Learning ESL students’ names

I hate learning students’ names.  Not because I can’t, but because I feel like it always takes me so much longer than everyone else.  I try really hard, I swear, but every time I can tell the other teachers already know everyone’s names and I’m the lone idiot still struggling.

Here’s what I do: I break the students into small groups of 3 or 4.  They choose names for the groups (fun things like “Tornado” or “Star Wars” – they choose, I don’t know why natural disasters seem like a good choice).  I find 6 groups of 3 students is easier to deal with than 18 students.  It’s great, too, for those moments when you have two or three students whose names you just keep confusing.  As long as they’re in separate groups, you can keep them straight.

At my old school, we had the advantage of a roster with everyone’s student ID pictures.  That helped so much.  But at this school, no such luck.  And we have new students coming and old students leaving constantly.  I have students moving up to another level and out of or into my class.  I have students who just decided not to show up the first week, or who couldn’t get a plane ticket in time.  And then I get even more confused.  And when they’re all named Abdullah, I want to scream.

I found a few interesting links (from The Chronicle and an article for ESL teachers) on the subject, but I think this is just one area I’m always going to struggle with.  I believe in learning students’ names and learning them quickly, but I’ve been teaching them for a whole week now and I’m only at about 50%.  My goal is 100% by Friday.  We’ll see.

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2 thoughts on “Learning ESL students’ names

  1. I was kind of lucky as I started teaching ESL at a time when intensive English programs in American universities had lots of Spanish-speaking students and I was very familiar with the Spanish sounds already from my study of the Spanish language and experience using Spanish myself. That made a large number of the names easy to repeat and remember. I also have gone back to the Spanish sound system for trying to figure out pronunciation of names from other language backgrounds over the years, and found this approach to work very well with romanized Japanese and Arabic names. At one point, I used to tell people that I had met and taught English to nearly 1,000 different Japanese students during my five years there. Still today I am pretty good at recognizing from the sound of a Japanese name whether it is male or female, and that is just from practice and repetition. Another important factor to keep in mind is how central to a person’s psyche their name and the sound of their name is. Sometimes they will give up good naturedly and smile as a teacher does the best he or she can do, or, as is the case with many Chinese and Korean students who come to study in America, eagerly accepts the student’s offer of an English name to substitute for their actual name. A teacher I knew took another tack on this and referred to every student by his or her family name, pronounced correctly, which is certainly a fine option as well, because it conveys respect and honor to that student’s cultural traditions. My main point, however, is that over a long period of time, teaching many, many students, if you continue to make a real effort to remember all their names on the first day and practice them again and again, you will find this activity helps you to get better at recognizing and using students’ names effectively, through experience. The most vital point in all this is that a teacher ought to use the name that the student wants to be called, and the teacher should learn as quickly as possible, through trial and error, to use that name in a natural way when addressing that student. Now please help me with the problem I have, which is when I see a former student several semesters later on campus, and I can remember lots of details about his or her family, country, traditions, interests, etc, but no name comes to mind. Sometimes I go ahead and ask them to remind me of their name, but only after making it clear that I remember lots of important things about them from our experiences together. I have probably wandered pretty far from the topic of your original question.

    • I wish I could help you with your problem, but that’s one I also seem to have. I feel like remembering the person is more important than remembering the name after that much time has passed. But, perhaps, as someone whose name is often forgotten or confused, I don’t attach much importance to names. I know many people do find names very important, however, so I do my best.

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