I have almost never met a secondary age child who doesn’t conceptually understand how to use a capital letter.* But, you’d never know. Students regularly hand in work liberally sprinkled with missing – or extraneous – capitals and conscientious teachers spend hours circling the errors and patiently explaining why proper nouns and words at the beginning of a new sentence need capitals. In return, students say, “I know. It’s just the way I write.”
It’s pointless to give someone feedback about something they already know – lack of knowledge isn’t the problem. The problem is caused by practice. Contrary to what my mum believed when she’d tell me that ‘practice makes perfect’, what practice actually makes is permanent. The more we practice something the more automatic it becomes. If we practice doing something badly we get better at doing it badly. For students, many of them have become superb at not using capital letters.
This is frustrating for teachers. After all, we get them right all the time. If I’m writing a shopping list I don’t have an internal debate over whether to give Marmite a capital letter, I just do it. You know how students can write their own names in lower case? I can do that, but it takes an extraordinary effort.
The answer is, of course, to practise getting capital letters – and all the other boring technical aspects of writing – right and to make sure students correct their mistakes. It’s not enough to practice until children get it right, we need to get them to practice until they can’t fail. Using capital letters needs to be automatic.
Writing is essentially unnatural. Children don’t independently learn to write in the way they learn to speak. Speaking is something we’ve evolved to do over millennia. Writing has only been around for a few thousand years and it’s only in the last 100 or so years that we’ve expected everyone to be able to do it. We are not evolutionarily adapted for writing.
That said, complex as it may be, pretty much everyone can be taught to write, but our working memory is fragile. Most people are only able to hold on to about seven items or less at any one time, and anything which occupies our attention reduces our capacity to think. If, when we’re writing we trying to remember spelling and punctuation conventions, as well as trying to communicate what we know about a subjects aw well as trying to make what we know sound interesting, we very quickly become overburdened. There’s too much to remember and something has to give. Although students may know how to use a capital letter or how to spell ‘necessary’, if it’s not automatic, they’ll forget to do it.
These things need to be embedded in long-term memory. When we’ve stored a process in long-term memory it tends to become automatic. Remember when you learned to drive a car? At first the experience was overwhelming. You can to pay attention to the steering wheel, the gear stick, the pedals, the mirrors, your speed and what everyone else on the road was doing. You crept along at 20 miles per hour and it felt terrifying! You stalled, you instructor yanked the wheel to avoid hitting a Renault 5, you ended each lesson with a tension headache. Then, six months after passing your test, you found yourself half way done the M5 with conscious awareness of the last 30 minutes. We’re very good at automising skills. As soon as we can make a process automatic, we do.
Writing is similarly complex. The trouble is that if we don’t automise using capital letters – or anything else – we’ll automise not using them to make space in working memory to think about more interesting things.
In my next post I’ll write about solutions to the Capital Letter Problem in more detail.
* That’s not to say there are none, just that they’re rare.