Pupils are taught certain basic rules of punctuation and capitalisation as early as in the fourth grade; these same rules are repeated and practice on them continues through high school. Yet despite all this instruction, college teachers of English find conditions such as to evoke their frequent complaints that students come to them unable to write with even mechanical correctness.
I do believe that we expect children to use capital letters and full stops far too soon. Older teachers in the group remember Year 2 teachers’ dismay when this became a requirement for SATs in 1990, sure in the knowledge that most children were able to do so in Year 3, or by the end of Year 4. In the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for writers to leave the punctuation to their printers [Dickens, Wordsworth and Charlotte Bronte all happy to do this]. There is not a great deal of research about how children -or adults- gain a sense of how to use punctuation. There are rules but these don’t always apply and there are any number of examples, particularly in books written for children, where those rules are severely bended. We could begin with Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man; and many picture books make punctuation marks integral to the playfulness of the text. Gunther Kress (1982) argues that the idea of a sentence may not hold much meaning for young children and that their idea of ‘making sense’ is not necessarily that of an adult -let alone a grammarian.
Yetta Goodman and Prisca Martens have written a great essay about invented punctuation (in Hall and Robinson 1996). They have a host of examples of the way that children invent new signs to convey the emotion or strengthen the impact of what they want to say. These include the heart shaped exclamation marks that fill Shoshana’s Mother’s Day card and Bill’s invention of a ‘sadlamation mark’ in an attempt to convey the depth of his emotion when writing about the death of his dog. Teacher colleagues bring news of children who use ‘explanation marks’ and ‘comets’ (commas) which suggests to me that perhaps children are making their own sense of punctuation and that we should encourage their playfulness and their serious intents.
I’d like to recommend a great picture book, '!', by amy krouse rosenthal and tom lichtenheld (2013) New York NY: Scholastic Press. This is a story about standing out and fitting in, and it is wonderful, linguistically, in thinking about the use of the exclamation mark (though I have to say, this exclamation mark and his exclamations would not meet the criteria set out in the KS1 SPAG test.). This exclamation mark, however much he tries, simply cannot fit in with the full stops. ‘He stood out from the very beginning.’ He even thinks about running away until a question mark comes along and, with his unstoppable stream of questions, lets out the inner exclamation, much to the admiration of other punctuation marks:
Of course, there was much exclaiming. !
Isn’t he something ?
........ There was never any question in our minds.
I shall leave the last words with this Year 1 child who was writing the sentence,'I went to daddy's house.’ and shouted across the classroom, 'Miss H, do I need a catastrophe in this sentence?'....’No, Jim, but you may need an apostrophe.’
Nigel Hall and Anne Robinson eds (1996) Learning about Punctuation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Gunther Kress (1982) Learning to Write. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
NWP Research director