by Emma Davis on November 24
The idea for this article came from noticing how many social media posts show set ups for preschool and nursery children that include labels or letters arranged in order to spell a word…but these letters are often all capitals.
Once I’d noticed it, I began to see this approach used more and more. Capital letters were everywhere – Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, children’s books and toys, advertising slogans! I wondered what message this was sending out when children are taught clear rules on the use of upper case letters in their settings.
I began to question why capital letters were appearing in Early Years set ups and provision: where was this coming from? As an Early Years teacher, I don’t teach capital letters, or have displays or labels in upper case. It goes against my experience and knowledge of how children learn and develop in the area of literacy. I wondered why practitioners and teachers were posting wonderful set ups which included wording in uppercase? Many newly qualified practitioners, those returning to the sector or even those in the role for an extended time, may see this and think it’s good practice. But just because the tuff tray set up on Pinterest looks aesthetically pleasing, doesn’t mean it’s right for the children in your setting. Before we know it, we’ll have capital letters sneaking in everywhere!
A quick search online brings up a wealth of play resources using only upper case letters – alphabet foam mats, bath toys, puzzles, wooden blocks, flashcards, and letter games. Unfortunately, these bright, bold toys which are billed as being ‘educational’ are promoting the learning of capital letters over lower case at a very young age. It would be interesting to take this further and consider the views of parents and carers on this – does the promotion of uppercase letters on children’s toys make them think this is how children are taught?
Many more children than ever are coming to preschool sounding out letters by saying the name rather than sound. Children are also writing their whole name in capital letters. How many parents or carers have you spoken to who have beamed with pride as their child has learned the ‘alphabet song’ or knows the letters of the alphabet? However, learning the letter sounds is so much more important in Early Years. Children need to learn the sounds in order to be able to read and write.
After some research online, it appears that teaching capitals before lowercase is often found in homes and education settings in the United States. Many websites and blogs justify this by saying that capital letters are easier for children to form, as they are mostly made up of straight lines. However, capital letters require more strokes, with children having to lift their pencil off the paper more often – think of the letter ‘E’, for example. In contrast, lower case letters flow, and for many we can write the letter without our pencil having to leave the page.
We now understand the importance of waiting until children are ready to write rather than forcing it too early. The delicate bones in the hands and fingers need to have developed and the muscles need to have enough strength to hold a pencil with a strong grip, firm enough to press on the paper to make marks. As our knowledge has advanced, so has our practice. The development of fine motor skills is now prioritised, with activities such as dough disco, cotton bud painting, and threading and posting supporting these essential skills.
If we wait until children are developmentally ready to write, they will have the control necessary to form lower case letters. They will be starting off their writing journey confidently and correctly, writing their name with a capital at the start and the rest in lower case. Some children have to unlearn the way they have been writing their name because they have learned it all in upper case. Imagine the confusion and the knock to a child’s self-esteem if they find out the way they’ve been writing their name isn’t quite right, and they now have to write it in a new, unfamiliar way.
The importance of a print rich environment is crucial in helping children associate the written word with meaning. An audit of the setting or classroom can help identify areas in the environment where improvements can be made. Take a look around your provision, noticing the print in the environment and whether it is presented in lower case:• Is there a range of print available, with printed and handwritten labels and captions?
• Are there examples of children’s artwork which are labelled with their names?
• Can children see their names in print around the provision? Think about pegs, drawers or trays, displays and self-registering?
• When reading a story, does the reader draw children’s attention to the words? This is a good time to notice how sentences start with a capital letter and print is read from left to right.
• Do practitioners model writing, enabling children to see that print carries meaning?
• Do you share early writing ideas with parents and carers?
Strong links with parents and carers will enable good practice to filter through, as we share ideas of how to support early writing at home. We will need to handle conversations with parents or carers with sensitivity if their child is writing their whole name in upper case letters. We all acknowledge the crucial role parents and carers have as early educators, and many have faced challenging times as they cope with living in a global pandemic. Many children have been at home for long periods and family life has changed. We will need to acknowledge achievements as well as offer guidance.
The take-home message is that children need to be developmentally ready to write. Our role is to provide an environment whereby children can be immersed in opportunities to develop strong fine motor skills, to prepare them to move on to writing. Early mark making should be happening everywhere – in the role play, outdoors, in the construction area, to make lists, take ‘registers’ and keep a tally in maths games. The environment should be print rich, but at the same time not overwhelming. We can use labels, name cards, self-register stones and peg names so that children can see their name in print, notice how many letters are in their name, the shapes they make and therefore learn how to recognise it. These early skills are vital in helping children become print aware, learning that letters have meaning and can be put together to form words.
It is our responsibility to expose children to a literate environment that will inspire them to become readers and writers. The environment we create needs to be meaningful to them, and we need to showcase the way we use upper and lower case lettering.
Let’s ditch those capitals!