There’s nothing worse than reading through one of your most promising student’s assignments, and it’s riddled with punctuation errors. Commas placed after every second word, misplaced apostrophes, or perhaps no punctuation at all.

Their content may be spot on, but without the correct use of punctuation, your student can only achieve a certain grade. It also means that their writing could be misconstrued and difficult to read.

All teachers want to see their students succeed, but for them to do so, we must provide the tools for them to improve.

The conflicting sets of rules associated with punctuation can make learning and using it correctly quite difficult for students. Perhaps the use of autocorrect and the plethora of internet content that’s full of poor punctuation has made this even more difficult.

Regardless of the reason behind the difficulties, it is crucial that all students are equipped with the basics surrounding punctuation.

That’s where we come in.

Here we look at five common punctuation mistakes that students make and how to correct them.

1. Sam’s burgers vs Sams burger’s

Possessive apostrophes should be simple, but with conflicting rules and the added confusion of plurals, it’s no surprise that this is one of the most common punctuation mistakes students make.

Instead of teaching students that they should use an apostrophe because Sam owns the burgers, use the technical term: possessive apostrophe. Just as students are given formulas in maths, they should also be given the reasoning behind each punctuation mark. Once students understand the reasoning behind punctuation marks, they are much more likely to know how to employ them in their own writing.

Tip: Place posters around the room that show possessive apostrophes in use. This is fantastic for visual learners.

2. It’s vs its

This is where most children (and adults!) get confused. We may know that ‘it’s’ is a contraction of it and is, but we can often confuse the apostrophe for indicating possession. Just as we use an apostrophe to indicate that Sam owns the burger, students often personify ‘it’ and place the apostrophe just as they would with Sam. This is where it needs to be made clear that there is a difference: ‘its’ is possessive, whereas ‘it’s’ is only a contraction.

Tip: Play The Apostrophe Song for your class. Not only is this a great alternative to visual stimuli, it’s also catchy!

3. Debunking commas

In speech, we emulate what we hear; this is best seen in children developing different accents. However, viewing punctuation as something that can be dictated by speech patterns is impossible. Although some teachers tell students to place commas when representing a breath, this is not the best way to teach students the basis of punctuation.

Commas aren’t used purely to create breaks in the middle of sentences. Each comma has a distinct use and should be taught accordingly. For a comprehensive list of rules and examples of each type of comma, see GrammarBook.

Tip: Make a game out of correcting punctuation. Write an excerpt from a popular book and omit all punctuation from it. Students can then get your students to copy the excerpt adding correct punctuation. When you go through it, each time a student suggests a punctuation point, they must explain the reason for its place, such as saying it’s for a list or because of a subordinate clause.

4. Exclamation marks

When students are writing stories, they can often get carried away with the use of exclamation marks. Yes, they’re fantastic at emphasising drama and the importance of information, but their impact is dulled when every sentence ends with one. Less is more – particularly if a student wants to use more than one at the end of a sentence.

Tip: Write a story and show how much excitement and emotion can be created from using a mix of full stops, question marks, and exclamation marks.

5. Semicolons and colons

Similar to commas, semicolons and colons can be used to extend sentences. However, they are not created equally. Commas are often used to join subordinate clauses with an independent clause. Semicolons, on the other hand, are used to join two independent clauses together. When using semicolons, it is important that both clauses relate closely together, otherwise a full stop is required. Colons are used to introduce new information to a sentence such as a list, definition, statement, or explanation.

Tip: A great way to teach the difference between these commonly confused marks is to get your students to take a sentence or paragraph and to change its structure to accommodate for a semicolon, and then a colon.

Set your students up for success

Punctuation may seem comparatively unimportant – an apostrophe here and a full-stop there – but proper punctuation can help set your students up for success as they continue through school and beyond. With these tips on how to correct those misused commas and apostrophes, you’re well on your way to marking based on content rather than on punctuation!