas. Many years later, Jonathan Kozol described a similar phenomenon and dubbed it “educational apartheid” in his book The Shame of the Nation.

The majority of students I work with carry society’s labels working class and Latina/o. Our school often toes the slippery Adequate Yearly Progress line where the word not leeches itself onto the word met. In today’s educational context, the mechanical and routine tasks observed in Anyon’s study can easily translate into a simplified educational vision for working-class students: Follow the rules and pass the tests. As we plan instruction—even instruction about punctuation—we have the opportunity to engage students’ minds and create new labels: question-asking, problem-solving. How we teach embeds a vision of who we think our kids are and what we think they are capable of. Are they destined for a future of critical thinking, questioning, revising the rules—or a future of compliance and rule-following?

Seeing the Layers

“Look, Teacher, moss! I see two different types!” Mayra exclaims on the playground as she picks up a storm-blown sycamore branch. I think I found some lichen, too!” She is beginning to see the layers of nature—the patterns and complexities that differentiate lichen from moss. I, too, am beginning to see the layers—of punctuation.

I found myself in the middle of a “Look, Teacher, moss!” moment one mid-September afternoon. I was reading The Dangerous World of Butterflies, by Peter Laufer, when a sentence stopped me short: “Incredible: gray sky to blue sky to orange sky.”

A single adjective before a colon. Who knew you could do that? Some 10 pages later, there it was again. The adjective colon technique pranced across the page: “Amazing: He grabs a cell signal and calls the El Paso ejido.”

When my students were 4th graders about to take the state writing test, their teachers did the best they could to prepare them for success; they taught them to add a colon to their writing by mentioning the time of day. Almost every narrative I read in the fall of 5th grade included a reference to a specific time. “It started at 6 p.m. and ended at 7:02 p.m.,” Joel wrote in his narrative writing assessment at the end of October.

Hurling a colon into a personal narrative may help boost the double-weighted conventions score on the Oregon state writing test. Yet the sight of colon after colon formulaically flung into writing made my teaching heart hurt. I saw obedient students submitting to the rules of the red pen, trying to conform to an invisible power. Meaning was compromised to serve the punctuation mark and the state test score. It was painful to watch students dutifully insert colons based on their trust that test scores are a definitive and valid measure of good writing.

I learned punctuation through rules and exercises and red pen corrections. And I learned to trust those rules over my own thinking. As we marveled over a sentence in our bilingual 5th-grade classroom, I felt obligated to explain it away as an anomaly. “This is something that doesn’t follow the rule,” I said as I read some of my favorite parts aloud from Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee: “Bodies. Skin. Colors. Water. Gleaming. Buttery. Warm. Cool. Wet. Screaming. Happy.” Or one of my favorite paragraphs: “Apparently not.”

Whether or not the sentences conform to the simplified rules I learned, there is no doubt that Spinelli’s writing works. It not only works, it shines. The period beckons the reader to slow down and honor each of the words. The choices to use periods over commas and single words over sentences serve the author’s purpose. Although students need to understand the ways their writing will be analyzed on the state test (and perhaps know they will receive a higher mark for including a colon), they also need to understand that the purpose of punctuation is to express oneself more powerfully and imaginatively, to better communicate, not merely to be “correct.”

I still can’t identify moss species, but I can go for a hike and see 20 varieties where I used to see only one. I walk trails asking questions and searching for patterns. Why does this particular moss species thrive in this particular place? Can I predict its location by better understanding the patterns of its adaptations? Can we apply this notice-the-mark and search-for-pattern inquiry to our study of the dash and the comma?

Teacher-Guided Inquiry

I decided to try collective and individual inquiry as a part of our classroom study of punctuation. I wanted my students to know that there were patterns beyond—and exceptions to—the rules they already knew. I wanted them to trust their own thinking to reason about those patterns. Even if we ended up discovering the so-called “rules,” I wanted students to start from a place of inquiry and empowerment. I wanted them to see that placing punctuation on the page is a decision-making process and that the teacher or the textbook and the “rules” created by others can be questioned.

In the classroom, I often use familiar content to teach a new process or a familiar process to teach new content. As we gathered on the rug in the front of the room to begin our punctuation inquiry, I reminded students that they were in a familiar place by referring to the diagram of the inquiry cycle that was posted on the wall: “Today we will apply the inquiry cycle we’ve been using in science to explore questions about punctuation. We will ask a question about a particular type of sentence, make a prediction or hypothesis about what we think is happening, and see if we can collect examples of similar sentences to support our hypothesis. For now we will all work with the same question, but soon you will think of your own.”

