The Biggest Reason Your Students Still Don’t Punctuate or Capitalize

Let’s be real for a minute.  How often have you looked at your students’ writing and wanted to just throw their work in the trash because you’re so frustrated with their inattention to punctuation?  You’re seeing a double-whammy of both run-on sentences and fragments. You’ve spent a lot of time teaching punctuation, but just aren’t seeing the results. Sooooo frustrating!

And for the love of God, you’re still seeing lowercase letter i’s for the word I.  (This one really makes me cringe, too!)

You know you’ve told your kids about this.  You’ve taught lessons about this.  More than once.  You’ve assigned weekly sentence fix-up activities for morning work every week.  You wonder if your kids will ever learn do do it!

But here’s the thing.  If how you’re teaching punctuation is not sticking, what you’re doing isn’t working. 

Isolated skills practice like morning work never transfer to kids’ actual writing.  I’ve written about this same thing regarding grammar, too.  

Here’s why.

“We don’t want to confuse “mentioning” with teaching. Modeling by writing in front of a class, examining writing together, and looking at samples of children’s writing is very different from just telling students something and expecting them to go off and do it. Study that is deep and wide accomplishes much more than reminders and nagging ever can.” 

-from A Fresh Approach to Teaching Punctuation, Janet Angelillo

Think about how much time you’ve truly devoted to teaching punctuation.

Let’s just imagine over a week’s time, you made sure to teach a writing lesson all about complete sentences. Then you checked over some of your kids’ writing, and you had conversations with three or four of them about this. You even took the time to remind the class to be sure that they edit for capitals and punctuation at least once or twice.

But all of this was done during “writing time.” And it wasn’t every day.   

Which means all the rest of the day: math, social studies, science, working on homework, homework, morning work…all of these times, which make up the majority of the day, kids were not reminded to do this work, nor were they held accountable. 

Repetition is what builds habits. So if 90% of the day is where they turn things in and complete work in which proper punctuation and sentence completion are not expected or demanded, then it cannot be a surprise that kids aren’t doing it.

Kids need ample practice using punctuation.
Practice makes perfect when it comes to getting kids to use punctuation! Image from AlexLipa via Depositphotos.

If this happens in one classroom every week, every month, over a whole school year, and we multiply that by the number of years they’ve been in school where the same lack of expectation and accountability happen, it’s little wonder that the habit of proper sentence formation, capitalization, and punctuation are not habitual.  

It’s not that kids can’t do it.  It’s that they haven’t been expected to do it.  

So what do we do? 

Well, first, if this is a concern for you, it has to move to the forefront of your mind. If you find yourself lamenting that your kids aren’t doing what you’re looking for, then you’ve got to find ways to demand it–and remember to do so.

Teaching punctuation is part direct instruction, part practice, and a whole lot of accountability.

Did they turn in homework that is missing capital letters at the beginning of sentences or absent punctuation? Return it.  And make them turn it back in. 

During content time, intentionally building opportunities for writing. Summarization, for example, is one of the very best ways to process thinking. After you teach a lesson, have students summarize the learning. Or, after reading a passage, have them stop to summarize what they read. But do not accept any work that does not include complete sentences or proper capitalization. 

Bringing writing to content subjects like this, by the way, is the entire premise of the Writing Revolution book. Teaching more and more complex sentence structure with the content areas to summarize not only helps kids process the learning, it is also prime opportunity for direct and explicit instruction in sentence writing. 

This can–and should–even happen in math. Instead of accepting one or two word answers to problems,  demand that they write an entire sentence: instead of “14 apples,” teach them to write  a full sentence (There were 14 apples remaining in the basket). Again, if something is not right, you don’t accept it.  When doing error analysis work, have them explain–in a proper paragraph–what the misstep was.  

Kids need to experience this sort of writing all across the day, every day.  They need to see that skills like conventions and grammar don’t matter only in “writing” time; they matter every time.  

If we want our students to build good habits, and if we want sentence writing to become automatic, then we have to teach them explicitly and then demand that they do it correctly. Every day.  All day long.  We have to be intentional about making sure this happens. That is how a habit is built. 

Strong habits in capitalization and punctuation will never be built if we only focus on it 5-10% of the time.

Especially if a lot of it is isolated practice like morning work.  

Yes, this is a lot of work on our part.  But once we make it our own habit to build in opportunities for writing across the day, expect it, and hold kids accountable for it, it becomes second nature. When it becomes routine for us across the day is when it will become a habit for students to actually apply it. 

So I challenge you.  What can you do to build this habit of embedding writing into the entire day?  What can you do to remind yourself to demand proper capitalization and punctuation (once it’s been taught) from each and every student, each and every day, each and every subject?  How can you vertically align this expectation with teacher teams in your school so that the foundations are built from the beginning? 

Could you use a partner in strengthening your writing instruction?  I’m here for you!  Because no one can do this work alone, I’m available for virtual coaching calls.  Simply email me at [email protected] or reach out for a coaching call!  

Or, consider joining my Facebook community–a safe, supportive environment (really–no blaming or shaming allowed!)  where you can ask questions, learn ideas, and share your thoughts among other literacy-loving educators!

Who exactly is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 25-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers just like you as I can.  

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