I watch children in nursery enthusiastically making bold lines in the glittery sensory tray to form an E.
“E for Elsa!” one child declares proudly.
I praise her efforts. She then writes her WHOLE NAME IN CAPITALS.
This always makes make stop and think. At what point, if at all, should I begin to correct the name-writing in capitals? When does it become too much of a habit?
EYFS: Children writing in capital letters
I know that my Reception colleagues won’t thank me for encouraging children to write predominantly in capitals. I know from experience that it can become quite an ingrained habit, which is difficult to correct later on.
Writing names in capital letters – worse still, writing whole words and parts of sentences in capital letters – is a common irritation among Reception teachers. Another funny little habit is when children seem to master using lower case letters, yet then decide to insert the odd capital randomly in the middle of a word.
So where does this bad habit come from?
Earlier in my career, I would listen to frustrated teachers complaining and insisting that the parents had taught children to write in capitals. I would nod along with enthusiasm as they made suggestions about addressing this through parent workshops.
I didn’t question the idea. I did, I confess, also wrongly assume that it was the parents trying to teach at home (albeit rather unhelpfully). Somewhere along the line, we may have also suspected our pre-school colleagues might share some blame.
After reading Tina Bruce’s Early Childhood Education, I was forced to question this assumption. She points out that “children do not seem to be ‘taught’ capital letters by ignorant, tiresome parents, although practitioners often accuse parents of this”.
Bruce makes some really valid points, which I have learned from and which have shaped my approach to teaching early writing ever since.
Recognising root causes
There are a few reasons as to why children show a preference for writing in capital letters, which are important for us as teachers to recognise.
Firstly, some parents might indeed demonstrate writing in capitals, yet there are many sources of print in our everyday environment that children see and will be drawn to. This print heavily influences children’s mark making: signs, posters, packaging, adverts are all examples of capital letters being used.
Capital letters are probably the very first letters that children begin to recognise, and therefore young children do tend to have a stronger connection to capital letters.
The first (capital) letter of a child’s name is special to them and will be a favourite letter, which often features repeatedly in their drawings and mark making.
Finally, and most significantly for teachers, is the fact that children will have a preference for capital letters because they are far easier to form. Young children do not have a full range of motion in their arms and wrists when writing and so straight lines are much more achievable than curves at first.
The bigger picture
While it is true that, for some children, this can be a hard habit to break later on, I think we need to look at the bigger picture of children’s development in writing. Children really need to feel confident to fully explore making marks, including capital letters, before they are required to perfect name-writing.
I would say that confidence and enthusiasm to write are far more important in the grand scheme of things and we shouldn’t get too hung up on children’s overuse of capital letters. Rather like spelling, it all comes together as they develop their skills along the way.
I think it is important to always think of the continuum of physical development. Children will start with capital letters, but as their motor skills and confidence develop, they can, and will, move on to lower-case forms and be able to access the full range of letters involving curves.
Our role is always to support and extend. In the beginning of the EYFS phase, I support the exploration of forming capital letters through playful representation and mark-making. Later on, when they are ready, children will need time and experience to practise forming curved shapes through clockwise and anti-clockwise movements, which will support them to form a wider range of letters. Overall, they need to enjoy writing and be motivated through encouragement.
Here are some of my favourite ways of teaching letter formation:
- Offer lots of bendy materials for exploring curved letters and shapes. Try wool, pipe cleaners, string and Play-Doh.
- Focus on supporting the physical skills through programmes such as Write Dance.
- Start big. Larger-scale movements allow for greater success to achieve a full range of motion: paint-brushes in water, big chalks, mops, brooms, cars in paint and air writing all work well.
- Sensory trays help children to remember the letter pattern through sensory feedback. We use rice, glitter, cornflour, salt, sand and shaving foam.
- Be creative with a variety of found objects to make letter shapes indoors and outdoors with: pebbles, bottle lids, buttons, sweeties, leaves, sticks, lego, shells.
- Physical equipment can be used to practise tracing large letter shapes. Try getting pupils to follow a giant letter S on a scooter, or trace a shape with a brush while on the trike.
Helen Pinnington is early years foundation lead at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School in Hampshire