Six ways to learn and/or remember your students’ names

Rather strange name tag I found on the net. Name tags are very useful for first classes though!

One of the key challenges teachers face at the beginning of a new course is to learn and remember students’ names. I know that for me it causes quite a bit of anxiety, especially on the third or fourth day with them and the class still looks like a sea of unrecognizable faces. Over the years I’ve developed several strategies to help in this, often picked up from wiser more experienced colleagues. Thought I’d pass on the top six…

1. Make a floor plan or use name cards

Make an outline of the classroom, and on the first day go student by student, asking their names and completing your plan. Leave this on your desk and, for the first few classes at least, make sure people sit in the same spot for the beginning of the lesson. Or ask students to make a little name card and place it on the desk in front of them.

2. Play a name game.

Yes, this is the first thing that many an English teacher does with a class. It often involves tossing a ball around and calling out names. I was right into ball-tossing around ten years ago in my career and then all of a sudden I thought (perhaps unreasonably?) that it was too childish. Of course if you are teaching children then fine.

Another name game involves saying names in a chain “My name’s X.” “This is X. My name’s Y” etc. Or adding something personal about yourself “My name’s X and I thought Terminator Salvation was awful” “His name’s X and he thought Terminator Salvation was awful, my name’s Y and I loved the film the Hangover”. You get the idea. The problem with name games is that if you have a class of over twenty students the ones at the end of the chain start moaning that it’s too hard. In that case, divide them into two big groups.

3. Use names as much as possible.

More effective than a one-off game is to start using students’ names as quickly and as often as possible. This is the way I remember. There may be mistakes at first, but sooner or later it always sinks in. Use names when you call on students, when you praise them or when you ask questions. If you make a mistake with a student’s name, make sure you use the right name the next time and do it quickly.

4. Take register aloud often.

Make a regular habit of taking the register/calling attendance. To keep you, and the students, alert you can add variations to this routine. Instead of saying “present” ask them to respond by saying the name of a fruit or vegetable, or an animal. Or ask them to respond with “present and…” plus another adjective (e.g. present and ready, present and tired, present and happy, present and bored…). One variation I often do is to take register by SPELLING students’ names in English to which they have to answer.

To add more variety, ask different students to do this task.

5. Ask them when you forget.

I think many people (myself included) are nervous or ashamed if they forget someone’s name. Often this results in avoidance strategy (“oh no, can’t remember her name… ok I’ll ask Mika instead”) which means some students may end up getting ignored. Don’t be afraid to apologise and ask a student’s name – “Excuse me, I’ve forgotten your name/ I’m sorry, what’s your name again?” This kind of formula is in fact very useful language to teach students as well.

6. Be devious.

Of course, there are more devious tricks we have up our sleeve. I wrote about some of these here, and they include ways of getting students’ names. Some other of my favourites are: to ask a student on the spot to spell his/her name, ostensibly to test their spelling skills; to take the register and make a big show of pretending that you don’t know students’ names (when in fact you don’t for some of them); or to play a “correct the teacher” game where you say things and the students have to correct you (start by saying “Your name is Charles/Charlotte” to a student whose name you have forgotten and they have to correct you). Thanks Kyle Mawer for teaching me some of these tricks by the way.

If six ways just aren’t enough for you, if you’re still having problems and want more tips then go to this post by Alex Case. He’s got a bunch more!

How do YOU remember students’ names? Post a comment.

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Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 12:13 pm  Comments (19)  
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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for the mention- I knew the shameless sub publicising of my last comment would be worth it!

  2. That’ll be self-publicising, though sub publicising is a good word just in search of a meaning I reckon

  3. I prefer to give my students English names, based on their appearance or habits, etc. For example Spotty, Four-Eyes, Sleepy, Goat-Face, etc. It’s much easier – and harder for them to spell.

    I, of course, only answer to ‘Sir’.

