Teaching Punctuation Rules: Comma, Semicolon, & Quotation Rules

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Punctuation rules are tricky. Many of them are confusing and my middle school students need frequent review. Instead of planning a punctuation unit, I review punctuation rules throughout the year. I’ve chosen the following rules because they are ones that my students use and need to review the most. This list does not cover every rule, just the ones that my middle school students need to understand to perfect their writing and do well on standardized tests.


Commas can be confusing and intimidating.There are so many rules and they can seem quite subjective. I chose four to review here. I review these with my students all the time!

Items in a Series: Use a comma to separate three or more items in a series.

Please sharpen your pencils, take out your textbook, and start working on your essays.

I am having eggs, milk, and pancakes for breakfast.

Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction to join two independent phrases (an independent phrase is a phrase that could stand alone as a complete sentence.)

We are going to the mountains on vacation, but we are only staying three days.

Use a comma to separate cities and states. Use a comma after the state’s name if it doesn’t end the sentence (my students always forget the comma after the state.)

My grandmother lives in Denver, Colorado.

Atlanta, Georgia, is my destination.

Use commas between adjectives where “and” could be used. In other words, use a comma if you can insert the word “and” between the two adjectives. Do not use a comma if the word “and” can’t be inserted.

My Algebra teacher’s challenging, extensive exam thoroughly covered Chapter 11. (You use a comma because if you wanted, you could say, “My Algebra teacher’s challenging and extensive exam thoroughly covered Chapter 11.”)

My parents live in a small brick house. (You would not use a comma here because you would not say, “My parents live in a small and brick house.”Obviously, that does not work!)


I love semicolons. Only an English teacher would say that, right? But it’s true. I love them. In my opinion, when they are used correctly they make an “okay” writer suddenly a “pretty good” writer. Of course I’ve heard people say that they are ostentatious and unnecessary, but I disagree. I love them! Since I teach middle schoolers, I stick to the basics. Although there are other ways to use semicolons, but I usually teach this one.

Use semicolons in place of a coordinating conjunction when joining two independent clauses in a sentence.

Look me up on Facebook tonight; I’ll share my vacation pictures with you.

It helps to remind your students (repeatedly) that you do not use a semicolon and a coordinating conjunction in the same sentence. It also helps to model semicolon use. Eventually they will use them correctly. After I have taught and modeled semicolon use I require at least one in every essay. Once they start using them they become less intimidated. I have my students highlight them to make grading easier.


Put commas and end marks inside quotation marks.

The exception to this is if a question is outside the quotation.

Did you notice that she said, “I’ll be leaving when the last bus departs”?

Only use quotation marks with direct quotes.

He said he was running late. (This is not a direct quote so there is no need for quotation marks.)

My teacher exclaimed, “Get out your textbooks now!”

“Don’t talk too loudly,” the babysitter pleaded, “because you’ll wake the baby.”

Like I said earlier, this is not a complete list. It’s a list of punctuation rules that middle schoolers commonly misunderstand and/or misuse. If your students grumble, as mine do, about having to use them correctly, remind them why it is so important. Incorrect punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence.