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What is an apostrophe?

What is an apostrophe?
Children are first introduced to apostrophes in Year 2. Help them practise punctuating correctly at home with our simple revision tips, covering the use of apostrophes for possession and omission.

What is an apostrophe?

Apostrophes are punctuation marks. In English we use them in two ways, to show possession and to show contraction (or omission).

Apostrophes to show possession

Apostrophes are used to tell us that something belongs to someone. For example, if you were talking about a football belonging to Ben, you would say ‘Ben’s football’. 

There is only one of Ben, so this is called singular possession.

In the example above ONE girl owns ONE hat and Simon owns ONE car.

When a singular proper noun ends in s, the national curriculum states that the suffix to use to indicate possession is 's (though other style guides often use the apostrophe only). In other words, according to the national curriculum it's St. James's Park, not St. James' Park.

If there are two or more people owning something, an apostrophe is needed to show plural possession.

In this case the apostrophe goes after the plural owners, so if a group of girls each own a hat and you want to talk about all these hats, you would say ‘the girls’ hats’. 

Apostrophes to show contraction or omission

If we put two words together and miss out some letters, we need to add an apostrophe where the missing letters are. For example: ‘do not’ would change to ‘don’t’, the contracted form.

When do children learn about apostrophes in primary school?

Under the 2014 curriculum, children in Year 2 are taught to use apostrophes for singular possession. They would also be taught to use apostrophes for contraction

There is no mention of apostrophes in Year 3, but a good teacher will ensure that this Year 2 objective is consolidated throughout Year 3. 

In Year 4, children move onto using apostrophes to show plural possession

Apostrophes are not mentioned in Year 5 and Year 6, but again teachers should continue to consolidate this topic throughout a child’s time at primary school.


Apostrophes in the primary-school classroom

Teaching methods will vary from teacher to teacher: some teachers may spend whole lessons on showing children how to use apostrophes, or they may simply spend 5 or 10 minutes at the start of each lesson on punctuation. Teachers should also highlight pupils’ misuse of apostrophes in their marking.

Methods for teaching apostrophes may include the following:

  • Worksheets giving a list of different sentences, where children have to add apostrophes in the correct place.
  • Matching cards, for example ‘I am’ with ‘I’m’.  These are very good for helping to familiarise a child with the spellings and apostrophe placing of different words.
  • Computer programmes and games where children are required to move a virtual apostrophe and put it in the correct place. These are very popular, as they usually give children immediate feedback on whether they have got something right or not.
  • A teacher may dictate words or sentences to children containing apostrophes as a test to see if they are able to write the word or sentence, including putting the apostrophes in the correct place.
  • Visual classroom displays that show children rules and examples regarding apostrophes.
  • Punctuation karate / kung fu, where children are given a karate action (plus energetic vocal!) to go with a particular type of punctuation. They may be asked to spell out some letters and include the action that represents an apostrophe. This is an excellent activity that helps children to learn in a fun way through physical activity.
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