A semicolon (;) is a sophisticated punctuation device, which makes writing more succinct. They are used to draw two or more ideas on a similar topic together. Semicolons tell the reader to take just a short pause when reading, as the two ideas are linked.


Explicit teaching

Discuss the two main rules for using a semicolon.

Rule 1

Semicolons are used to connect two independent clauses (sentences that could stand on their own) that are related.

For example: 'The boy was ecstatic; he couldn’t believe he won!' These could be two separate sentences but the semicolon provides more fluency.

Rule 2

Semicolons are used when there is a complicated list or confusing punctuation.

For example: 'I would love to go travelling to Tokyo, Japan, Oslo, Norway and Maputo, Mozambique'.

This looks like six different locations and the writer looks confused between Tokyo and Japan.
With semicolons you can see what concepts are grouped together.

'I would love to go travelling to Tokyo, Japan; Oslo, Norway; and Maputo, Mozambique'.

Note: remind students that a semicolon and a colon are different and you cannot just interchange them. In Rule 1, a semicolon is used where a full stop could be.

General strategies

For students to gain a better understanding of when and how to use semicolons 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 the purpose of the punctuation; 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

‘Semicolons can be tough; however, they do improve your writing’.

Activity 1: investigate the rule

In pairs, students to search for 3-4 different articles on your current topic. This can be from a variety of written sources: internet, fliers, textbooks, books. Whilst reading these articles they are to find examples of where a semicolon has been used. Looking at the similarities and differences between the examples, students are to try and come up with their own rules to explain when a semicolon is used. Share and construct a class version of the rules.

Prompting questions for when the students have found their semicolon examples:

  • what do you notice about the part before/after the semicolon?
  • would it make sense if we used any other punctuation mark?
  • did you find any differences about how they are used with different types of text?

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.

An example from the text might be: 'The human body has 206 bones; one quarter of them are in the feet'.

The student could then write: 'There are five types of bones in the human body; the shoulder blade (scapula) is a flat bone'.

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 practice 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.

During this process the teacher is to verify learning and challenge students with probing questions, as well as provide timely feedback to the groups.


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.

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