Inverted commas: getting speech punctuation right at KS2

Perfectly punctuating dialogue is something that can trip up even experienced editors - but this quick guide should help pupils get it right, from the start

By Sue Drury

Last updated 27 May 2020

Carefully crafted dialogue can make a big contribution to a piece of writing, especially a narrative. Indeed, the requirement at KS2 is that it is used to convey character and advance the action (so encourage pupils to avoid tiresome and inconsequential exchanges that contribute nothing to the plot). Composing and integrating dialogue is a skill in itself. Even so, the impact can be diminished or even lost altogether if the writer is unable to punctuate it properly.

Of course, the key feature here is the use of inverted commas (also known as quotation marks or, less formally, speech marks). However, there are plenty of other rules and conventions that must be applied when writing both direct and reported speech. Here are a few tips to help your pupils get full marks when punctuating speech.

  1. Know what’s being said.
    This may seem obvious but it is important to make sure pupils are clear about what their characters are saying. It might help to do a little role playing here to hammer the point home. Find a short piece of dialogue from a book and act out the conversation using only the words shown in direct speech. To seal the deal, you could then repeat it with each character saying the reporting clause as well, just to show how silly it sounds.

  2. The reporting clause
    This is one of those situations where terminology can be particularly helpful. You can get really caught up talking about the bit that is spoken and the bit that isn’t spoken. Referring to the latter as the reporting clause right from the outset can really emphasise the difference between the elements of a dialogue sentence.

  3. What are speech marks?
    Once pupils can effortlessly distinguish the dialogue from the reporting clauses, they need to demarcate it using inverted commas. These can be in the ‘66 – 99’ style (“ ”) or as more simple double lines (“ ”) as long as they are consistent and correctly placed.

    It might be worth discussing single inverted commas as eagle-eyed pupils will notice that many books use these instead of doubles. Generally speaking, it boils down to the ‘house style’ of the publisher but it is worth making sure that your school has a particular policy. You might find doubles help to reduce confusion between inverted commas and other punctuation marks such as apostrophes.

  4. Where to capitalise
    Essentially, whenever you open up inverted commas, the first word that follows needs to be capitalised. (The only real exception is outlined in Tip 7 below.) This is true whether the reporting clause comes at the beginning or end of the sentence. For example, the following sentence is correct: “Put it there,” said Ash. So is this one: Ash said, “Put it there.” Note also that the full stop goes inside the inverted commas when the speech follows the reporting clause.

    It should also be remembered that a capital is still required to start each sentence if there is more than one in any passage of uninterrupted speech. For example: Nisha said, “That is your pen. You chose the blue one. Mine is the black one.”

  5. Commas
    As a general rule, you need a comma after the reporting clause but before you open the inverted commas, where the reporting clause precedes the dialogue. Where the reporting clause follows the dialogue, you should insert a comma before the closing inverted commas, even if the dialogue contains a complete sentence (see the examples in Tip 4). The exception is when the dialogue requires a special end mark.

  6. Special end marks
    This could cause a little confusion, so it is important to emphasise this point: when the dialogue requires a question mark or exclamation mark, it needs to be inserted before the closing inverted commas, even if the reporting clause comes at the end. For example, “What are you doing?” Mum demanded. “Run away!” cried the knight.

  7. Splitting the speech
    Placing the reporting clause in the middle of a section of speech can be really effective and, by and large, all the punctuation rules above will apply. For example: “That is so kind of you,” said Shay. “I had always wanted one of those.”

    However, when the reporting clause interrupts a sentence, a capital is not needed when the inverted commas are re-opened. For example: “If you drop your ice cream,” warned Dad, “you won’t get another.”

  8. Practice makes progress
    Clearly, there is quite a lot for pupils to take in when it comes to writing direct speech and they are expected to know it by the end of Year 4. Fortunately for Plazoom members, we offer a range of appealing, ready-made resources to help your pupils practise. These include our direct speech and inverted commas challenge mats from the SPaG Gym collection, as well as our Grammar Burst pack for punctuating direct speech.

  9. Reported speech
    When you describe what someone has said without directly quoting them, this is called reported speech and is used frequently in journalism. A simplistic way of explaining it is that you use that instead of putting the speech in inverted commas and adapt the language accordingly. For example: Dina said, “My friend told me to do it.” is direct speech whereas Dina said that her friend had told her to do it. is reported speech. Reported speech is not a specified requirement at KS2 but it is useful for pupils to know about it and when it could be used.

  10. Learning by checking
    When they are learning how to punctuate direct speech, it will help if you break your assessment criteria into all the constituent parts. For example, you could have a checklist that separately itemises the use of inverted commas, capitals, commas and so on.

    No one’s saying that it is easy but, hopefully, these ideas might help you say, “I feel more confident about teaching speech punctuation now.”

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