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Punctuation and Reading

Guest Author - Heidi Shelton Jenck

Learning how to use punctuation is important for writers. Readers also need to learn punctuation rules. Reading fluency and comprehension are affected by how a reader interprets and uses punctuation marks. Knowing when a sentence is asking a question, demonstrating fear or excitement, or listing grocery items separated by commas is an important step for beginning readers.

Students not only need to be taught when and how to use punctuation marks when writing, but also when they read. Whether reading aloud or silently, readers have to pay attention to punctuation marks, understand what they indicate, and pause, stop, or alter tone or speed when necessary. Some reading comprehension problems are related to misinterpreting punctuation. Running through sentences without stopping for periods, failing to understand that commas can separate a list, or confusion about quotation marks and dialogue tags are common errors for young readers.

Teachers can provide young readers with direct instruction in the meaning and use of punctuation marks, followed by practice reading text correctly. After modeling the correct way to read text with punctuation marks, demonstrating misuse can be a fun way to highlight how important it is to understand and use punctuation correctly. Students who consistently misuse punctuation when they read should have opportunities for more focused instruction and practice.

Here is an overview of punctuation marks readers need to know about.


Periods end sentences that are not questions. Readers should make a complete stop at a period. Running through a period into the next sentence without stopping can affect meaning. Stopping at periods also allows a reader to take a breath before moving on to the next sentence, which is important when reading aloud. Reading the two sentences below without taking a breath is hard!

It is a clear and crisp fall day. I decided it was a perfect day to visit the pumpkin patch and corn maze.


Commas have a number of uses. Readers should pause at each comma. Understanding text depends on reading these small breaks correctly.

  • Commas can be used before a coordinating conjunction that connects two independent clauses. I have a car, but it’s not working.

  • Commas are used after an introductory phrase. Students should pause before reading the next phrase. After the race, I spent time cooling down.

  • Commas separate items in a series. When readers fail to pause after each item in a list, meaning can become muddled. For example:
    Courtney bought blueberries ice cream and soda. vs. Courney bought blueberries, ice cream, and soda.

  • Confusion is also possible when readers fail to pause for a comma in a direct address. Gabe, stop for the pedestrian.

  • Commas are also used to separate phrases in complex sentences, between the day and year in dates, to identify a quotation within a sentence, and when writing numbers over one thousand.

Question Marks

Question marks are placed at the end of questions. Students need to read sentences asking questions differently than those with periods and exclamation points. Modeling and practice are important for young readers. May I pet your dog? should be read with the voice rising at the end of the sentence to indicate a query.

Exclamation Marks

Excitement! Fear! Exclamation marks end sentences with a sense of urgency. Young students often think these sentences need to be read loudly, so a teacher can demonstrate how to indicate urgency without amplification.

It was a joyous moment!

” “
Quotation Marks

These marks are used at the beginning and end of text representing speech, titles, and text from another author’s work. Periods and commas are placed inside the quotation marks.

Josh asked, “What can I get for you?”

Other punctuation marks go inside the quotation marks only if they are part of the quote or title.


Colons are used to start a list or summary. They are place after an independent clause.

Alison needed four more ingredients: cinnamon, pumpkin, eggs, and sugar.


This mark is used in sentences to replace a conjunction or separate sentence parts. A reader needs to pause at a semicolon, and realize that the two sentence parts are strongly separated.

Mick’s team was a little tired; Hayley’s team was exhausted.

[ ]

Parentheses indicate to the reader information that is related to the rest of the sentence. Readers should pause at the first parenthesis, read the related text, the pause again when reading the rest of the sentence. Young readers may not understand how to interpret information in a parentheses within the context of a sentence. It is helpful to stop and discuss the relationship between the information inside the parentheses and the rest of the sentence.


Hyphens are used to join words together. They are often used when two adjectives are linked, such as:

Allie is a smart 10-year-old girl. She attends an after-school program.


These marks are used in contractions, which should be taught as a separate, complete lesson. They also form the possessive and plural:

Juan’s family loved the school play.

The Perfect Pop-Up Punctuation Book, by Kate Petty, is a fun way to introduce or review punctuation rules. Look for a copy in your local library, or find more information at amazon.com by clicking on the book below.

Professor Grammar's Punctuation Packets: Fun, Reproducible Learning Packets That Help Kids Master All the Rules of Punctuation-Independently! by Marvin Terban (Scholastic) is a teacher resource available on Amazon.com. Click on the book image below for more information.

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Content copyright © 2015 by Heidi Shelton Jenck. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Heidi Shelton Jenck. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Connie Mistler Davidson for details.


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