What do we put? A comma?

Submitted by: Ana Luísa Costa
Abstract: The aim of this exploratory study is to describe the kind of linguistic awareness that underpins the uses of punctuation by children in their third year of formal learning. Since primary school, young writers see their texts evaluated through punctuation rules in daily classroom routines. However, when children enter the stage of compositional writing, they hardly know the metalinguistic concepts associated with punctuation rules. For instance, even a common instruction as “put a full stop at the end of a sentence” requires the complex awareness of what a sentence is (Hall & Robinson 1996). Moreover, in a language like European Portuguese, punctuation rules are less intuitive than in languages where there is a stronger relationship with prosody. In Portuguese, the majority of rules depends on syntactic knowledge (Duarte 2000). For instance, the use of a comma between the subject and the predicate is forbidden, which applies to all types of subjects, including sentential ones. The metalinguistic knowledge about the noun-phrase that may be the subject of a sentence is taught at 4th grade. However, before that, by the second year of formal learning (Nicholls et al. 1989), students begin composing sentences in major cohesive unities in texts. In the gap between the need to use punctuation marks and the understanding of punctuation rules, the mistakes made in early writing composition are far from being chaotic. Instead, those mistakes may be taken as evidence that children are reflecting on punctuation and text functioning. Our exploratory study purpose is to contribute to the description of the metalinguistic activity embedded in early punctuation uses. Data were collected from classroom activities in a 3rd-grade class developing a narrative writing project. Two kinds of sources were analyzed: (i) texts written by 21 children (13 girls, 8 boys) and (ii) oral interactions in peer-work during a text-revision task. A “text-oriented analysis” (Hyland 2002) of the punctuation uses, and the analysis of the verbalized beliefs on punctuation from the peer interactions will support the description. Learning about how children spontaneously use and think about punctuation may contribute to better pedagogical approaches to writing at primary school.

Duarte, I. (2000). Língua Portuguesa. Instrumentos de análise. Lisboa: Universidade Aberta.
Hyland, K. (2002). Teaching and Researching Writing. London: Longman. MacWhinney.
Hall, N. & Robinson, A. (eds.) (1996). Learning about Punctuation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Nicholls, J. et al. (1989) Beginning Writing. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Keywords: punctuation; metalinguistic activity; writing development; early writing