Every Punctuation Mark Matters: A Minilesson on Semicolons

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" demonstrates that even the smallest punctuation mark signals a stylistic decision, distinguishing one writer from another and enabling an author to move an audience. In this minilesson, students first explore Dr. King's use of semicolons and their rhetorical significance. They then apply what they have learned by searching for ways to follow Dr. King's model and use the punctuation mark in their own writing. Note that while this lesson refers to the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," any text which features rhetorically significant use of semicolons can be effective for this minilesson.

Standards & Objectives

Learning objectives: 

Student Objectives:

Students will:

  • explore the use of the semicolon in their own and others' texts.
  • review the rhetorical use and significance of the semicolon.
  • revise their own writing, based on the stylistic knowledge gained from their exploration.

Lesson Variations

Blooms taxonomy level: 
Extension suggestions: 


  • Choose among additional Web and text resources as well as find links to lesson plans and classroom activities that can be used to supplement or extend this lesson, from the January 15 entry from ReadWriteThink calendar.
  • Visit these Websites to learn more about Dr. King's life:
  • Today in History, for January 15, from the Library of Congress: The Library of Congress entry for King's birthday provides a linked overview of King's life and the struggle for Civil Rights.
  • The Nobel Peace Prize 1964: The Nobel Prize Website includes the text of the committee's presentation speech, awarding the Peace Prize to Dr. King, as well as Dr. King's Nobel Lecture, his acceptance speech, and biographical information.
  • Photo Essay: Martin Luther King in His Own Words: This Time.com collection pairs ten photos of King with excerpts from his writing. Each could provide a starting place for a classroom discussion of King's carefully chosen words.
  • Martin Luther King: His Greatest Triumphs: The Life site provides a wealth of pictures of Dr. King, including this gallery of his greatest triumphs.

Helpful Hints


  • Students should be assigned to read the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" prior to this class session, so that they are familiar with the text and its contents before they begin this activity. You can make copies of the letter for your students from the Website above, or direct students to the URL for one of the sites to read the text online. 
  • Ideally, students should be given time to explore the timeline at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project Website, which documents the highlights of Dr. King's life. Be sure to take time to discuss the ideas from the letter and its historical context. 
  • Consult the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" from the Univeristy of Pennsylvania for background information on the letter.
  • Provide paper copies of the text for each student-because students will be looking closely at the text, they should have a copy of the letter that they can mark on (e.g., circle semicolons). 
  • Make copies of the handouts of the shorter passages and the longer passage as well as the handout of a passage with no semicolons from Dr. King's letter for students. Alternatively, make overheads of these pages and arrange for an overhead projector.
  • Check your grammar textbook for information on semicolons, noting the pertinent section or page number on the board for students' reference. Alternatively, you can point students to the Purdue OWL Overview of Punctuation.
  • Materials and Technology:
  • Grammar Handbook, for reference
  • General classroom writing supplies (board, overheads, or chart paper, notebooks and pens/pencils, and so forth)
  • Internet access 
  • Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail"—this text is frequently anthologized, appearing in many student textbooks and readers. The text is also available online; however, because the text is protected by copyright, the definitive copies of the letter are not printable:
  • PDF version, from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project (not printable)
  • Image of original, from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project (not printable)
  • HTML version, from the Seattle Times (printable)



  • Examples of Dr. King's Use of Semicolons, shorter passages 
  • Example of Dr. King's Use of Semicolons, longer passage 
  • Example from Dr. King's Letter with No Semicolons



  • "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
  • "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (PDF version) 
  • This definitive version of the letter is copyright and cannot be printed.
  • "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (image of original)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement