It’s hard to overstate just how important it is to learn our new students’ names as soon as possible. As Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”
We want to create a welcoming community atmosphere in our classrooms, and learning students’ names—as fast as we can!—is a big part of that. How will our students feel like a part of a community if their teacher and classmates don’t even know their names?
Especially for us ESL teachers, it’s sometimes a challenge to pronounce our students’ names. But it’s worth the effort to keep trying until we get it right. I think (or hope!) that most students will give us some grace, knowing that we might not be able to pronounce their names exactly the way people do in their native language. But we should at least show that we are trying our best. One tip is to always have each student say their name first, before you say it. So instead of walking into class on the first day and reading students’ names off a list, have the students each say their own names. Then you can look down at the class roster to find each name. This way, you’ll avoid any horribly awful pronunciations, and you’ll give them a chance to say their name the way they prefer. It also avoids the problem of us saying their names wrong and the students being too afraid to correct us.
Tips for Remembering Students’ Names
I try my best to learn my students’ names on the first day of class, but of course, sometimes my mind goes completely blank the next day when they walk into class. To help myself out, I try to make time to practice my students’ names outside of class, too. I sometimes read over my class list at home at night and again the next day right before class starts. I also greet my students by name as they walk in the door. I try to do this every day of class, but I especially make a point to do it in the first few days. It refreshes my memory right before the class begins, and it also gives me a chance to correct myself if needed. This sometimes results in a slightly awkward, “Hi, ummm…Natalia? Your name is Natalia, right?” But I would much rather to do this in the first couple of days than wait for a few weeks and then feel REALLY embarrassed because I don’t know a student’s name.
I usually try to play at least one name game in the first week. It helps me remember my students’ names, and it helps them learn each other’s names, which I also think is really important for building class community. Here are some of the name games I like to use:
- Name Game Speedball— I got this idea from Allison Weinhold, a Spanish teacher in Iowa. You can read her full description of the activity here, but the basics are: Everyone stands in a circle, and the teacher has a ball. The teacher models first by saying, “My name is _______.” Then, the teacher throws the ball to a student in the circle while saying, “Your name is ________.” That student catches the ball and says, “My name is _________. Your name is __________” while throwing the ball to a different student. Continue until all students have received the ball. Then, tell students that they’ll repeat the same activity, going in the same order, but that they need to try to beat a certain time (e.g., do it within 30 seconds). Repeat a few times, challenging students to go a little faster each time.
- The Magic Box—This idea comes from Anne Marie Mitchell, a Spanish teacher in Georgia. She says that she uses the game with her kindergartners, but I’ve used it a few times with my adult students, and they liked it, too! The silliness of it made them laugh. Basically, you put students’ name cards in a box (or bag). Tell your students that it’s a “magic box” that knows their name. Ask students to individually pick their names from the magic box. Of course, most of the time, they won’t pick out the correct name, but you pretend like you are surprised. Ask the class why it didn’t work and have them suggest how to make it work—things like, “Maybe we need to shake the box first” or “Maybe we need to say ‘please.’” Click here to read Anne Marie’s full post about it.
- Guess Who—Have your students stand up in a circle so they can easily see each other. Have everyone in the circle say their name and maybe review the names again once or twice to make sure students know each other’s names at least somewhat. Then, you describe one of the students standing in the circle (or describe yourself). You can describe what clothes the person is wearing or other information that the class already knows about that person, such as where they are from, etc. The students have to guess who you are describing. I usually just have students yell out the person’s name, but Chris Stolz wrote about how he divides students into two teams to make the activity into a competition. Students have to raise their hand when they know the answer, and if they answer correctly, their team gets a point.
- Circle Memory Game—Think of one question that all your students will need to answer—for example, “Where do you want to go on vacation?” or “What do you like to do in your free time?” Ask students the question and give them a few seconds to think of their answer. Then divide them into groups so you have about 10-12 students per group. Each group stands up in a circle. One person starts by saying, “My name is ______, and I like to cook” (or whatever their answer to the question is). The next person in the circle needs to repeat what the first person said (“His/her name is ______, and s/he likes to cook”) and then say their own answer. The following person repeats what the two previous people said and then says their own answer. Continue through all the students. The last person in the circle needs to say everyone’s information.
- Name Bop—Divide your class into groups of about 6-8 students per group. Have them stand in a circle with their group and have one person stand in the middle of the circle. One student in the circle starts by saying the name of another student in the circle. That student then says the name of another student; that student says the name of another; and so on. The person in the middle tries to “bop” (GENTLY hit/tap) the person whose name was just called before that person is able to say another person’s name. If they successfully do so, the person who didn’t say another name fast enough becomes the new person in the middle of the circle.
- Blanket Game—For this game, you need a big blanket. Divide the students into two teams. You and one student hold the blanket up as a barrier between the two teams so they can’t see each other. Each team silently selects one person from their team to sit right next to the blanket. On the count of “3, 2, 1,” you drop the blanket. The two chosen people (one from each team) look at each other and compete to see who can say the other person’s name first. Whoever says it first gets a point for their team. Watch a video of the game here.