Eventually I wanted students to notice marks and ask open-ended questions, so I decided to start by modeling inquiry from question to application in one anchor lesson. I began by modeling an I-notice-and-now-I-wonder process. I chose a model sentence and question that would make the inquiry process accessible to students at all levels of reading and English language learning: “I was reading Chicken Sunday,” I said, “and I noticed this sentence: ‘When we passed Mr. Kodinski’s hat shop, Miss Eula would always stop and look in the window at the wonderful hats.’

“Now I am wondering about the comma. Here is my question: Is there always a comma in the middle when a sentence starts with when?”

I wrote the example sentence and question on the board. Then I asked, “Can you find any other examples that follow the same pattern?”

Students set to work with partners, paging through Patricia Polacco’s Chicken Sunday—detectives on a search. I wanted students to be able to hold on to meaning as they asked questions about the author’s punctuation choices, so I had picked a book we had read together a few times the previous week.

“I found one,” volunteered Laura. “‘When it was time for her solo comma,we knew she was singing just for us,’” she read. Picking up the red and black markers, I began color-coding the examples to help students see the pattern. I wrote the word when in red and continued filling in the rest of the words of the sentence in black. When I was done, I added a red comma.

I had hardly finished writing Laura’s example when Jessica shared another: “‘When we finally got the courage to ask about doing odd jobs to earn some extra money comma, he apologized and told us that there was no work.’”

Once we had five examples on the board, we looked for a pattern and tried to make a generalization: What do we notice about these sentences? How do they start? Where is the comma? Why did the writer put it there? I was hoping that students would begin to understand that they could infer the function of a punctuation mark by analyzing its effect on the meaning of the text. I wanted to remind them that their analytical brains could create “Look, Teacher, moss!” moments—that they could make generalizations about punctuation patterns in the world around them. I asked students to explain what they were noticing to a partner and then asked a few to share their thinking with the class.

Jason tried to explain: “It’s like you put a comma when one thing happens while another thing is happening.”

“When a sentence starts with when, you put a comma after the first part,” suggested Julia. I wrote the generalizations on the board and wondered aloud if the pattern would be the same in other books or if we might be able to find some counterexamples.

Since my goal in the anchor lesson was to model the inquiry process from question to application, I referred back to the inquiry diagram and invited students to move beyond analysis and interpretation to application.

“Can you think of a sentence with this pattern you might use in your own writing?” I looked at students gathered on the floor, chairs, and stools. They looked back, hands in laps, twisting hair, and scraping pencils. Had I pushed through the analysis too quickly? Should we have taken the time to play with words, flip the clauses, see how the sentence reads when we remove the comma? “Here, I will start you off with my own example,” I offered. “When we come to school the day after evening conferences comma, the students and teachers are sleepy.”

Slowly the water started to bubble. “When I went to my conference comma, my mom told me she was proud of me,” shared David as other hands slid into the air.

“When my dad saw my work comma, he was impressed,” Angela volunteered.

I wrote color-coded student examples on the board under the examples we had found in the book. As I set the red and black markers on the marker board sill, I asked students to share one more example orally with their partner. I listened in as a few pairs shared their examples and then encouraged students to find other examples or counterexamples in the books they were reading.

Student-Generated Inquiry

And so we began. We had named our process, tried it together, and now I wanted to see whether I could help students form their own questions about other punctuation patterns on the page. I chose open-ended over guided inquiry because I wanted students to realize they could learn about punctuation outside of teacher-initiated lessons. I wanted them to notice and question punctuation in their own reading. I knew there would be times when we would work together on a specific use of punctuation, but I wanted to create a space for students to generate their own questions and trust their own thinking.

I invited a group of seven students to the rug the next day during reading workshop. We settled into a circle on the floor, and began paging through Chicken Sunday. “What do you observe? What do you notice about the punctuation? What questions do you have?”

Students slowly flipped pages, minds churning.

Joel pointed at a sentence in the middle of the book: “Why does it have two commas in the air and a comma under?” I recorded his question on a piece of notebook paper for him. I wanted student energy to stay focused on thinking, not writing.

By the time I finished, Ana glanced up. “Why does it have a dialogue mark and then a comma after the person’s name?”

I was surprised by the range of questions and the tendency to use descriptions instead of formal names. Hadn’t we already talked about quotation marks during our study of dialogue? Is there a correlation between student use of formal terminology and the degree to which they apply punctuation in their writing? Is punctuation awareness a continuum in which students move from noticing and describing to naming and applying?

“Here it says ‘hatbox dot dot dot gift-wrapped.’ Why does it have dots?”

“Why does Chicken Sunday start with a capital letter in the middle of the sentence?”

I continued recording questions and asking for more. Once everyone in the group had generated at least one question, I invited students to pick one to investigate for the day and handed out an inquiry guide to help them through the process. As students began recording their questions and collecting examples in a three-column chart, I was thankful I had chosen to do the individual inquiry as a small group activity. Students stumbled—“What was my question again?” They needed direction—“I think there might be another example of that pattern in this paragraph.” “Does the author of this book use dashes in the same way as that author?” There were opportunities for collaboration—“You two have the same question; maybe you want to work together.”

