How to teach students to overcome run-ons

One of the most common writing mistakes students make is run-on sentences.

There are several types of run-on sentences.

  • A run-on can be two independent clauses connected by a comma (sometimes called a comma splice) such as “I ate an ice cream cone, it tasted good.”
  • A run-on can be two independent clauses with no punctuation separating them such as “I ate an ice cream cone it tasted good.”
  • A run-on can be one independent clause and one fragment usually connected without punctuation such as “I ate an ice cream cone was good.”

The problem is not how to correct run-ons.  When I point out run-ons in students’ writing, almost always students can identify where the error is and insert the correct punctuation or needed words.

The problem is that students don’t recognize run-ons within their own writing until someone points them out.  How can students be trained to recognize run-ons?

When I work with a student who tends to write  run-ons, I write “R-O” in the margins of papers we are revising.  At the end of our lesson, when we go over what needs improvement, again I write “R-O” in that list. On later dates, before we revise any student writing, I ask the student what kinds of errors he often makes.  Almost always he will say, “run-ons.”  I direct him to check each sentence for run-ons and to correct them before we revise together.

My hope is that when a student knows he makes a particular writing mistake, such as run-ons, he will look for those mistakes before submitting his writing to a teacher or to me.  This takes practice.

I have found certain kinds of run-ons are common.  One is an independent thought followed by a second independent thought which begins with a pronoun.  For example, “John ate the pie it was delicious.”  Or “Mary fell off the swing she hurt her elbow.”  Sometimes this type run-on uses a comma between the two clauses and sometimes not.

If I know a particular student tends to make these mistakes, I remind him to circle pronouns in the middle of sentences and to see if those pronouns start independent thoughts.  If so, a period, semicolon or comma-conjunction pair is needed to correct the error.

When I give students worksheets on run-ons, they spot and correct them with ease.  But when they write, they are unaware they have written run-ons until someone points this out or until they have become so accustomed to searching for them after-the-fact that they question themselves about a run-on while they are composing.

The key to solving run-ons is practice in recognizing them.  This can take years.

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