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Lesson Plan

Every Punctuation Mark Matters: A Minilesson on Semicolons

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Every Punctuation Mark Matters: A Minilesson on Semicolons

Grades 6 – 8
Lesson Plan Type Minilesson
Estimated Time 50 minutes
Lesson Author

Traci Gardner

Traci Gardner

Blacksburg, Virginia


National Council of Teachers of English



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From Theory to Practice



Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" demonstrates that even the smallest punctuation mark signals a stylistic decision, distinguishing one writer from another and enabling an author to move an audience. In this minilesson, students first explore Dr. King's use of semicolons and their rhetorical significance. They then apply what they have learned by searching for ways to follow Dr. King's model and use the punctuation mark in their own writing.

Note that while this lesson refers to the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," any text which features rhetorically significant use of semicolons can be effective for this minilesson.

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Examples of Dr. King's Use of Semicolons, shorter passages: Use these excerpts from "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to analyze Dr. King's stylistic choices regarding use of the semicolon.

Example of Dr. King's Use of Semicolons, longer passage: This excerpt is useful for examining how Dr. King's use of the semicolon relates to the rhetorical device of repetition.

Example from Dr. King's Letter with No Semicolons: This passage gives students an opportunity to decide where they would place semicolons.

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Years of research and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that traditional methods of grammar instruction simply do not work. One common complaint about grammar instruction stems from its lack of context-its reliance, for example, on abstract rules and bare examples. While these stark examples clarify grammatical ideas, they fail to capture language, including its grammar and punctuation, in action, in the real-life texts that surround us. By incorporating the texts that students read or compose on their own, this lesson highlights the thoughtful choice of the semicolon to create rhetorical effect in an audience, demonstrating how one author uses the seemingly insignificant punctuation mark to express his ideas and urges students to follow the model in their own writing. Only by exploring language in context, written for a particular time and place, can students discern the subtle ways that punctuation affects meaning.

Further Reading

This lesson plan was adapted from: Angela Petit. "The Stylish Semicolon: Teaching Punctuation as Rhetorical Choice." English Journal 92.3 (January 2003): 66-72.

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