Subscribe to The Horn Book

M. T. Anderson is my favorite punctuation teacher

feedI suppose I am a “writing person.” I study it, and teach it, and teach about teaching it pretty regularly. The most common question I get, over and over, no matter what level teachers I am with, is about the best way to teach conventions.

In my experience, teachers have often tried things they don’t feel that great about, and they are looking for new strategies. One tactic I love that is used less often in the upper grades, is to use mentor texts to teach about technical features, which leads me to M. T. Anderson as a punctuation teacher.

I’m not sure how he’d feel about that label, and it certainly isn’t the first thing I want to talk about when discussing his books. But no one is more masterful at punctuating sentences to find a very particular character’s voice. He writes a shifting mix of simply structured, infrequently punctuated sentences mixed with purposeful run-ons here and there to give that fractured feel of being disconnected in Feed. The Astonishing Life of Octavian NothingOr he uses long sentences with highly academic uses of punctuation marks to give that classically-trained, high brow feel in the Octavian Nothing books. Each set of punctuation decisions makes you read in a particular way, and each is precisely and perfectly matched to the story being told.

I think too often we give students the idea that there is a right way to punctuate their work or a wrong way, but that feels limiting. With any idea, there are bunches of right ways to use punctuation, as well as a slew that don’t work as well. Part of the fun of writing is making those choices, and I hope students get to have that sort of fun in our classes by learning from great writers.  And if we get pulled into reading more M. T. Anderson as a happy side effect, well, so much the better.

Christina Dobbs About Christina Dobbs

Christina Dobbs is an assistant professor of English Education at Boston University. She is a former high school teacher, literacy coach, and reading specialist, and she studied adolescent literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind