Teaching commas can be overwhelming if you have no where to start. Today, I’m sharing my grammar lesson plan for commas with you.
Many teachers divide sections of how to teach commas. For me, I created ten ways to use commas. These are the comma rules most students encounter, and as always, I tell students that grammar lessons are not absolute. Our language has exceptions, and it constantly changes.
With high school students, I use these ten categories for teaching commas:
- Introductory phrase (prepositional, participial, infinitives)
- Introductory dependent clause
- Introductory adverb (often) or expression (but of course)
- Coordinate adjectives
- Compound sentences (conjunctive adverbs and coordinating and correlative conjunctions)
- Nonessential clauses
- Direct address and natural pauses
- Dates and addresses
You can download this list using the link below. Feel free to use it as guidance for yourself while writing grammar lessons or to distribute to students. Understanding comma use is a great grammar to writing connection.
Building on prior knowledge.
I provide older students with this list so they can reference it as they write. Sometimes, students know many of these rules and need a quick brush-up. Other times, I detail the explanations for each rule.
As always, my grammar lessons largely depend on student understanding.
Giving students a list of comma rules can be disastrous if they don’t have prior knowledge. Students will be frustrated, and rightly so. When I work on comma use with students who rarely experience grammar instruction, I often scaffold back to a chunk that most students will understand: nouns.
If I were to chunk nouns, we could talk about:
- Proper and common nouns, which often leads to proper adjectives (Italian bread)
- Possessive nouns and apostrophe use
- “Noun jobs” such as subject, direct object, indirect object, predicate noun, appositive, object of the preposition
Find the prior knowledge that students have (often it is nouns) and build your chunks from there. If the focus was on comma use, I would start with the location of nouns, or the “noun jobs.” Then I could apply comma use to each job:
- Commas in a series
- Commas with introductory prepositional phrases
- Commas with appositives
Doing this provides a starting point for students and builds their confidence. Connect grammar to writing with a few examples:
- Dad bought fudge, ice cream, and cake at the store. (commas in a series)
- In the sky at night, stars shine brightly. (nouns as objects of introductory prepositional phrases)
- My best friend, Anissa, lives far from me.
With grammar lessons, start with where students are in their understanding, and build from there.
With high school students who do have a grammatical background, I use these 10 ten categories for teaching commas. These are contained in my editable download: Comma Activities, Paragraphs and PowerPoint. You should be able to use these general ideas with any punctuation lesson that includes commas.
With any grammar lesson plan, it always helps to have a plan or talking points. Here is more detail about how I handle teaching commas.
Teaching commas with introductory phrases.
When I teach verbal phrases (infinitives and participial phrases) that can be introductory phrases, I mention that those phrases take commas. I make the comma lesson secondary to the identification and use of adjective and adverb phrases. (Participles function as adjectives; infinitives can function as adjectives or adverbs.)
- After we study phrases and students can identify them, I move to teaching commas, using phrases as examples.
- Quietly sitting at the table, the children waited for dinner because they were hungry, and their parents filled the plates.
- Excited to see their friends, the kids jumped up and down.
- To keep order, tidy your room every day.
- Cleaning her car, Lindsay filled a garbage bag.
When we are working on comma placement specifically, I do provide direct instruction concerning commas and introductory phrases. I follow a similar process when I teach dependent clauses.
Teaching commas with introductory dependent clauses.
Sentence structure is fun, and I find that students enjoy experimenting. However, we must teach students proper punctuation. When a dependent clause starts a sentence, add a comma before the independent clause.
Although I have homework, I am going on a run.
After Ryan finishes his book, he’ll watch some videos.
The fastest way to teach comma placement with clauses is to write them with students. I’ll give them the format: DC, IC.
I break down that section for students if they cannot immediately write a dependent clause and an independent clause. I scaffold for what students need by providing part of the sentence:
- After (subject and verb), I went home.
- (Dependent clause), I ordered a pizza.
- Before (subject and verb), (independent clause).
Scaffold back as far as students need to be successful.
After direct instruction, write with students. Practice sentences if you’re concerned about thinking on the spot. You can also use grammar manipulatives for studying adjective and adverb clauses. Students won’t remember comma use with dependent clauses until they apply the rules to their writing.
Teaching commas with expressions and introductory adverbs.
I teach expressions (“but of course”) and introductory adverbs (“naturally”) together because they are often at the start of the sentence.
Students will understand these rules! Give students a situation to write about, like ice cream.
- Lately, I’ve craved ice cream.
- You know, ice cream contains calcium.
- Simply put, ice cream is the best.
Sometimes the expressions and introductory adverbs are similar: Shockingly, Mary is late again. Teaching them together works well for comma lessons.
Teaching commas with coordinate adjectives.
Coordinate adjectives are two adjectives that modify a word. They can be joined by “and” or separated by a comma. You can also switch the two adjectives and the sentence will still make sense.
Coordinate adjectives are tough concepts for students to understand, so start with several examples:
- The toddler wore raggedy, worn shoes.
- I hear crunchy, loud chips.
- During the winter, Drew loves a warm, cuddly blanket.
- The doll has pretty, shiny hair.
- The dog slept in a comfortable, soft bed.
After each sample sentence, repeat the sentence using “and” to emphasize that coordinate adjectives make sense both ways. Say the sentence both ways for extra significance.
Another tip? Give students an image with coordinate adjectives. I use the scales of justice to show that adjectives are equal. Sometimes, students comment that the adjectives “coordinate” in the same way that people “coordinate” their clothing.
Teaching commas in a series.
Goofiness is the key to teaching commas in a series. Create nonsensical lists with students that are school appropriate for school. You can also sneak in life lessons with practice sentences.
- The dog flew to the moon, collected moon rocks, and adjusted to the effects of gravity. (predicates in a series)
- Mom served ice cream, brownies, and whipped cream for dinner. (direct objects in a series)
- Eric made a list to organize himself, to plan ahead, and to include his parents. (phrases in a series)
- Dad wondered who washed the car, whose library book is due, and who did the laundry. (dependent clauses in a series)
Be sure to create a series for various types of lists: words, phrases, and clauses.
Bonus! Teaching commas in a series is a great time to teach parallelism in sentence structure.
Teaching commas with compound sentences.
A compound sentence contains at least two independent clauses. You cannot join two independent clauses with a comma.
Compound sentences can be joined with conjunctive adverbs.
- Scott is afraid of heights; consequently, he does not jump off the diving board.
Compound sentences can be joined with coordinating or correlative conjunctions and a comma.
- Should I cut the sandwich, or would you like to cut it?
- Sarah is a quick thinker, and she enjoys playing video games.
- Either you enjoy baseball, or you dread the season.
I use grammar manipulatives with compound sentences. The different types of conjunctions combined with punctuation can confuse students. When students manipulate the language and create their own sentences, they remember the rules.
Teaching commas with appositive phrases.
Appositive phrases rename a noun. The phrases are located by the nouns they rename.
- Augie, my dog, likes to chew on his bone.
- Terrell, my friend, loves pizza.
Appositive phrases are set off with commas. When I get this specific with comma practice, I use pictures to inspire sentences with a Caption It activity. I give students goofy pictures and ask them to write sentences about the picture. The catch? Students must incorporate comma uses. I often use those pictures as an overall review or throughout my lessons on comma uses.
Teaching commas with nonessential clauses.
Nonessential clauses are the most difficult comma rules for my students to grasp. What about yours? My students strive to answer: Is the clause necessary for the sentence? That can be a difficult question!
If the clause is not needed to understand the independent clause, then that dependent clause is nonessential. The meaning of the independent clause will be the same.
- Roger, who normally carries a book, boards the bus every morning.
- Caroline, whose room is next to mine, attends college classes.
Another explanation I give students: When the clause in question is a nonessential clause, you can pluck it from the sentence. Therefore, you can separate it with commas.
Providing an example of an essential clause helps, too.
- The girl who carried the tea dropped the pitcher.
In that sentence, the reader needs to know which girl dropped the pitcher. That clause (“who carried the tea”) is essential for understanding the sentence.
Teaching commas with direct address and natural pauses.
Commas of direct address and natural pauses requires flexibility. I typically cover these rules with all classes, but I discuss them with more depth for creative writers. Dialogue and casual language often require direct address and natural pauses.
- Well, I don’t have time for that.
- I think, I mean, sure. We can go.
- Wesley, please come here.
Similarly to introductory adverbs, students take well to this comma lesson, as they do when learning introductory adverbs. After a bit of practice, students will understand direct address and natural pauses.
Teaching commas with dates and addresses.
Students typically know about comma use with dates and addresses. If I have a class that is not confident with grammar, I will start with this practice! They get a confidence boost, and I establish prior knowledge for more difficult lessons.
- In the United States, we write our dates such as August 23, 2012. I always highlight that other countries have different rules.
- We also separate our city and state: Chicago, Illinois.
By the time students get to my classroom, they know these rules. I review these rules with them and highlight that yes, they do know comma rules!
Teaching an overall comma review.
Putting commas together? To review, I start with a fun color by grammar as a low-stress review. Students find the process engaging, and I gather data concerning where they still struggle. Then, I reteach or review certain sections if necessary.
For application, I ask students to practice various comma use. We create an anchor chart together that covers comma use.
Typically at this point, I review when no commas are necessary.
- Soda and tea can both contain caffeine.
For a final assessment, I ask students to choose three or four of the ways to include commas and use them in writing. I acknowledge with students that the writing might feel forced, but the practice will help students remember comma use. If I have not used the pictures with commas activity, I might use that as a final assessment. With any grammar lesson plan, a variety of tools will reach more students. As you work with students, intentionally connect grammar to writing for extra support.
Would you like to download a free handout for comma use? Sign-up below, and I’ll send you the ten ways commas are used in writing.