Commas are used to indicate the grammatical organisation of sentences in two ways:
- to separate parts of a sentence such as clauses and phrases to make meaning clear. In this case, they indicate a pause or short breath taken by the reader.
- to separate words, phrases or numbers in a series.
Punctuation: Is there a capital letter and a full stop?
Students may not realise the importance of commas for making the meaning of a sentence clear. Sentences with commas to separate clauses can be pointed out in model texts and discussed. The same sentences can be shown without commas to emphasize that complex sentences can be difficult to understand without commas. Sometimes the addition of a comma changes the meaning of a sentence completely.
Students can become more familiar with the use of commas by examining models of the targeted genre and highlighting sentences that have commas. Teachers should provide texts with complex sentences that require commas. Students can present their examples to the class, explaining why a comma is necessary, and read the sentence aloud to show how commas represent a short pause.
While modelling writing teachers can think aloud, mentioning that a comma is needed because extra information has been added, for example.
Activities to support the strategy
Activity 1: add in some more information
Students can practice adding extra information to basic sentences from their own or other students’ writing and separating the new phrase or clause from the rest of the sentence with commas. Teachers will need to model this skill first and help students select appropriate sentences to add information.
Additional information added to a sentence after nouns or pronouns is usually marked by commas.
- Our principal is concerned about the amount of rubbish in the playground.
- Our principal, who is new to the school, is very concerned about the amount of rubbish in the playground.
Add the commas
Sentences without the required commas can be easily displayed on interactive whiteboards using Powerpoint presentations. Students can copy down the sentence on mini whiteboards or in their books and add commas. They can compare their sentence to the answer displayed on the following slide.
Activity 2: change clauses around
Students can be provided independent and dependent clauses to match and write, using a comma where necessary.
Adverbial clauses (dependent clauses) added to the beginning of a sentence need a comma:
"Whenever students are busy playing handball, they drop their rubbish on the ground".
Note that when placed at the end of a sentence adverbial phrases do not have comma:
"Students drop their rubbish on the ground whenever they are busy playing handball".
Students could be given a list of subordinating conjunctions to use as sentence beginnings and asked to create as many complex sentences as they can that require commas within a certain time limit (see page 94 Derewianka, 2011).
Activity 3: create a comma quiz
Students copy sentences with commas (from models of the targeted genre) into a Word document removing the commas and save the unpunctuated sentences for other students to replace the commas. The number of commas required could be indicated at the end of the list of sentences. Some sentences where commas are not required should be added as distractors.
Activity 4: find the mistake
Extract examples from student texts where students have used commas incorrectly or not included commas where they are necessary, and use for proofreading activities. The sentences can be typed into Word or Smart notebook documents or blog posts and students can copy the sentences and place commas appropriately, discussing answers with a partner, then the whole class.
Activity 5: what do these sentences mean?
Make a collection of sentences that have different meanings with and without commas. Collate into a class book and add illustrations. Students can share the books with younger students in buddy classes and explain the differences in meaning (see Truss, 2006 for inspiration).
ACELA1521: Text structure and organisation: Understand the uses of commas to separate clauses.
EN3-6B: Outcome 6: uses knowledge of sentence structure, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary to respond to and compose clear and cohesive texts in different media and technologies (EN3-6B) - Understand and apply knowledge of language forms and features: use complex punctuation to engage the reader and achieve purpose.
- Powerpoint presentations ‘Commas and complex sentences’ and ‘Use of commas for clauses’ are available on TES Connect. A free subscription is required www.tes.co.uk
- Fox, M. and Wilkinson, L. English Essentials: The wouldn’t be without it guide to writing well. Melbourne: Macmillan.
- The Alan Peat Pocket Punctuation app has examples and teaching strategies
- Derewianka, B. (2011) A new grammar companion for teachers. Newtown, Sydney: E:lit Primary English Teaching Association.
- Truss, L. (2006) Eats, shoots and leaves. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons