How To Teach Question Marks

Question marks are used in writing to denote a direct question. The question ends with a question mark.

For example:

Why did you come here?

Who are you?

What will you do in the future?

What’s the meaning of life?

Do we have answers for all questions?

You would think that the above explanation is fairly simple and that it would suffice when teaching question marks to children. If you are a teacher, however, I am sure that you will not be surprised by the number of children who forget to apply it in their writing. This is not a judgement it is a fact and it’s ok; it is our role as teachers to help children understand the fundamentals in writing.

Let’s look at it in more detail shall we? A question mark is a squiggly line that has a full stop or as the Americans call it a period. A period shows a pause before the next group of words (sentence). Which is what one inevitably does after a question, one pauses. That explains the full stop in the question mark notation but what about the squiggly line on top? How can one remember to add that and what does it show?

If we go back to Phil Beadle’s beautiful analogy of writing being like music where punctuation takes the form of rhythm, the squiggle on top on top of the full stop that forms the question mark shows intonation. It tells the reader to change the tone/pitch of their voice towards the end of the sentence. In the English language intonation changes depending on the type of question you are asking.

While wh- questions typically end in a falling pitch, there are reasons a rising pitch can be used. Ending a wh- question with a rising pitch might mean you are asking for repetition or clarification of something that is already known.

Ending “Where should we go for lunch?” in a rising pitch may signal that the topic was already discussed. Perhaps the answer was forgotten or even never decided, so the speaker is asking for confirmation.

In tonal languages such as Thai and Chinese pitch/tone determines meaning, so rising pitch at the end of a sentence will not indicate a question. This is something you need to be aware of if you are teaching children who are multilingual.

Play with tone and pitch in the classroom by giving out questions and getting children to read them with different intonation. Have fun with it and get them excited! Hopefully next time they ask something in their writing they will add that question mark – won’t they?

Till next time…

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