I always notice em dashes and when I see one, I think, “You knew what you were doing and I respect that. You could have reached for a hyphen and called it a day.”
The em dash is having a moment. Last year writing geeks were abuzz about our love-hate relationship with the Oxford comma. But these days, we want to know your stance on the em dash.
If you aren’t familiar with the term em dash, it is a longer dash between ideas in a sentence. An em dash is roughly the length of the letter M (I love the literalness of its name). Em dashes look like this—and they are truly versatile for writers. You can use them in place of commas, colons, or parentheses.
Just as we tell young readers to get their mouth ready for a word, the em dash tells adult readers to get their minds ready—for a longer thought, an aside, or a detour into new thinking. I’ve known what em dashes are for a long time, but had no idea how to create them on my Mac computer. So I settled for em dashes that looked like this — two sorry little hyphens scrunched together with a space on either side. Finally Laurel, the Choice Literacy copy editor, took mercy on me and taught me that there is a shortcut for creating an em dash on my computer (option key + shift key + – key). Voila! Suddenly I knew how to create professional-looking em dashes. For a few weeks, every time my writing needed an em dash my internal keyboard commando thought, Woo hoo! I get to make an em dash!
What a pleasure to be reminded of the thrill any writer feels when they have a new punctuation tool to play with. Teachers get to see this every day in writing workshops. I love sitting beside a third grader and seeing a piece of writing that is all dialogue. I know the writer likely created it for the joy of being able to put 36 quotation marks on a single page of writing. Or when I see a first grader’s draft with 14 periods at the end of one sentence. Yep. They are learning the power of stopping a thought on the page, and want to remind themselves they have that new skill once or twice or 14 times. And don’t even get me started with the dot dot dots that pepper the drafts of so many writers in middle school.
Punctuation can sometimes feel like a series of confusing codes. Cracking one is voodoo magic. Let students have their aha moments when they fall in love with commas, quotes, or dashes. Overuse often isn’t a mistake, but a deliberate attempt to master the mark. It potentially signals a new writing geek getting their wings, ready to join our club.
This week we look at how to teach conventions. Plus more as always—enjoy!
Founder, Choice Literacy
Melanie Meehan finds third grade is a good age for helping students develop paragraphing skills.
Heather Rader works with a team of intermediate teachers as they pore over student work together and analyze which conventions should be taught.
Stacey Shubitz explains why “good enough” is often just fine if you are new to workshop instruction.
This New York Times article explores why the em dash is provoking such passion in writers these days.
New members-only content is added each week to the Choice Literacy website. If you’re not yet a member,click here to explore membership options.
Dana Murphy finds it is best to teach conventions in small, targeted groups in her fifth-grade classroom. She explains how she designs and leads these groups.
In this week’s video, Dana meets with a group of fifth graders to help students develop paragraphing skills, using a peer’s mentor text.
Even eight-year-olds are expected to master a dozen or more conventions. Melanie Meehan shares a process for helping students focus on the small steps needed to master any convention with peer support.
In an encore video, Ruth Ayres uses a student text to demonstrate the importance of paragraph breaks in this second-grade minilesson.
Lead Literacy now has a new home as the Leaders Lounge at Choice Literacy. We’ll be posting the new content updates here in the Leaders Lounge section of the Big Fresh newsletter.
Jen Schwanke explains why judging a teacher solely on whether they follow literacy workshop tenets may miss some essential (and elusive) qualities of great teaching . . . and leadership.
Paper copies here. Paper copies there. Paper copies everywhere. If someone created a children’s book for literacy coaches with this refrain, it would be an instant best seller. Heather Fisher and Kathy Provost take on the challenge of creating an electronic master document to increase communication and collaboration, as well as save a few trees.
Scott Cochrane shares 10 statements that show true leader courage. These are wonderful prompts for discussion in a leadership meeting, or to post on your wall or in a notebook for inspiration.
Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”
Mary Anne Radmacher
That’s all for this week!