Using. Punctuation; to Help Teach Close and Critical Reading

The Common Core State Standards don’t specifically address the analysis of an author’s grammatical choices, and this is an oversight that shouldn’t be overlooked by teachers.

The language standards do mention things like the use of punctuation for effect and recognizing sentence fragments. But writers learn by reading examples and then writing using these as models, something clearly and usefully shown by Jeff Anderson and others.

However, whether it was intended or not, analyzing an author’s grammatical choices should be an inferred skill embedded within the Craft and Structure standards for Reading Literature and Informational texts. From 6th to 12th grade, these standards are largely progressive and involve looking at (.4) the meanings of words, (.5) the structure of part of the text and its impact, and (.6) the development of an author’s point of view.

I can demonstrate with the following, the beginning of Stephen Vincent Benet’s essay “We Aren’t Superstitious.”

“Usually, our little superstitious rituals and propitiations don’t hurt our daily lives. Usually.”

If you’re reading carefully, the word “propitiations” probably tripped you up a bit. But what stood out, was that last adverb on its own little island. Applying the three CCSS from above, we could say the following:

  • The connotation of the word just became much more ominous (.4),
  • Structurally isolating the word creates suspense (.5),
  • And it definitely begins to sharpen the author’s point of view (.6).

If teachers model the kind of analysis I suggest and model here myself, they will help students be more critical readers and more intentional writers.


I am so angry. And so happy to see him. (We Were Liars, E. Lockhart, page 68)

we were liarsWhen I came across those lines, I stopped. The period simply should not be there. A comma might be all right, but the period creates a rather awkward fragment. It’s disruptive; it’s get my attention. The questions is, why does the author want to get my attention? Why does she get me thinking about a period? What does she want me to notice?

She could have written: I am so angry and so happy to see him. What difference does that make to you?

She could also have written: I am so angry to see him. Yet I am also so happy to see him. What difference does that make?

Think for a moment what she is saying here (with or without the  punctuation). She is describing Cady’s feelings at seeing Gat. Angry and happy: these are not emotions we normally link. In fact, they’re nearly opposites. Cady is confused, mixed up. Regardless, though, how opposing the two words are, if they are neatly paired in a simple sentence, as in the first rewrite, the eyes could gloss right over, never noticing the disparity in Cady’s feelings.

If they are separated into two separate sentences, like in the second rewrite, it is more obvious, but also more orderly. We might feel as if an explanation is coming. But there isn’t, because these aren’t separate thoughts; these are the mixed up emotions of a very confused girl. And beyond that, this highlights one of the themes of the novel: opposing forces, disparities. What’s shown on the outside versus what’s felt on the inside. Love and hate. Remembering and forgetting.

Was I aware of this before that one period? Yes. But stopping at the period made sure that I did.

[I will follow up with an example from a nonfiction text: one of the gospels.]

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One thought on “Using. Punctuation; to Help Teach Close and Critical Reading

  1. Pingback: In the Beginning was the Word. Then Came Punctuation. | In His Write Mind

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