The semicolon; death by irrelevance by @patricemiller_

Death mark’d punctuation

A fresh topic at the start of a new term is always one teachers often approach with lots of enthusiasm. It’s often viewed as an opportunity to assert and re-establish some of the classroom propriety that may have been lost at the close of the previous term. It is a time where class groups reflect and gain perspective on their course progress.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Patrice Miller and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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The new year, new term has always been my favourite teaching block. This year was no different, especially with the way my team and I structured our GCSE English course delivery. This year it synced with a time where we would analyse a popular, American literary text. A time where I would often notice that even the most disengaged of learners will engage and passionately compete in their learning and knowledge of the novella Of Mice and Men.

I remember beginning a particular GCSE English session. An engaging starter activity took place and Happy New Year pleasantries were exchanged. Then with a burst of energy and rush of enthusiasm I made an Of Mice and Men announcement. I was so excited to be teaching my favourite part of the course; my introduction sounded like I was opening an awards ceremony. Disappointingly, nobody was listening.

As I scanned the room, I could not help but notice that some learners were whispering. Others were pointing. The remainder had taken up the role of investigation officers.

What had caused the diversion?

It was the semicolon tattoo on my arm.

My initial response was to run to the nearest body decoration parlour and honour this moment by adorning my arm with permanent full stops, commas, and quotation marks. I reasoned that maybe if basic punctuation were to be inked on my body, I’d significantly reduce the disheartening experiences of marking yet another controlled assessment where textual evidence had not been appropriately punctuated because the learner ‘forgot’.

My second reaction was to celebrate. My learners were genuinely interested in the existence of the semicolon. What is it? Why do we use it? Does it replace a comma? These were just a few of the comments surrounding it that had circulated the classroom. I say it, as at this stage the vast majority of students in the room had dismissed the idea that just like every other punctuation it actually had a name.

Instead of my planned discussion about the most marginalised communities during the Great Depression a discussion on the most marginalised punctuation was boiling. Who was I to deny the crème de la crème of punctuation, used by many literary greats, its right for consideration? After all the semicolon has experienced a long, notable and successful career in connecting independent clauses.

The majestic semicolon had arrived; it was here to stay.

What did the experience teach me?

In order to score exceedingly high marks in the assessment objectives candidates are expected to “use a full range of punctuation purposefully, effectively, assuredly and accurately[1].” Doing so would impress examiners and those that either externally or internally mark Unit B, Part 3 of the controlled assessments.

Reflecting on my own practice I concluded that it is a poor assumption that students on a thirty-six weeks, resit course, have strong prior knowledge of a wide range of punctuation. I can say this because like the semicolon the ellipsis often suffers the same level of insignificance in the English teaching classroom, often being referred to as dot, dot, dot or worse still, ignored.

The semicolon has experienced a long, notable and successful career in connecting independent clauses.

Secondly, it taught me that when the team and I built our scheme of work, the weekly timetabled hours and the amount of weeks the resit programme runs for did not lend time for continuous revision of punctuation that last for a whole lesson’s length.

Where do we go from here?

If it was up to me it would be a mandatory requirement that all English teachers ink “a full range of punctuation” on their arms. That way punctuation is always visible, students remain impressed and as a bonus may actually use them. I am joking.

During a resit course English teachers need to be continuously building and planning lessons surrounding punctuation, emphasising on its importance. . Not doing so is costing learners valuable marks; they are not meeting the assessment objectives. The teaching and learning focus is heavily centred around subject content and punctuation use is taken for granted. Thankfully, an advantage to the 2017 GCSE English specification is that it allows more time for a more in depth revision of SPaG.

It’s all too easy to assume that the learners, who sit in our classrooms, with a D grade or a functional skills English qualification, are already proficient in their use of punctuation. More often than not, they aren’t.

It’s time to move away from teaching punctuation in its simplest form out of fear our learners won’t grasp the concept. Maybe encourage texts that use the full scope of punctuation used in the English language. There is more beauty to writing than a full stop, comma, and question mark.

[1] AQA, 2014. GCSE Specification. GCSE Specification English 4700, 1, 36.

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