Use Acting to Learn Punctuation

- Sunday, December 13th, 2015

Written communication is a convenient substitute for spoken communication. For thousands and thousands of years, communication was spoken, one to one to one until everyone knew. Records were written down, but not stories. News was delivered by criers who walked through the streets yelling out information that everyone needed to know, like “Lock your doors, we’re being invaded.” Or, “Great news, the King has a son.”

All stories were told this way, also. It was someone’s job, in fact. He would memorize all of Homer’s Odyssey or The Canterbury Tales and travel from town to town singing the stories. Truth be known, he sang it because it’s easier to remember a song than it is to memorize a story. You tie the words to the tune and the rhythm so it’s learned through different synaptic pathways: visually, aurally and physically. Good music and good poetry have natural directions in the notes. Pause here, shift tone here, be loud here, command.

In Elizabethan England, all writing was meant to be read aloud. Legal documents and personal correspondence were even read aloud. It’s said Queen Elizabeth had a sound-proof room in which she could read her state secrets and private letters aloud without fear of being overheard.  The school system was based on memorization because books weren’t readily available. Children spoke the stories out loud until they were learned completely by rote in Latin, English and maybe Greek, too: big giant books like Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Plutarch’s Lives, upon which many Shakespeare plays are based.

The minstrel became the actor and the story-as-song-and-poem became theatre. Since there are many people telling the story, there needed to be multiple written copies of the play so that everyone was “on the same page.” There were no directors so playwrights, like Shakespeare, used punctuation to shape the way the actor say the line. Pause slightly at the common. Come to a full spot at the period. Raise your voice with an exclamation point. Raise your pitch with a question mark. A semi-colon is a slight shift in thought and a colon indicates some sort of summation to follow.

Today, we teach students the rules of punctuation and make it mind-numbingly boring. And, the permanence of texting makes students even more adverse to punctuation because it takes up characters. So, I encourage teachers to tie punctuation directly back to the spoken word which lets students feel how punctuation works. The lesson becomes much more fun as you integrate the skills of the actor and the playwright.


Take the text of a famous speech theatrical or historical) and remove all of the punctuation. Give students a generic key for how each punctuation is used or use the list above. Play the speech for them so that they can hear how the speech was delivered. Ask them to listen for the punctuation and notate it on the text during the second listening.

Advanced Level:

Give the unpunctuated speech to the students and ask them to prepare it for oral presentation by adding the punctuation, using the key. They will need to practice saying the speech and then filling in the punctuation. Their delivery of the speech must match the punctuation they have given it. As an actor, punctuation is a critical component to understanding how to speak the line. It is the playwright giving me a message that now includes new indicators like bold and italics or underline or some combination to tell us how to say it. We usually only hear this in our heads as we read the text to ourselves. But, the actor speaks it and makes it real.

How we interact with text has changed a lot in the 400 years since Shakespeare wrote, but the connection is still there if you look for it. And, sometimes, looking for it let you understand things in a way you never did before. Let me know if you try this activity.

A Scene from William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing

A Scene from William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

"I know very few theater artists who deeply grasp the potential of arts integration as a way to catalyze learning, transform classroom and workshop settings, and turn scho...

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