In my last post I defined what I’m calling The Capital Letter Problem and set out some of its causes. Briefly, children pick up and embed bad habits when writing and, although they often know what should be done, they’ll revert to what’s been practised when under any kind of pressure.

One solution could be to take a lesson from the world of horse training. Horse trainer Linda Parelli talks about the use of pressure and release. As she explains it, “Pressure motivates, release teaches.”

… teaching and training horses really is quite simple, because it involves not much more than the appropriate application of pressure and the exquisite timing of the release. But those adjectives, “appropriate” and “exquisite,” are where the real challenges lie, because these are the very things that make the difference between a horse having trouble, responding obediently, or responding with enthusiasm.

Teaching children is more complex than training horses, but it too relies on careful application of pressure and the pleasure of release to doing the right thing independently.

Appropriate pressure

In horse training, appropriate pressure is the minimum necessary to urge a horse to respond as desired. Parelli says you know whether the pressure applied was appropriate because, “the horse responds calmly, without fear and with good expression. As you progress the horse becomes more responsive and more willing.”

When children understand how to use the correct spelling and punctuation it might seem reasonable to allow them to simply be creative and learn to love writing stories, but this would be a mistake. First, being creative is not simply having ideas, it’s working within constraints. Learning and using writing conventions allows children to be more not less creative. Second, letting children just do what they enjoy in the short-term often does them a disservice in the longer-term. How many children love writing in say, Year 3, and then learn to hate it by the start of secondary school? It might be fun to just dump your ideas on a page as they occur but at some point children will realise academic success depends on the ability to communicate fluently in academic language. If they haven’t practised getting the basics right this makes everything more difficult.

It’s not that teachers don’t care about correct punctuation and spelling – it’s more that what we do doesn’t apply appropriate pressure. Whenever teachers correct or even identify students’ mistakes we’re signalling that they don’t have to. When we circle missing capital letters children become dependent on us to do it for them. There needs to be some sort of consequences to neglecting to do what you know how to do, otherwise, why would you bother?

My solution is to make children proofread work before it’s handed in. If this is your minimum standard there can be no argument about it. If work makes it through to the teacher and there are still missing capital letters there should be some sort of sanction which makes it clear that missing out the basics first time round is more onerous in the long-term. For secondary-aged students, my expectation is that they should copy out their work again. You might decide this isn’t appropriate for the students you teach, but there does need to be some kind of pressure to do the right thing.

Using appropriate pressure is not about cruelly forcing children to use capital letters, it’s about creating the conditions where they become “more responsive and more willing.” It’s about never lowering our expectations and saying, “That’ll do.” It’s about teaching children to take pride in their work and that the little things matter. It’s about explaining that while you may know what they mean and will judge their work charitably, there’s no guarantee anyone else will. The world is biased against those who misspell common words and fail to punctuate correctly.

Don’t just apply pressure until children get it right, apply pressure until they can’t get it wrong.

Exquisite timing of release

But all this carefully applied pressure only really pays off if children are released to write with freedom at the right time. This means that when children start doing the right thing, you stand back and let them show you what they can do. There will always be an element of trial and error to this. Releasing pressure too early means students may not have automatised the basics, too late may mean they’ve become bored or frustrated.

Teaching proofreading is key to applying the appropriate pressure to write well and knowing when to stop is crucial to helping students learn to get things write independently. See this post for more detail.

Ultimately, release really happens when you stop teaching writing and just teach content. It comes when the careful application of pressure means that children don’t even have to think about when to use capital letters, they do it automatically. When spelling and punctuation rules are embedded in long-term memory, students have so much more capacity to think about the content. This is where the shift from novice to expert starts to take place. Novices need careful pressure to build up the skills to experience the joyful release of growing expertise.

None of this is to say that playing with ideas and enjoying language for its own sake needs to wait until students have mastered the technical aspects of writing, but it does suggest that writing is a technical discipline which might benefit from greater separation form spoken language. By all means discuss and encourage children to perform all their wonderful ideas, but be warned that turning these into writing has consequences. What we practise we get good at; practising poor writing might end up making it harder for children to write well.