The dash ( — ) is used to show an interruption or additional information in a sentence. It is interchangeable with commas and parentheses with a slightly different purpose. The dash generally has a stronger emphasis than the comma and is less formal than parentheses.


Explicit teaching

It is important to clarify when a dash can be used and for what purpose. These can include:

  1. when adding additional information into a sentence it can replace: commas for greater emphasis or parentheses if less formal. For example: How was she to know — poor, innocent Charlie — that he would take everything from her?
  2. During written dialogue to show an interruption to the speaking. For example: “Let me — ”, “No!” mum screamed, “I don’t want to hear your excuses.”
  3. To replace a colon for a more dramatic/informal/humorous effect. For example: Trees aren’t important, they don’t provide us with much - just life!
  4. To show a range.

For example: 250 — 300 children

Note: the dash is different to the hyphen and cannot be used interchangeably.

General strategies

For students to gain a better understanding of when and how to use dashes in their writing, they need to be exposed to the use in a genuine context, specific to your KLA. This can be achieved by identifying examples of this punctuation in your current class texts, then discussing the impact it has on the writing. Where possible, provide students with an opportunity to practise using this in their writing.

For more targeted punctuation lessons the following strategies may be used: investigation groups where students complete inquiry based tasks to discover meaning; creating story boards or scripts to incorporate content and punctuation skills; punctuation corrections/editing; or graphic organisers such as the Frayer model (PDF 65.19KB) to show characteristics of the punctuation.

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: act it out

Students are to work in small groups to create a play or cartoon involving dialogue to demonstrate their understanding of both content and punctuation techniques.

For example in the science topic - living things, students create and edit a script that highlights the food chain of sea creatures. Through the use of dialogue and interruptions, students are able to show the hierarchy of the food chain.

The crab boasted, “I’m telling you, these strong claws and my amazing side shuffle dance make me the grea—”
“CRAB! If you don’t zip it, I am going to paralyse you then serve you up for dinner—one claw at a time” the octopus growled.

The target audience could vary from peers to younger children and be used as a future teaching tool. Where possible, plays could be acted out, filmed and streamed to a partnership school.

Activity 2: in your lesson(s)

With a text you are using in class, have students identify when a semicolon has been used. Discuss why they have used a semicolon and then see if the students can write a similar sentence.

For example: An example from the text might be: 'Using correct cutting technique—fingers out of the way—dice all vegetables'. The student could then write: 'The timer is to be set for 10–15 minutes'.

Activity 3: punctuation experts

Students, in groups of 5, are given a punctuation device to become the “expert” of. They are broken into the “expert” groups and are required to come up with a resource pack to teach their original group. Within this pack they are to cover: definition, rule, examples and non-examples, and a short practise activity.

Note: clear guidelines need to be set for the group work and roll cards might need to be implemented. Strict timelines need to be expressed and adhered to.

Teachers are to act as a facilitator and validate learning. Probing questions to see how students know the information will encourage deeper investigation as well as demonstrate students understanding.

For example:

  • where did you get that answer from?
  • how do you know that it is correct?
  • how would you describe this punctuation?
  • why do you think it is used?
  • what is most confusing or interesting about this?


Australian curriculum

ACELA1544: Text structure and organisation: Understand the use of punctuation conventions, including colons, semicolons, dashes and brackets in formal and informal texts.

NSW syllabus

EN4-3B: Outcome 3: uses and describes language forms, features and structures of texts appropriate to a range of purposes, audiences and contexts (EN4-3B) - Understand and apply knowledge of language forms and features: understand the use of punctuation conventions, including colons, semicolons, dashes and brackets in formal and informal texts.

Return to top of page Back to top