  4. Hi Lindsay!
    It’s very nice to see your great lists back:-) The only thing I do to learn student names quickly is to repeat the name to the student a few times and attach a mental image to the name. My record is 150 student names in two weeks:-)

    • My God! I must learn your powerful ways. 150…
      Did you know that some politicians have an aide who whispers the names of people they (the politicians) have met and are about to meet again? That way the politician can smile and say “Hello (+name), of COURSE I remember you”.
      I think I need one of those aides.

  5. Just found this good TPR game for remembering kids’ names and getting them to learn each others’:

    http://www.eslhq.com/forums/esl-forums/esl-games-activities/team-preposition-1728/

    • Thanks Alex for sharing this!

  6. I’m lucky this school year, I only have to remember about 100 new names. Luckily we have software at our school with which you can make floor plans with photographs of the pupils. It’s the first thing I do at the beginning of a new school year. I use public transportation, so learning the names with the help of pictures is my homework during my commute.

  7. I see most of my students once a week, in classes of about thirty, so at the start of the first semester I have a lot of names to remember. Every student makes an attendance card, which I hand out at the beginning of class and take in at the end. They use it to give themselves a score (minus points for speaking too much Japanese, forgetting their textbook etc), for answering reflection questions about the day’s lesson, for telling me a few extra snippets about themselves, and they all have a photo. I can look through them between classes to put names to faces, and peek at them as I walk around “monitoring”.

  8. Sorry to come in a bit late to this one. Love your advice and all these tips are things I do myself too. I find by about week 5 of the semester I know all the namesa and I tell the students during the first few weeks that we meet I am sorry in advance for needing a bit of time to learn them. This always works out fine. I wanted to mention something that relates to this post, which is how I feel when students anglicise their names. In Greece that would mean Yiannis = John Giorgos = George or Dimitrios = Jim or Ioanna = Joanne etc. Now of course if this is a choice, then so be it. But nine times out of ten, it’s not. Students believe that teachers (mainly NESTs) won’t be able to manage their names. Now that I teach students from across the Balkans, including Greece, I feel that it is my responsibility to learn how to pronounce names from a diversity of locations, even if it takes a while. I did the same when we had foundation courses for Chinese students or when I was teaching in the UK (primarily Chinese S’s during summer courses). The Chinese students who came to Greece introduced themselves as “Debbie” and “Frank” etc, so what I did was just ask them if they would like me to use their Chinese name and that I would be happy to try. Interestingly, in almost all cases, and across nationalities, most of the students do prefer to have teachers use their actual name rather than their assumed identity. Well that makes sense to me really as names are important. That’s why we need to make an effort as teacher to get them right. Now if its a choice then that different. My husband (Yiannis) is known by all his Greek friends and the wider community in Thessaloniki as “Johnny” – why? Well he was born smack bang in the middle of the punk era and played in a band for a long time and in that context, he became known as Johnny. Perhaps for a punk, Johnny is better than Yiannis (or at least it seemed that way to him when he was 17!) So that is what people call him. What I am talking about is when students change their names because of their perception that they should adjust themselves to make things easier for the teacher. I have very mixed feelings about that, and therefore am happy to put in the extra effort to swat up on names with new classes. It always pays off! Thanks for the post again!

    • Thanks Sara for your reply. Interesting about anglicising names, I have not seen it in Spain except in cases where the teacher gives English names to students (usually young learners). I personally really don’t like this and would never do it. However, when students themselves anglicise their names and you’re right about Asians sometimes doing this I am not sure what to say to them. It has happened that when I have asked their real name they tell me, but say they prefer to go by their adopted English name – which they have chosen. In which case I don’t really argue.

      I went by a Spanish version of my middle name (Jamie, for James) when I lived in Mexico as I just got tired of hearing people butcher my first name and never remember it. Could it be the same for them?

