5 Capitalization Rules: the Essentials

I am always miffed when I collect a paper, and students forget basic capitalization rules like capitalizing their name. I also get ticked when students misspell their name, but you can refer to this CURSIVE POST for help with that problem. There can be some writing situations that are difficult to know whether or not to capitalize for elementary students, but other things are not.

capitalization rules

The students just finished up RESEARCH PAPERS about American businesses. So, I had to have a capitalization rules rant with them. There are some capitalization rules that I think we should all live by and use without being reminded. Capitalizing the name of the company and the company founder a person researched for 2 weeks should happen automatically without any outside assistance. And, as I had to remind my students, auto-correct and spell check won’t catch everything! Below are five common capitalization errors I find frequently in student work.

1) Capitalize “I” by itself

No questions asked, always and forever.

  • I should capitalize proper nouns.
  • I often forget to capitalize proper nouns.
  • My teacher reviewed capitalization, and I listened carefully.

2) Capitalize words that are related to a country name

  • I am an American.
  • I speak English.
  • I love junky Mexican food (and margaritas) on Friday nights.
  • We used to refer to Native American people as Indians, but now it correctly means the people who live in India.

ladybug girl poster

3) Capitalize the first word, the last word, and the “important” words in between in titles

Deciding if the middle words in a title should be capitalized can be tricky. When in doubt, count the letters in a word. Words in titles that have 4 or more letters will probably be capitalized (this is a guideline only– the trick won’t work for every short word).

  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • The Phantom of the Opera
  • The New York Times
  • The Statue of Liberty
  • Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters

research paper outline

4) Always capitalize the first word in a sentence

No other words in the middle of the sentence should be capitalized unless they meet the “proper noun” criteria. Proper nouns are the words that name a particular person, place, or organization. Proper nouns name a specific, one-of-a-kind item.

5) When should you capitalize “Mom” and “Dad”?

In some situations, capitalize the words “mom” and “dad”. Students write these words a lot, so they should be familiar with the capitalization policy for their parents. When a person uses “mom” and “dad” like a first name, and the words could be replaced with a first name like Jennifer or Scott, capitalize. If the words describe a person that is like many other people, do not capitalize.

  • I did my homework, and Mom checked my assignment book.
  • I did my homework, and my mom checked my assignment book.
  • After dinner, Dad played basketball with me.
  • After dinner, my friend’s dad played basketball with us.

Up next… whether or not to underline titles or put them in quotation marks. Is that a problem for anyone else? We had to have a class discussion about that too. Visit THIS POST for student tips about using titles correctly.

Helping Verbs Help

Around this time every year, I require my 4th grade students to memorize the helping verbs. I have a specific order for the 23 verbs that fits perfectly to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. I usually call some of my former students from across the hall to demonstrate This Helping Verb Song. My former students never fail to provide an excellent demonstration. Once the song is committed to memory, it will be burned into your brain for the rest of your life. Memorizing helping verbs aids students with a variety of language arts tasks.
how to teach helping verbs

1. Helping Verbs are Tricky

  • Many of the verbs on the helping verb list are difficult. They are the types of verbs that don’t sound like verbs– the being verbs are the main culprit. Often, words from the helping verb list appear alone in a sentence. In that situation, the helping verb IS the verb. It is easy to identify because of the memorized list of verbs. I can’t visualize a person “is-ing”, but I will mark it because it is from the helping verb list. Just say the list in your head every time you look at a sentence to check for the tricky verbs.
linking verbs
  • Locating these tricky verbs will be useful when students are working with linking verbs.

2. Past, Present, and Future Verb Tense

  • Helping verbs create past, present, and future. In order to identify verbs in sentences, students will need to find the main verb and any helping verbs that go with the main verb. This will be called the complete verb or verb phrase; it’s part of the predicate (fancy word for action part of the sentence). Teachers love to ask students to find the complete verb in sentences. 
verb phrase
  • Students should find the main verb in a sentence. Students should then recite the helping verb list in their head and look for any helping verbs in the sentence. If they see one (or two), group it with the main verb and label the complete verb.
  • WARNING: Not is NOT a verb, but it lurks about in the middle of helping verbs and their main verb partner. In the sentence, “I do not enjoy grammar,” do enjoy is the complete verb. Not is an adverb.

3. Passive Voice

  • Teachers want students to eliminate passive voice in papers, yet students rarely know how to do it. Have a student circle all verbs from the helping verb list that appear in an essay. Then, revise the paper taking out half of the circled verbs. This tip fixes passive voice in many cases without really knowing it. Ultimately, we want students to avoid passive voice on purpose, but this is a great work around until a student has more experience avoiding passive voice.
passive voiceGrammar is a frustrating subject for students. There are exceptions to every rule. Students who have some reliable tools to help during confusing grammar situations do better. For some other grammar tips for students, visit my Previous Grammar Post. I also have grammar resources available at my teacher store. CLICK HERE to purchase great grammar materials that students really get. helping verb list

The Write Way

I have not cracked the code, but I am coming close to a grammar system that (almost) guarantees students will write in complete sentences. When I started a 6th grade teaching job about 15 years ago, my teammate handed me a binder called Sentence Writing Strategies**. I attended the training for it at University of Georgia, and it has changed my grammar world. Teachers, if you can attend a training session in your area, run– don’t walk!

I am able to adapt the key elements of the Sentence Writing Strategies and fold it into whatever grammar textbook my school has at whatever grade level I am teaching. Basically, I use my grammar textbook in the Sentence Writing Strategies order.

Step 1: Teach some basic parts of speech and then begin introducing each sentence type (simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex). The steps in My Grammar Plan take me about 6-8 weeks with 4th graders. The order is the key!

Students mark prepositional phrases, infinitives, verbs/helping verbs, and subjects in every sentence– IN THAT ORDER– every time. If students can do this well, they can more easily identify all of the other “stuff”. Parents, if you are working with a child at home who struggles with complete sentences or identifying parts of sentences, following these steps will help.

Step 2: Begin simple sentences. Writing Strategies gives you formulas for simple sentences. Each simple sentence (independent clause) must meet 3 criteria. A sentence must have a subject, a verb, and make sense on its own.

Step 3: Build the folders. Is anyone familiar with magnetic poetry? I had a set of the little word magnets on my refrigerator for a long time and thought my students could move word pieces a la magnetic poetry around to create sentences. My students know the definition of a simple sentence and can identify the parts of a simple sentence, but actually executing the simple sentence was proving to be a bit of a challenge.

I sealed white mailing envelopes and cut them in half to make pockets. You could use coin envelopes or library card pockets too. You will need to cut the height down some, so little fingers can reach into the pockets. My pockets are about 2 1/2 in. tall. I glued the pockets to the left side of a manila folder and labeled them. I created a sentence building space with directions on the right side of the folder. In each pocket are small cardstock chips with the word choices for each part of the sentence we know to date.


I put the students in groups of 2 or 3 and gave them each a folder. The students used the word chips in the folders to build simple sentences. After they created a sentence, they transferred the words to a piece of notebook paper and marked the sentence to check for any errors.

My next plan for grammar domination is to expand the folders. I thought I could add pockets for adjectives and adverbs. I can keep adding to the sentence types, so students can build compound and complex sentences… then I will need coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. The possibilities are endless. What else can I do with my folders?

** For more information about the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning,  Strategic Instruction Model®, search Learning Strategies: Sentence Writing – Fundamentals in the Sentence Writing Strategy and Proficiency in the Sentence Writing Strategy or click on the link above.