It is widely accepted that writing is a multifaceted process (Daffern, Mackenzie & Hemmings, 2017). Within the act of composing, writers engage with two major elements to ensure their written text is meaningful, purposeful and suitable for the required audience. These two major elements are known as the authorial and secretarial elements of writing. They encompass the writer’s consideration of:

  • the text type and how it may be structured
  • sentence and grammar choices
  • what vocabulary to include
  • what words to spell correctly
  • what punctuation to add
  • how the writing may be published (e.g. handwritten or word processed)(Daffern & Mackenzie, 2015; Scull & Mackenzie, 2018).

Punctuation is “the use of standard symbols, spaces, capitalisation and indentation to help the reader understand written text” (Wing Jan, 2009, p.37). It is one of those skills that spans both the authorial and secretarial elements of writing. It “provides the conventional framework for sentence structure” to aid in meaning making as required in the authorial element of writing which includes text organisation, generation of sentences, grammar and vocabulary choices (Scull & Mackenzie, 2018, p.91). 

Additionally, it plays an important role in the secretarial element of writing when punctuation acts as a ‘constrained’ skill (see Paris 2005), in conjunction with accurate spelling and a legible script (Daffern & Mackenzie, 2015).

Punctuation as meaning making

Writers can draw on their knowledge gained through reading with reference to model or mentor texts to assist them with the marks and symbols needed for their message not only to make sense, but to make meaning very clear.  Ursula Dubrovsky (2008) illustrates this through the following example:

‘I’m so disappointed I want to eat Auntie.’
but she meant

‘I’m so disappointed. I want to eat, Auntie.’
(Dubosarsky, 2008, p. 67)

Creating sentences and signalling their parts and boundaries contribute to the establishment of meaning and therefore relate to the authorial role of writing. It is not until a writer is in the act of composing and making meaning that the purpose and search for the correct choice of punctuation comes to the fore (Scull & Mackenzie, 2018).

Punctuation as a secretarial element of writing

Unfortunately, all too often, classroom teachers correct punctuation as their first response to a student’s piece of written work, rather than discuss the meaning and big ideas contained within. It has also been suggested that some teachers attend to the surface features of writing at the expense of teaching other important elements of writing like word choice, language use and text structure (Fang & Wang, 2011; Macken-Horarik & Sandiford, 2016; Mackenzie, Scull & Munsie, 2013). Consequently, it is important that teachers create a balance between the authorial and secretarial elements of writing and be aware to give feedback across all the elements of writing.

In Figure 1 below, the student’s attempts at using punctuation demonstrate his growing understanding of how it operates in both the authorial and secretarial elements of composing.

  • His confusion between a dependent and independent clause is emphasised by his use of sentence boundary punctuation, for example, ‘With their sorps [sports] car.’

The teacher would need to do some work firstly around what a sentence is. Through modelled, shared or interactive writing, discussion around what constitutes a sentence and the introduction of the metalanguage independent and dependent clause could be introduced and contextually demonstrated.

As an extension, a sentence or sentences in a model or mentor text could be highlighted to illustrate how adverbial phrases operate to elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the action, and how this language resource works within the text. This student has demonstrated his emerging understanding of using adverbials by telling us more about Semi’s and Tyler’s action ‘went’ in his simple sentence.  For example, he tells us:

  • when they went (time)- ‘One day’
  • where they went (place) - ‘to the beach’
  • how they went (manner) - ‘with their sports car’

This is often referred to by teachers as ‘adding detail’. Being more specific about the language choices which might be used to ‘add detail’, such as adverbials of time, manner and place is an important part of teaching writing.

The absence of a capital letter for the proper noun Tyler is a secretarial skill. This is an easy rule to learn and apply as it is what Paris defines as a ‘constrained’ skill (2005).​

One day Semi and tyler want [went] to the beich [beach]. With their sorps [sports] car. tyler…Put on the bracks [brakes] oh on! [no] they ‘Calld” [called] and … finell [finally] Some peopll [people] got them.

Figure 1: Student writing sample demonstrating how punctuation operates both at the authorial and secretarial level of writing.

Links to the Victorian Curriculum – English

It is an expectation that punctuation be explicitly taught at all levels in the primary English curriculum. Foundation students need to recognise “capital letters and full stops signal the beginning and end of sentences” (VCAA, 2017), while Level 6 students need to “understand the uses of commas to separate clauses” (VCAA, 2017). For an explanation of the common forms of punctuation, download here Common forms of punctuation (docx - 23.55kb)


  • Understand that punctuation is a feature of written text different from letters and recognise how capital letters are used for names, and that capital letters and full stops signal the beginning and end of sentences (VCELA156)
  • Recognise that sentences are key units for expressing ideas (VCELA143)

Level 1:

  • Recognise that different types of punctuation, including full stops, question marks and exclamation marks, signal sentences that make statements, ask questions, express emotion or give commands (VCELA190)
  • Identify the parts of a simple sentence that represent ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Who or what is involved?’ and the surrounding circumstances (VCELA178)

