Are you wondering when you should start teaching your students the states and capitals? If so, you’ve come to the right place, because I have both the when and the how!
The 4th grade, or when the student is 9 or 10 years old, is when they learn the states and capitals in school; however, some states teach US geography in 3rd or 5th grade.
Now, there’s a right way to use these methods, so let’s take a look at how to use them to teach the states and capitals to your students. You’ll find how to use them well and why they work.
Flashcards are a method of getting students to remember facts quickly with little prompting. The name of the capital should prompt them to say the name of the state, or vice versa. But I don’t recommend dumping fifty flashcards on them and expecting them to memorize it all in one go.
Instead, break it up into small sections. Flashcards work because of repetition, so if the student using the whole deck makes a mistake and says that Montgomery is in Vermont, they won’t get to remedy that mistake until they’ve gone through all fifty other cards, and they might even forget before Alabama or Montpelier comes around.
On the other hand, using only a few cards, such as, say, five to seven (seven is the short-term memory’s capacity), or maybe eight (to test the long-term memory), gives them a quick loop, wherein they can fix their mistakes quickly, and repeatedly increase their confidence in their memory of it. It shortly becomes easy, and that’s how things are committed to memory.
On top of that, these small batches of cards will be grouped together in their memory, and memories always stick around for a longer time when they’re grouped with something else. That’s because grouping things together means reducing the number of things to remember, thereby increasing the space for other things to remember.
There are a couple of different ways to use flashcards for states and capitals: one is just with the names of the states and capitals, but visual learners might do better with cards that show the shape of the state, along with the point on its map where the capital would be (the latter part especially helps distinguish states of the same or similar shape).
There are plenty of puzzles that you can find or order online to use in teaching the states and capitals. These are great because in addition to connecting the names of the states and capitals together, students can also connect the shape of the state and its location to those names, giving them tangible meaning and a reason to hold onto the knowledge.
Puzzles are even a great way to teach younger kids about the states and capitals. Many kids love puzzles, and if they frequently play with a states and capitals puzzle, you’ll more than likely find that they retain what they find on the pieces, granted they can read them (though for kids who can’t read yet, these puzzles will still help them with geography later).
This how I learned the states and capitals when I was in a public elementary school. The music teacher came into our class and taught us a song that went all the way from Montgomery, Alabama to Cheyenne, Wyoming. That is, it went in alphabetical order by state. That made it easy to remember which state came next despite there being fifty of them.
That song was more meter than melody, but there are plenty of other songs that incorporate both fun tunes and facts about the cities to keep kids engaged and learning. Here’s a really cool example of a states and capitals song:
Music is great for memory for a similar reason to using small groups of flashcards: it’s grouping together what you want to teach so that it fits better in their memory. On top of that, the meter and rhyme of the lyrics keep the facts in the right order. One capital isn’t going to wander into the wrong line or stanza because it would break the music and wouldn’t sound right.
Games are always a great way to teach because they keep kids interested in what’s going on. Whether it’s competitive or collaborative, the kids will be invested as long as there are stakes that they care about.
One game that comes immediately to mind is to simply point to a map of the states and have them say the name of the capital. You could adapt it to your situation to make it more interesting to your students, or you could find other games online, since there are plenty of ideas for such games on the internet.
Break it Up!
Feel free to prepare your method to teach all fifty states and their capitals, but don’t expect your students to get it all in one go. After all, that’s one hundred names to remember and fifty connections to make! Find ways to break it up to make it more manageable.
Start with groups of five for the short term, and then build to ten to test their long-term memory (again, the short-term memory can only hold seven things at a time that aren’t grouped together, so if they can remember all ten, that means that they either have it in their long-term memory, or they’ve got a mnemonic device that will help them remember it).
One way to break it up is by region. Like in the song above, you could start with the West, then do the Midwest, then the South, and then the Northeast. In that way, students would learn to associate those states with one another, and then they’d be able to find them geographically more easily later on.
Alternatively, you could go alphabetically. Because of the song I learned in school, I doubt I’ll ever forget where Montgomery, Juneau, Pheonix, and Little Rock are (those are all the ‘A’ states).