Do You Capitalize Grade Levels?

Grade or grade? Do I capitalize grade levels?
Grade or grade? Do I capitalize grade levels?

This question comes up often. Should we say grade 8 or Grade 8? And what about eighth grade or 8th grade? Here is the skinny on capitalization and number rules in various styles.

(Note that this post might seem a little detailed, but I have done that on purpose here to help writers who have very specific questions about the usage of these terms. Hope it’s helpful!).

Grade-Level Capitalization Varies by Discipline

The first thing to note is what academic discipline you are writing for. For academic writing in education (e.g., scholarly literature, theses and dissertations), APA is almost always the required style guide. Always check the guidelines of the journal you are submitting to, however, because any given journal might have guidelines that override APA.

Other Styles

I will go over other styles, such as Chicago and MLA below, but first I will focus on APA because it is the predominant choice in the education literature.

APA Guidelines on Capitalizing Grade Levels

Rule 1: Capitalize grade levels when they come before a number.

Grade 4, Grade 7, Grade 11

APA Reference: The most direct reference here is APA 4.31, which gives the example of Grade 8.

In most cases APA asks us to capitalize nouns followed by numbers or letters that are part of a series (e.g., Model 3, Wave 2; APA 4.17). As with all rules, sometimes there are exceptions, but none of those apply here.

Rule 2: Use lowercase words for grade levels when an ordinal number is used before the grade.

second grade, sixth grade

APA Reference: See APA 4.31f and APA 4.34, which give similar examples to mine.

Rule 3: Similar to Rule 2, use lowercase words when using the noun form “graders.”

the first graders, the ninth graders

APA Reference: APA 4.34 explains this case. Specifically, we treat ordinal numbers the same as we treat cardinal numbers. An important note is that APA does not use a hyphen in these terms, but you might see hyphens in them in popular news articles or other media outside the scholarly education literature.

Rule 4: Use lowercase words with a hyphen for compound adjectives.

the fifth-grade class, a seventh-grade book

APA Reference: This is basically just an application of APA’s general hyphenation principles listed in APA 4.13. The hyphen is used because the number and grade are used together to modify “class,” “book,” “test,” or whatever word follows. Some schools might say you don’t have to use the hyphen, so you could ask your thesis or dissertation reviewer, but it’s much better to include the hyphen than to exclude it. Basically it is never incorrect to hyphenate a compound like this–it might turn out that a school or journal has a preference not to do it, but it’s always better to hyphenate a compound modifier when you’re not sure.

Rule 5: Use the capitalized form “Grade” with no hyphen for compound modifiers with Grade + Number.

She is at a Grade 5 reading level. (but, She is at a fifth-grade reading level.)

APA Reference: The hyphen is not used in this case because the modifying term includes a numeral or letter (APA 4.13, Table 4.1, Exception 5).

Rule 6: Follow regular APA guidelines for capitalization and number expression in grade levels in all other cases.

The middle school has three grades. A typical public education involves 13 grades (i.e., kindergarten plus 12 grades).

APA Reference: These are just examples of APA’s general guidelines on number expression; that is, use words for numbers zero to nine but numerals for numbers 10+.

Rule 7: Follow APA’s general guidelines on number expression even when even when low numbers are grouped for comparison with high numbers.

The class had 23 students, and seven of the students were in the highest level reading group.

APA Reference: See my next post on expressing low numbers when grouped in comparison with high numbers.

(Note, info on Chicago and MLA coming as soon as I get the chance!)



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Rocky Citro

Hi, my name is Rocky, and I am a technical academic editor with over a decade experience editing for professors and graduate students in prestigious universities. I have also taught writing at the graduate and undergraduate level and have several years' TEFL teaching experience.