Level 2:

  • Recognise that capital letters signal proper nouns and commas are used to separate items in lists (VCELA225)
  • Understand that simple connections can be made between ideas by using a compound sentence with two or more clauses usually linked by a coordinating conjunction (VCELA214)

Level 3:

  • Know that word contractions are a feature of informal language and that apostrophes of contraction are used to signal missing letters (VCELA260)

Level 4:

  • Recognise how quotation marks are used in texts to signal dialogue, titles and quoted (direct) speech (VCELA291)
    Investigate how quoted (direct) and reported (indirect) speech work in different types of text (VCELA281)
  • Understand how adverb groups/phrases and prepositional phrases work in different ways to provide circumstantial details about an activity (VCELA280)

Level 5:

  • Understand how the grammatical category of possessives is signalled through apostrophes and how to use apostrophes with common and proper nouns (VCELA322)
  • Understand the difference between main and subordinate clauses and that a complex sentence involves at least one subordinate clause (VCELA323)

Level 6:

  • Understand the use of commas to separate clauses (VCELA349)

Links to the Victorian Curriculum – English as an Additional Language (EAL)

Pathway A

Reading and viewing

Level A1:

  • Recognise capital letters, spaces and full stops (VCEALL052)
  • Understand and use simple metalanguage for books and reading (VCEALL044)

Level A2:

  • Recognise that full stops and question marks separate text (VCEALL133)
  • Understand and use a small range of metalanguage for elements of texts (VCEALL125)


Level A1:

  • Write simple repetitive modelled sentences (VCEALL072)
  • Experiment with some familiar punctuation (VCEALL079)
  • Understand some terminology of writing in English and/or home language (VCEALA068)

Level A2:

  • Write sustained texts using sentences based on simple repetitive, modelled patterns (VCEALL151)
  • Use some punctuation consistently (VCEALL158)
  • Understand a small range of terminology of writing (VCEALA148)

Pathway B

Reading and viewing

Level BL:

  • Understand the function of spaces, capital letters and full stops (VCEALL209)
  • Use basic terminology of reading (VCEALL202)

Level B1:

  • Recognise the function of capital letters and full stops, and use them (VCEALL289)
  • Use some of the terminology of reading (VCEALL282)

Level B2:

  • Understand simple punctuation when reading (VCEALL369)
  • Understand and use a range of learnt metalanguage to talk about text (VCEALL363)

Level B3:

  • Follow direct and indirect speech (VCEALL448)
  • Understand and use the appropriate metalanguage to talk about the structures and features of a text (VCEALL442)


Level BL:

Level B1:

  • Use basic punctuation, such as full stops and capital letters, appropriately (VCEALL319)
  • Use basic software functions to present text (VCEALL320)
  • Use some conjunctions to connect ideas within a sentence (VCEALL313)

Level B2:

  • Experiment with complex punctuation (VCEALL399)
  • Use a small range of software functions to create simple digital texts (VCEALL400)
  • Use a number of common conjunctions to link ideas to create compound and complex sentences (VCEALL393)
  • Use simple extended descriptive phrases (VCEALL392)

Level B3:

  • Use a range of punctuation marks consistently and correctly (VCEALL478)
  • Gather and present information both in text and visually using an appropriate software application (VCEALL479)
  • Combine simple sentences using common conjunctions (VCEALL472)
  • Write using extended descriptive phrases (VCEALL471)


Daffern, T. & Mackenzie, N. (2015). Building strong writers: Creating a balance between the authorial and secretarial elements of writing. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 23(1), 23-32.

Daffern, T., Mackenzie, N.M. & Hemmings, B. (2017). Predictors of writing success: How important are spelling, grammar and punctuation? Australian Journal of Education, 61(1), 75-87.

Dubosarsky, U. (2008). The word spy. Australia: Puffin Books.

Fang, Z. & Wang, Z. (2011). Beyond rubrics: Using functional language analysis to evaluate student writing. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 34(2), 147-165.

Macken-Horarik, M. & Sandiford, C. (2016). Diagnosing development: a grammatics for tracking student progress in narrative composition. International Journal of Language Studies, 10(3), 61-94.

Mackenzie, N.M., Scull, J. & Munsie, L. (2013). Analysing writing: The development of a tool for use in the early years of schooling. Issues in Educational Research, 23(3), 375-393.

Paris, S.G. (2005). Reinterpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 184-202.

Scull, J. & Mackenzie, N.M. (2018). Developing authorial skills: Child language leading to text construction, sentence construction and vocabulary development. In N.M. Mackenzie and J.

Scull (Eds.), Understanding and Supporting Young Writers from Birth to 8. (pp. 89-115). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) (2017). Victorian Curriculum: Foundation-10 English, Victoria State Government.

Wing Jan, L. (2009). Write Ways: Modelling Writing Forms (3rd Ed.). Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University press.