Students were beginning to analyze and explain patterns. Daniel collected examples as he investigated his question: How do authors use dashes? Next to each example, Daniel analyzed the author’s use of the dash in the My Thinking column on his Punctuation Inquiry guide.

“I think you use dashes to give more information,” he wrote in the box next to the sentence he collected from Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts: “We shoot baskets—a loose piece of tape on Antonio’s shoe smacks the concrete every time he jumps.”

As students found examples and began to draw conclusions, I invited some of them to ask a new question. In the midst of the momentum, I forgot to loop the inquiry back to applying the learning to our own writing.


As the small group gathered around a pile of familiar classroom library books a few days later, I had a sense that question-generation and pattern-searching could deepen and expand indefinitely. I wanted to honor student needs, yet I also wanted to press toward application in student writing. I turned to Joel, who had collected three examples of ellipses. He was busy writing a conclusion. “I think you use them, like, when you want to show a pause,” he explained.

A handful of students had tried this: research a safe question—one with an already known answer. “I bet you are used to pausing for ellipses when you read.” Joel nodded. “Do you already use ellipses in your writing?” Joel shook his head. “Go get your journal and try. See if you can find a place to use ellipses in something you already wrote, or start something new.”

“It was a cold day it was the last game of the seson and I yeld ‘pas me the . . . soccer bal.’ I was gonna fall.”

“Did you really pause when you said that?” I asked, wondering if he had forced ellipses into a place where they didn’t belong.

“Actually, I fell when I said that, right there,” Joel pointed at the ellipses. “I couldn’t talk because I was falling.”

I often mine student writing for great examples of character description or narrative openings so that students can learn from each other and try out a classmate’s technique in their own writing. I asked a few students to post their color-coded sentence strip examples and conclusions on a bulletin board to encourage other students to think about the patterns and leave tracks of our process so we could reference our learning.

Looking Back

As I listened to student questions and watched the search for examples, I realized that open-ended inquiry was a valuable—and inefficient—process. The opportunity to ask questions certainly helped students delve into the layers of print and the purposes of punctuation. Yet sifting through sentences in search of examples was time-consuming, and with so many inquiries happening at the same time, it was difficult to facilitate the deep discussion needed to solidify learning. Although open-ended inquiry infused wonder and freedom into our study of punctuation, I knew I still needed to create space for collective inquiry, discussion, and teaching about the ways punctuation choices affect meaning.

Empowerment Through Inquiry

“Why does your class always stop to look at that tree? Is it a part of what you are doing in science?” a colleague asks as we cross the asphalt to our portable classrooms. Her simple question has a layered answer that begins with appreciating moss and changing leaves, and branches to critical thinking about the world and the word. Why is it worthwhile for students to notice patterns, ask questions, and pay attention to detail?

My students helped me answer that question as we spent time reflecting on learning at the end of the year. “I used to just read and I ignored the punctuation,” Laura told me. “Now I notice the punctuation marks. I used to keep reading on, but now I know they count.”

Daniel reminded me to balance open-ended inquiry, teacher-guided inquiry, and direct teaching: “Maybe the students won’t recognize the punctuation. Maybe if you teach it, when they are reading they will recognize it.”

Mayra recognized the value of discovery, the value of constructing knowledge with scaffolds and support: “You won’t learn that much if someone just tells you that’s how you do it. I like using the book to look for clues. If I use a book, I can figure it out myself.”

Open-ended inquiry certainly isn’t the only way to teach punctuation. But it can help build a powerful context. By beginning a study of commas and quotation marks with student observations and thinking, we can empower children to think critically as they notice patterns and ask questions about the world around them. Teaching is always about nurturing the capacities of our students to imagine and create a better world—it begins with commas and ellipses, but that’s not where it ends.


Anyon, Jean. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” Journal of Education. 162.1. (Fall 1980).

Boelts, Maribeth. Those Shoes. Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2007.

Kozol, Jonathan. The Shame of the Nation. New York: Crown, 2005.

Laufer, Peter. The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists. Guilford,Conn.: Lyons Press, 2009.

Polacco, Patricia. Chicken Sunday. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1992.

Spinelli, Jerry. Maniac Magee. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1990.

Wall Kimmerer, Robin. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Corvallis, Ore.: Oregon State University Press, 2003.

Elizabeth Schlessman ( teaches 4th and 5th grade in a Spanish dual language immersion classroom in Woodburn, Ore. Her article, “Aquí y Allá: Exploring Our Lives Through Poetry—Here and There,” was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Rethinking Schools. All students’ names have been changed.