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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
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By Sue Drury

Last updated 24 September 2023

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Carefully crafted dialogue can make a big contribution to a piece of writing, especially a narrative. Of course, the key feature here is the use of inverted commas (also known as quotation marks or, less formally, speech marks).

However, we need to apply plenty of other rules and conventions when writing both direct and reported speech. Here are a few tips to help your pupils get full marks when punctuating speech.

1 Speech bubble – 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/quotation marks?

Once pupils can effortlessly distinguish the dialogue from the reporting clauses, they need to demarcate it using inverted commas. These can be a double mark 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 (or a single quotation mark or single marks as they’re sometimes known). 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 an other punctuation mark such as an apostrophe.

4 Where to use a capital letter

Essentially, whenever you open up inverted commas, you need to capitalise the first word that follows. (We outline the only real exception to this 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.

You should also remember that you still require a capital 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 Punctuation – 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 Correct punctuation – Special end marks

This could cause a little confusion. Therefore it’s important to emphasise this point: when the dialogue requires a question mark or exclamation mark, we need to insert it 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/quote

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, you don’t need a capital when you re-open the inverted commas. For example: “If you drop your ice cream,” warned Dad, “you won’t get another.”

8 Direct speech – Practice makes progress

Clearly, there is quite a lot for pupils to take in when it comes to writing direct speech. We expect them 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, we call this reported speech. Journalists frequently use this. 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. However, it’s useful for pupils to know about it and when they can use it.

10 Quotation marks – 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.


The requirement in KS2 English is that we use speech to convey character and advance the action. For this reason, you should 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, you can diminish or lose the impact altogether if you’re unable to punctuate it properly.

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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