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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


Student Objectives

Instruction & Activities


Student Assessment/Reflections



Students will

  • explore the use of the semicolon in their own and others' texts.

  • review the rhetorical use and significance of the semicolon.

  • revise their own writing, based on the stylistic knowledge gained from their exploration.

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Instruction & Activities

  1. Ask students, working alone or in groups, to search out and circle as many semicolons in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" as they can find. Be aware that owing to different editors, the copies of King's letter included in many anthologies exhibit slightly different punctuation and phrasing. Nevertheless, these varied texts demonstrate fairly consistent punctuation, including semicolons. If there is a pertinent question regarding a semicolon, the copies of the letter on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project Website should be considered the definitive texts, as they are the copyright versions endorsed by the King family.

  2. Once students have had a chance to work through the letter, ask them to share passages that they have found with the class.

  3. Pass out the handout of sample shorter passages that use semicolons, or display the sentences on an overhead projector. Students will use these sentences to analyze Dr. King's punctuation in context, as the rhetorical work of an author trying to connect with an audience that may or may not agree with his political protest.

  4. Ask students to go through the sentences circling the semicolons.

  5. Invite students to discuss the ways that Dr. King uses the punctuation mark in his writing by looking closely at each of the passages (or using passages that students have identified from the letter). Questions such as these can spur useful conversations about areas of grammar and writing related to semicolon use—for example, parallelism, repetition, and contrast:

    • Why did Dr. King use a semicolon here instead of a stronger period or a weaker comma?

    • How does this semicolon shape the meaning of its sentence, its paragraph, the work as a whole?

    • Does this semicolon help King to reach his audience? Why or why not?
  6. Look closely at a longer passage from the letter. Begin by reading the passage aloud.

  7. Ask students what they note about the passage. If students do not volunteer details, the following discussion questions can lead to conversation:

    • Where does Dr. King use repetition in the passage? What is the point of the repetition?

    • Where does Dr. King use semicolons in the passage? What ideas do the semicolons join?

    • Why would Dr. King choose one sentence with semicolons over two or three short sentences?

    • Where does Dr. King use short sentences in the passage? What role does the short sentence play rhetorically?

    • What overall conclusions can you draw about Dr. King's style, including his use of sentence length and punctuation, from this passage?
  8. Next turn to students' own decisions about when to use the semicolon. Share the handout of a passage which does not use semicolons. Begin by reading the passage aloud.

  9. Ask students to imagine that they are the letter's authors and to identify places in the passage where they might insert a semicolon. Give them a few minutes to explore the passage alone or in groups.

  10. After students have had sufficient time, ask them to identify places where they would insert semicolons in the passage. Students will typically choose more than one place. Some join the sentences beginning "A just law" and "An unjust law"; others may choose to join the two sentences that begin "Any law." Encourage students to share the possibilities they have identified.

  11. As students share their ideas, ask them to support their choices. Discussion can include the following questions:

    • Why are these two sentences related?

    • What rhetorical advantage does the author gain by linking the clauses in the reader's mind?

    • What rhetorical advantage does the author lose by abandoning the short, abrupt stops that periods create?
  12. Ask students to choose a piece of writing from their writer's notebook or another piece of writing that they are working on.

  13. Ask students to find one or two places in their drafts where they could insert a semicolon. Have students circle the semicolon with a pen or mark it with a highlighter to make it obvious.

  14. Allow students to work at their own pace. Circulate through the room, helping any students who have questions or comments. If time is short, students can revise their own texts for homework or during the next class session.

  15. Once students have added the semicolons, ask them to write a short reflection in their writer's notebooks that identifies the sentences they've joined and the reasons they selected the sentences. Encourage them to apply the same questions that they applied to Dr. King's letter, such as the following: Why are these two sentences related? What rhetorical advantage do I gain by linking the clauses in my reader's mind? What rhetorical advantage do I lose by abandoning the short, abrupt stops that periods create?

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  • Choose among additional Web and text resources as well as find links to lesson plans and classroom activities that can be used to supplement or extend this lesson, from the January 15 entry from ReadWriteThink calendar.

  • Visit these Websites to learn more about Dr. King's life:

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Kidwatching provides the perfect assessment for this activity. As you circulate through the room, note which students understand the concepts and which need more practice. Provide on-the-spot help for any students who need more examples or instruction. When students submit their notebooks, be sure to check their reflections and the sentences that they've used semicolons in. Provide supportive feedback for their choices.

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