      • There are a few issues specific to Chinese names. One is that Chinese rarely use their first (meaning Christian) names, with teachers using full names, friends using nicknames and family using “elder brother” etc. There is also the problem of asking low level students what their first name is when of course the name that comes first is their family name. The other issue is that by changing the tone or the pronunciation in other slight ways, you could easily change their name into something very rude in Chinese! Therefore when they say “My English name is Rocky” (true name!) I ask them “Do you want me to use your Chinese or English name?” and let them choose. As their level improves or they get used to being in the UK, we might discuss it as part of a lesson and give them the chance to change if they like. The problem then is that the English names really are easier to remember, especially if only one or two students have them, so it is easy to give them too much attention and talking time, as with any students with memorable names

  9. Yep Alex and Lindsay – choice is definitely the way to go. Lindsay interesting point about name butchering. I am sure there are some cases like that which would result in a decision to change it I guess. My point was that I think its important to try to at least find out that students are comfortable with the names that are being used, if they are the changed version, and have not just followed suit because this is the way things are done. The discussion in itself is interesting input in the getting to know you phase of the course! Plus all of use are capable of mastering a reasonable approximation of the pronunciation of a set of names if the will is there. If a student insists they want to be referred to by an English name (in my case, I had a Chinese student who wanted to be “Jelly”, I don’t argue) – that’s each person’s right.

  10. This is only relevant for mixed nationality groups, but a nice way to start a new class can be to write your name up on the board – explain who gave you the name and why, nicknames you’ve had, along with anything else that seems relevant to your name. And then hand the pen to a student and invite them to do the same. As the pen gets passed around, there are sometimes ‘aha’ moments as a Japanese students write up their name and the kanji characters are recognised by Korean or Chinese classmates, while I and fellow European students watch in amazement. And then hopefully someone from say Argentina steps up and explains their multiple surnames, and the wonder carries on. Only a rose could smell as sweet…

  11. I go over rosters after leaving a class and call their faces to mind as I look at their names. I do this before the next class. A few days of this and it’s done.

    But this semester I’ve got more students than usual, about 165 total in three sections of Western Civ. If the classes were a couple hours, like they sometimes are, I would have them work in small groups and walk around and memorize while they got on with their work. But this time I’ve only got 50 minute classes, so there’s not time. Hence, I have requested that students email me their picture looking like they would on a normal morning in class. The pictures have started to come in. I still have to connect them to live faces, but they will help.

    The main point: take learning names as seriously as you would when developing a syllabus or preparing a particularly difficult class.

  12. I had a colleague who used to make a note in the register of what colour watch the students were wearing, i.e. green “Swatch” or mikey mouse, or whatever, I suppose that’s ok if you’re teaching in a warm country where students come in t-shirts.
    I found that when I was teaching in Asia, a lot of students would say “call me Johnny, or Kevin” or a shortened version of their name as a very kind face saving exercise for me, something that I always appreciated.
    For some reason I’ve developed the knack of knowing every students name before the end of the first hour of class. As soon as they’re settled into their first GTKY activity, I make a point of looking at each face, saying their name, repeating it, checking with them or asking their neighbour, and repeating the list of names on a table as I go round and assist each group. I do this in the odd moment during the first hour, and then as they file out for their first break I repeat all their names, which pretty much takes them (and me!) by surprise and breaks the ice. I think they then also realise that it’s ok to be open about checking and making mistakes with names. I have to admit though, 2 weeks after the course has finished and I bump into them in the local supermarket, I’ve got no idea what the name is, but I remember the faces and the course they attended!

  13. In my Public Speaking class (I’m a college sophomore going into education) we had to play a name game. The teacher said that by the end of the class we would know the name of every person in the class. I didn’t believe him, but it worked.
    He had us sit in a circle around the entire class room. the way it worked was the person who started said Hi my name is _. the next person started with the person who went first and said “this is “jane” I am “bob”. then the third “this is Jane, Bob, and I am.” You get the idea? and we did this all the way around the room.

    • I often use a variation of this game. I ask students to say their name and an adjective/abstract noun that desribes them, or a favourite animal for kids, or a favourite band for teens, favourite food for beginners, etc. The options are nearly limitless. It helps me (and my students) not only to remember the names but also to learn a bit about the people in the group.

  14. […] length of time, get to know their names. If, like me, this is something you’re just not good at, here are some good ways to help you plan around it from Lindsay Clandfield’s excellent 6 things […]


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