Teaching punctuation to English language learners

Janelle Kolas

Punctuation is often last on the agenda when teaching a language. However, using punctuation correctly is something that learners often struggle with. Janelle Kolas shares a few of the most common errors found in the writing of English language learners and some ideas for quick classroom activities that can support the teaching of accurate punctuation.

Comma versus Full Stop

Learners often use commas instead of full stops. While explaining the difference in the target language may seem challenging, practice with full stops can be pretty straightforward.

Sentence Snake

This starter activity is an excellent way to review new vocabulary while reminding students of the full stop. Write out a few sentences (ideally in a spiral or snake shape) with no punctuation and no spaces between the words. The students write out those sentences with spaces and full stops.

Letter Writing Gap Fill

Many students mix up the comma and the full stop when writing letters. The most problematic phrases for learners include and are similar to those below:

  • Thank you for your letter.
  • I hope to hear from you soon.
  • Best wishes,
  • Dear…,


Try gap fill activities for these key phrases, allowing learners to practise using the correct punctuation while they practise writing letters.

Full Stop versus Question Mark

At early stages of learning and as students develop their use of grammar and make their questions more complex, revision of our core punctuation marks is often necessary.

Mini White Boards

Try giving each learner a small white board (or blank pieces of papers) and having them write the punctuation mark required for sentences spoken aloud or written on the board. All of the students hold up their answers to each question. This method allows the teacher to quickly check the understanding of each and every student.


Dictogloss activities are great ways to demonstrate model answers. Teachers read a short text three times, and learners take notes, compare notes and attempt to write out the original text. This activity can reinforce grammar, vocabulary and word order as well as the use of accurate punctuation. Be sure to project answers and the original for the whole class to view at the end.

Missing Commas

The punctuation mark most commonly omitted by learners is the comma. However, to teach the full range of comma rules could be a time management challenge for teachers whose focus is on grammar and vocabulary. Teachers may initially present the comma in a communicative manner by teaching the use of pauses with commas (just as they teach the use of upward inflection with question marks).  More significant attention should be given to the most common comma errors, which are the omission of commas with introductory words and phrases and before whichor who.

Teach with Context

As so many learners omit commas after introductory words and phrases, it is worth presenting these vocabulary items with punctuation intact. By writing these words and phrases with a capital letter and comma on the board, you are highlighting for students both punctuation and common sentence position.  Listed below are the words and phrases that learners often fail to follow with a comma:

  • However,
  • For example,
  • Of course,
  • In my opinion,
  • Finally,
  • Also,
  • To sum up,
  • In fact,
  • Unfortunately,
  • Moreover,
  • Firstly,
  • Secondly,
  • Nowadays,
  • In addition,


In developing understanding of these words and phrases, the teacher might have learners put some of these sentence starters into the following categories: words that mean and, words that mean butand ordering words.

Gap Fill Bingo

Of course, the only way to learn punctuation is through practice. Try having students write a variety of introductory words and phrases (with capital letters and commas) on a Bingo board. The teacher writes a gap fill sentence on the board and the students decide which Bingo box has the answer, writing the number of the gap fill sentence into their Bingo box.

Missing Full Stops

Students often neglect to use a full stop before closing a letter and when another punctuation mark (like a closed bracket, quotation mark or even a percentage symbol) is used at the end of the sentence. Some of our most popular classroom games can easily be adapted to allow for practice with the full stop.


Reordering activities are great for teaching word order but can also serve to remind students of frequently omitted punctuation marks (like the full stop and quotation mark). Challenge students to reorder sentences rich in punctuation marks. You can differentiate for lower and higher ability students by having weaker students reorder sentences with punctuation attached to words and having stronger students reorder sentences that present the individual punctuation marks as single items that need to be repositioned.

Slap the Board

Put the full range of punctuation marks on the board.  Project a sentence with a gap where a punctuation mark should be. Watch as students rush to slap the picture of the punctuation mark. Whoever touches the correct punctuation mark first wins a point for their team.

If you’re interested in punctuation, you might enjoy Koki Shimazu’s article on the value of a good grammar reference book.

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