When to Capitalize Directions

Capitalizing Place Names

Do your students know when to capitalize directions? Students learn to capitalize the names of cities, states, and countries at an early age. By second grade, most have mastered capitalizing many geographic terms, but do your students know the rules for capitalizing north, south, east, and west? Students often have difficulty determining when to capitalize direction words.

This post includes everything you will need to teach a mini-lesson on capitalizing geographical terms. You might wish to start with the post handout. It includes a simple foldable organizer with rules. You will find a sorting activity to practice the rules. Get all handouts here.

When to Capitalize Directions Rules

When Should I Capitalize North, South, East, and West?

Capitalize north, south, east, and west when an area of the country or specific region is named.

Rule 1 – Compass Directions


Do not use capital letters for words that give a compass direction.

From Atlanta, head northeast on I-85 to go to Charlotte.

The captain turned the ship in a southern direction when he saw the icy waters.

Westerly winds blew in smoke from the fires.

Rule 2 – Descriptions


Do not use capital letters for informal names of an area.

We traveled through the north of Maine.


Do use capital letters if the location’s formal name includes north, south, east, or west.

The mountains are located in the western portion of North Carolina.

Mount Rushmore is located in South Dakota.

Rule 3 – Regions


Do not capitalize the words northern, southern, eastern, and western when it is referring to a location that is not part of the name.

The Atlantic Ocean borders Georgia in the eastern part of the state.


Do use capital letters when the words are a formal part of the name. 

Meghan won the Northeastern Championship.

My family is from the Deep South.

Following the fall of Rome, Western Europe entered the Middle Ages.

When to Capitalize Directions Activities

Activity #1 Anchor Chart

Anchor Chart with Rules for Capitalizing North, South, East, and West

Depending on the needs of your students, this anchor chart can be used in addition to foldable organizer or in place of the organizer. The anchor chart provides several examples of each rule. It is a great reference tool for students as they complete Activity #3.

This anchor chart goes together very quickly. Just add text and a cute graphic. Educlips created the compass clip art used on this anchor chart. It can be found here.

Activity #2 Sorting Activity

Sorting Activity for Upper Elementary - When Should I Capitalize North, South, East, and West

This activity is super easy for students to create. First, they cut out the pockets.  Next, they fold the flaps to form the pocket. Finally, students glue the pocket onto a page in their interactive notebook.

Two pages of directional phrases are included. Students cut these apart to form cards. 

Instructions for Use

Select a card. Read the phrase containing direction words, and decide if the phrase contains a compass direction, a formal name of a region, or a description. Place the card in the correct pocket to indicate your answer.

If you missed the handout link earlier, here it is again.

Gay Miller

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