Periods. From the Writer’s Point of View
by Elizabeth Hale
Ever since I can remember, teachers have lamented about their students’ use of periods, or rather, the lack thereof, especially teachers beyond the primary grades. After all, their students have been hearing about using periods for almost half their life! These teachers certainly talked about periods and taught lessons about them, but the reminders of “Don’t forget to end your sentences with periods!” just never seemed to stick.
One reason is that we were all giving the same advice we got in elementary school of why we should use periods: “The reader needs to know when to stop and take a breath.” But this advice is from the reader’s perspective, not the writer’s. And the truth is, unless someone is reading writing out loud, “the reader” doesn’t need to take a breath! When I put myself in the shoes of a fourth or fifth grader, I saw this generations old advice was just not that convincing.
So how do periods benefit the writer? Once I slowed down the thought process of constructing a sentence—raising my pencil or finger on a keyboard to make a little dot—it came to me: periods help writers take a pause before writing their next sentence. This pause is a gift because it can be a vehicle for attending to the writerly advice teachers give all the time, “Don’t forget to add details and description!” With Memoir, students already have rich details of sound, color, shape, and texture in their minds: it’s just a matter of taking the time to pause and “see” them again in their mind so they can put them in their writing. So rather than just remind students to add details, we can show them the thought process, guided by those periods, of bringing details into writing.
In a mini-lesson you can start with a good old-fashioned run-on sentence such as the following:
I remember when I went to the beach and my sister and we collected shells and then we built a sand castle and then we were hot so we went swimming in the water and then…
I would ask students if there is any particular word they notice I used a lot, to which they always respond “and then!” I importantly acknowledge this makes sense because very often this is the way we talk when we’re telling a story. Then I say, “But writing is different. In Memoir, our job is not to just tell the story. Your job is to…(dramatic pause while you make sure everyone is looking at you) make your memory come alive for the reader.” I erase my run-on sentence as I emphasize the importance of details and imagery for making memories come alive for someone else. Then I write about the same memory but explain how periods give you a chance to think about what detail you might add. After writing a starting sentence:
I remember when I went to the beach with my sister and we collected shells.
I theatrically make a period and then explicitly model looking back in my mind, saying, “Hmmm, what else could I describe about that?” Then I might write, “The first shell was a clam shell we found in a tidal pool,” followed by another exaggerated period and an intentional thinking pause. Think alouds are more often used with reading than writing but they are valuable in slowing down and making visible the thought processes behind the incredibly dynamic and multi-layered task that is writing. Then I might write,“I traced my hand against the rough white and grey arcs that ran across its back.” I do this writing and think modeling several times more before students practice the same thinking process in their notebooks.
Getting students to consistently use periods, of course, is not something that can be changed by just one lesson and requires practice and accountability. But by communicating and modeling to our students how these ubiquitous little dots benefit them as writers, we can give authentic, meaningful reasons to use this punctuation, from the writer’s point of view, and we get to teach into that sweet spot of writing instruction where the art and rules of writing meet.
Elizabeth Hale is literacy consultant for schools and districts and the author of Crafting Writers, K-6 (Stenhouse, 2008) and Readers Writing: Lessons for Responding to Narrative and Informational Text (Stenhouse, 2014). Elizabeth has worked as a teacher and literacy coach in the Boston Public Schools and as an Instructor in the Education department at Emmanuel College. She is currently an advanced doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Elizabeth’s article “Academic Praise in Conferences: A Key for Motivating Struggling Writers” will be published in the 2018 May/June edition of The Reading Teacher.