When teachers and other authority figures in school constantly mispronounce students’ names, it can seriously affect their mental health and sense of identity. Names represent an individual’s identity, heritage, and culture, and taking the trouble to pronounce them correctly is one way teachers can show respect for students and their families.
“When we empower our students’ voices and honor the language and cultural assets that they bring to schools, we will actualize our vision of creating an inclusive and respectful learning environment,” said Kelly Wylie, the director of the public affairs department for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, where thousands of students and teachers have taken a pledge to respect the names and identities of the county’s students, who speak more than 60 languages.
While many students are understanding when it comes to teachers not properly pronouncing their names in the beginning of the school year, taking the initiative to properly pronounce a student’s name may affect kids much more than teachers think.
On social media, educators shared their practices for learning how to correctly pronounce students’ names ahead of the first-day roll call. Following are six tips and tricks based on what they shared:
1. Review class rosters before the first day of school
Before meeting new students during a new school year, look over rosters and get familiar with the names of the students who will be in the classroom.
“I looked up the pronunciation of a new student’s name before meeting her. I was the school librarian, and probably the 5th or 6th adult in the school that she met. When I greeted her with her name said correctly, she absolutely lit up. I could then see that she had been holding the burden of knowing that she’d have to correct yet another stranger on how to say her name (a tough Gaelic name for Canadians to say). The fact that I spent 2 minutes to Google how to say it meant so much to this 5 year old. She would always greet me with a big smile or hug for the rest of my time at that school. It is one of my best memories.”
2. Practice pronunciations
After reviewing rosters, take note of any names that are unfamiliar or might be difficult to pronounce. Although it’s not foolproof, looking up an unfamiliar name is an extra step that can prevent mispronunciation. Then practice saying the name until it sounds right.
“I look at [my] student lists multiple times and try and try to make sure I pronounce them correctly. I’ll never forget the kid whose name I pronounced correctly on day one who jumped up, hooted and hollered, came and gave me a huge bear hug and told me I was the first white teacher to ever pronounce his name correctly! Names are so important!”
3. Let students say their names first
If there are names you are unsure of as a teacher, let the whole class introduce themselves first. That way, you will hear the proper pronunciation and not have to worry about incorrectly pronouncing some of the students’ names.
“I play a game during the first lesson with each class, we stand in a circle, the first person says their name, the second says the first student’s name then their own and so on. I go last. This way the first time I hear a student’s name it is that person saying it. It is much easier to learn how to pronounce a name properly in the first place rather than have to relearn and correct a mispronounced name.”
“First day of school I ask students to pronounce for me and I write it phonetically on my paper/grade book. My sister had a difficult name and I know how it affected her.”
“As an ESL teacher, the #1 item on the first day of school is to pronounce their name correctly or ask them how they’d like it pronounced.”
4. Write out the phonetic pronunciation
After hearing the correct pronunciation of a student’s name, writing it phonetically can help the correct pronunciation stick. That way, when looking back at the attendance books, teachers will not have to guess how to pronounce students’ names if they do not remember from the first day of school.
“I always wrote the name phonetically on my attendance list and told subs to use the attendance list. They appreciated the extra help.”
“I write the names out phonetically and I tell them to gently correct me until I pronounce it right because it is important to me to do so. The kids respond with a big smile.”
5. Encourage students to correct your mispronunciations
If a student’s name is pronounced incorrectly, make sure to listen when they correct you. Be receptive to the correction and make sure that students are comfortable with correcting their teacher.
“On the first day of school I tell the kids to correct me if I mispronounce their names and then I notate it phonetically on my roster and I use that roster to take attendance the first week or so until it sticks. I also will ask if, for example, the student’s name is Nicholas, if he prefers to be called Nick, and notate that as well. It shows you care right from the start.”
“Absolutely be respectful, and get their names correct. When a student would tell me ‘it doesn’t matter,’ we would have a talk. I’d tell them it matters to me, please always correct me, and I will strive to get their name right. I had some doozies of names, but I would use it as a lesson to honor their family, and to show them respect.”
6. Turn to technology
Some teachers and experts recommended using technology as a tool for proper name pronunciation. Websites like NameDrop can also be an effective tool for proper pronunciation in the classroom.