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Teaching Names

Practical tips on bringing up the topic of names in the ESL classroom.

Students are often just expected to pick up a knowledge of how names are used in other places and languages, but problems like writing “Dear Ms Jane” in emails and getting listening questions wrong because they don’t know that Aaron is the male voice show us that this is often not enough. It is therefore worth spending at least a little class time on this topic, and students generally find it very interesting. This article will give some practical tips on bringing up the topic of names in class.

Things students are likely to need to know about names in English and other languages include:

  • How to address people in letters and emails
  • Recognising long and short forms of names, e.g. that Bob is the same person as Robert
  • Recognising male and female names, e.g. that Michel is a French man but Michelle is an English woman
  • Understanding cultural differences in how people are addressed in different situations
  • Identifying first names, middle names and surnames, e.g. so that they know how to address someone (sometimes difficult due to double-barrelled surnames or some countries putting the surname first)
  • Recognising their own and others’ names when pronounced by foreign people

They might also be interested in what names mean, and names that come from the same root in different languages (e.g. Iskender, Alessandro and Alejandro being the same as Alexander).

Any of these things could either be the main topic of a lesson (probably tied in with other language or skills work) or just form a small part of a lesson on a different topic. These two possibilities are explored below.

Lessons On Names

One rather intensive lesson I have done on the topic of names is to give students lists of names that are similar in some way and ask them to identify the thing in common each time. Possible categories include:

  • family names that are based on jobs
  • famous noms de guerre
  • family names that mean “son of…” in different countries (Mac, bin etc)
  • family names that come from geographical features (Bush etc)
  • famous people with double-barrelled surnames
  • family names that are based on appearance
  • English versions of names of famous people from other countries
  • titles from various countries that English-speakers also commonly use when talking to people from those countries (e.g. Monsieur)
  • ways of avoiding names (mate, dear etc)
  • unisex names
  • women’s names based on flowers
  • pairs of male and female names (e.g. Claude and Claudette)
  • names that also have rude meanings (Randy etc)
  • biblical names
  • short forms of a single name (e.g. Bill, Billy, Willy etc for William)

An approach that includes fewer examples but more skills work is to do a whole lesson of cultural differences in naming. Activities include guessing which statements about naming are true and false and then maybe reading or listening to check. They could also try to identify a country by a description of its naming practices. A more fun activity is Call My Bluff, in which students are given a mix of true and false naming practices and need to convince their partners that all of them are true.

Both of these lessons are natural ones to finish up with discussion questions on their own country and names, and you can base a whole class around this more conversation-based approach. Other things they can do include answering common questions about names (e.g. “What does your name mean?” and “Which part is your family name?”), and giving mini-presentations about their names or about names in their country. They could also be given a topic related to naming (e.g. “male and female names”) and try to talk about it for as long as they can.

Names In Other Lessons

Perhaps the most obvious lesson to mention names in is one on famous people. For example, if I have a class who have a particular connection to one country (e.g. mainly work in French companies or all planning on studying in the UK), then I think it is well worth a whole lesson on the people they will hear about on the news and in people’s conversations, and a section on what their names mean (e.g. the meaning of “Thatcher”) is usually interesting for them. One possible activity is to give them the name of a famous person from that country and ask them to describe who it is without using any parts of their name until the other students guess who they are talking about. As part of that, they can say things like “His family name is the same as a big black bird, but different spelling” (Russell Crowe) and “Her first name is a short version of Catherine” (Kate Middleton).

Names can also be included in lessons on common errors (e.g. “I’m Mr Tanaka”), cultural differences, different levels of formality, politeness or the culture of a single country. There are also many collocations with “name” (e.g. “pet name” and “calling someone names”) and this could be tied in with a lesson on names or one on collocations.

With the problem I mentioned above about not being able to match names to speakers due to not knowing which are male, it is usually enough just to make sure they know which gender each person is before you press play, but it can also be worth a brief excursion to tell them how they can guess (e.g. because -ette is always a female name or because John is sometimes a short form of the name Jonathon).

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | June 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.