(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.) *
During a teacher-training course that I was teaching for American college students who wanted to teach ESL, we were discussing where to put commas. Several of the students said that they decide according to their breath. As they are re-reading something that they had written, if they stop to take a breath, that’s where they put a comma. Wow!
It’s easy to think that we are being kind to our ESL students by giving them “simple rules” such as the above. But we may actually be adding stress to them because without knowing the “rules,” they are flying blind, which can be unsettling as they can never be sure where to put commas.
Learning the most common places to use commas can actually be an interesting and enjoyable process. The steps are almost like trying to solve a puzzle. In fact, I’ve had to tell students to put their pencils down while I’m introducing the activity because they tend to want to start the exercises right away. (There is a link to the students’ exercise near the bottom of this posting.)
Deductive vs. Inductive
Which of these two options do you think would seem more engaging to students?
Option 1) Here is the rule. Now do this exercise by applying the rule.
Option 2) Here is a mystery. Here is a clue. Solve the mystery (give the rule) by using the clue.
- Option 1 uses a deductive method.
- Option 2 uses an inductive one.
For example, here are ways that the two options could be applied to one use of commas:
(Deductive) Rule: A comma comes after a transitional expression.
Exercise: Write in the comma applying the rules.
1. Therefore she canceled her appointment.
(Inductive) Mystery: Why is there a comma in this sentence?
Therefore, she canceled her appointment.
Clue: We put a comma after a ___________________________
Solution: Choose the correct word to fill in the blank.
a) conjunction b) subject c) transitional expression d) subordinator
Why give solution choices?
Focused inductive method
By leading students through focused steps, the inductive method can motivate students to become actively involved in their learning, and at the same time, avoid the potential pitfall of students formulating incorrect rules.
For example, we’ll use this sentence again: Therefore, she canceled her appointment.
In an “unstructured” inductive approach, students might be asked to tell what the comma rule is in this kind of sentence. Some students might mistakenly hypothesize: “If the first word in a sentence is not the subject, you should put a comma before the subject.” We could demonstrate that this “rule” is incorrect because we wouldn’t write, “When, it started to rain, we ran inside.”
So our challenge is to give students the opportunity to analyze some sample sentences before presenting the rule and then to help them avoid wasting time and energy formulating and reformulating hypothesis. We can do this by giving them clues that will help them focus on the important aspects.
The link to the complete activity is here. Commas and semi colons Exercise
See Engaging grammar group activities (even for hesitant students) for a small-group activity which can help students internalize the comma rules.
For more examples of using the inductive approach, see Pro Lingua Learning Grammar Review Book
*About the free-download materials. During my 40 years of teaching ESL, I have had many colleagues who were very generous with their time, advice and materials. These downloads are my way of paying it forward.