This post was originally published on the Patch on August 5, 2011.
I was recently working with a young student who had a hard time figuring out when to add commas or periods in his writing. I had given him a worksheet made from a paragraph I wrote and from which I removed proper capitalization and end punctuation. All he had to do was rewrite the paragraph with correct periods and capitals.
Even though this sounds simple, he had a hard time determining where a period should go. Instead, he sometimes added a comma instead or skipped a period entirely.
After trying several approaches to help him, a new thought occurred to me. “Listen to the music of the words,” I said. I compared punctuation to rests in musical notation, with which he has some experience. “Commas are like short rests, and periods are like long rests.”
I then hummed the paragraph without the words for him once, and then again while pointing to the words I was humming so he could follow along. He said it was almost like he could hear me saying the sentences. I said, “Yes, the music and rhythm of language help give it meaning.” To show some contrast, I read the same paragraph in an absolute monotone with no pauses for punctuation whatsoever. “Much more boring, isn’t it?” I said, and he agreed.
With this new tool under his belt, my student was able to successfully detect when to add periods in the rest of the paragraph. He continues to use this tool months later.
I have taught this method to other struggling students, and it’s helped them, too. A search for similar methods didn’t turn up anything online, so I wonder if this is a new idea. I hope this way to use “musical intelligence” adds another useful tool to other writing teachers’ tool kits!