Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Pronouncing Students’ Names Correctly Should Be a Big Deal

By Punita Chhabra Rice — November 15, 2017 6 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Good teachers would never want to do anything that makes a student feel ashamed or embarrassed. They would never want to do anything that leads students to distance themselves from their backgrounds. But if teachers don’t put in the necessary effort to pronounce students’ names correctly, that might be exactly what they are doing.

I come from a teaching background myself, so I understand the struggle. I taught social studies and English to about 800 diverse 7th graders for five years, so I know the struggle of having to learn, memorize, and correctly pronounce a lot of names (and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes). I recognize how arduous of a task it can be to get names right every time.

But pronunciation matters. Research has found that students’ socioemotional well-being and worldview can be negatively impacted by teachers’ failure to pronounce their names properly, and can even lead students to shy away from their own cultures and families.

This is familiar territory for many teachers. Educator Jennifer Gonzalez, the creator of the website Cult of Pedagogy, puts it best: “Mutilating someone’s name is a tiny act of bigotry.” And Adam Levine-Peres, a teacher who created the online series “Project Bronx,” suggests that mispronouncing a student’s name fails to establish an environment of trust, sends the message that perseverance is not important, and communicates disrespect.

Even the National Education Association reports that minimizing the significance of getting a name right is a kind of microaggression—an everyday act of discrimination.

Speaking From Personal Experience

I am South Asian American and spent over a decade mispronouncing my name for my own teachers to make it easier for them to say. My name is pronounced Pu-nee-tha; but for years, I said “Puh-nee-da.” I’m not alone in doing this; a lot of South Asian Americans I know offer an Americanized pronunciation of their names (Unn-jal-ee goes by “Anne-julie”), if not another name entirely (Sanket goes by “Prasad”). In spite of offering teachers what I imagined was an easier version of my name, most still pronounced it wrong (“Poo-needa?” “Paw-needa?”).

In fact, my own frustrating experiences informed the work I’m doing now: I founded an outreach organization to improve South Asian American students’ experiences in schools. When I spoke with South Asian American students about their experiences, many indicated in interviews that they didn’t feel teachers understood them or their cultures or knew how to say their names. And the importance of pronunciation goes beyond any one background or culture—it’s important for all students, no matter where they’re from.

Knowing that this issue is widespread and cuts deep doesn’t necessarily make the pronunciation task for teachers any easier. So what’s a teacher to do during preservice week, when she or he is handed a full roster of difficult-to-pronounce names—especially when they may be responsible for over 100 students?

I created a guide—thanks to my own research and experiences (and to Twitter crowdsourcing from fellow South Asian Americans and educators serving diverse populations)—with tips to help educators develop strategies for pronouncing the many diverse names they are expected to learn every year.

Practice before day one. If there are names that already look like they might be a challenge for you, try to learn how to pronounce them before you even meet students. I recommend the Pronounce Names website (which now offers an Android app) or Voice of America’s pronunciation guide to become familiar with the names of the students you will interact with on a daily basis.

Get smart. If it’s more comfortable, you can put your roster of names on an overhead projector or smartboard for the whole class to see and have each student pronounce their names for you. Practice saying them in response. Then, write them out phonetically on your own copy for future reference.

Make it private. You can privately ask students who use a Westernized pronunciation if they prefer to go by a pronunciation that their own families might use. Keep in mind, however, that many students aren’t offering the pronunciation for your benefit, but for their own comfort (it’s complicated!), so listen carefully to what they prefer. For those students who have had their own names repeatedly mispronounced, it can become preferable to offer a more pronounceable version by default—in which case, it is that much more critical to make your best effort to say it correctly.

Try a call-and-response name game. Have each student pronounce their own names as you go down the roster while other students repeat the name back (until everyone’s got it). Put whatever spin on this you’d like, but don’t set the game up so that students whose names somehow look more complicated or foreign are the only ones who have to participate.

Celebrate identities. Think about ways to celebrate your students’ names. The Santa Clara County Office of Education in San Jose, Calif., started the My Name, My Identity campaign with the mission of improving teachers’ pronunciation of student names, which, as the office states, is key for “healthy social, psychological, and educational outcomes.”

In my own social studies classes, I’ve asked students to create Coats of Arms that represent their names, family traditions, and cultural backgrounds as part of a lesson related to the Middle Ages and heraldry, and by creating a flag with symbols that represent their backgrounds during lessons related to cultures of the world. In my English classes, I’ve had students write personal essays that delve into the meaning or stories of their names at the beginning of the year.

Expand your horizons. Become familiar with common sounds and names from different cultures. This can happen naturally by purposefully consuming more diverse literature and media. In an effort to support teachers in diversifying the book lists in their own classrooms, ISAASE launched the Brown Books Project. Increasing exposure to students’ diverse experiences, cultures, and voices helps them become culturally proficient.

Be respectful and continue fine-tuning. There are three types of name-mispronouncers, according to Gonzalez: 1) those who fumble over the names, seem apologetic, and feel at fault for mispronouncing, but ultimately still fail to get the name right; 2) those who assume their own pronunciation is correct or barge ahead with their own version even after being corrected; and 3) those who recognize that getting a name correct will require effort and continue to fine-tune their pronunciation of a name as time goes on. The third group is the one you want to be in. There are a variety of complicated Anglo names that we as a collective society have figured out how to say properly (like former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and actors Renée Zellweger and Zach Galifianakis). There is no excuse not to try.

Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are acceptable, and they will happen. The important thing is to make an effort to learn from them. As any dedicated teacher knows, good teaching is not about doing everything perfectly, but about constantly striving to improve our own pedagogy and compassion for our students.

Related Tags:

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Researchers Search for Hidden Graves at Native American Boarding Schools
The bodies of more than 80 Native American children are buried at the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in central Nebraska.
6 min read
A member of a team affiliated with the National Park Service uses ground-penetrating radar in hopes of detecting what is beneath the soil while searching for over 80 Native American children buried at the former Genoa Indian Industrial School, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in Genoa, Neb. For decades the location of the student cemetery has been a mystery, lost over time after the school closed in 1931 and memories faded of the once-busy campus that sprawled over 640 acres in the tiny community of Genoa.
A researcher uses ground-penetrating radar last month to search for more than 80 Native American children buried at the site of the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in Genoa, Neb.
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Equity & Diversity More States Push Schools to Drop Native American Mascots
At states' urging, schools will drop Native American mascots, citing the harm of racist stereotypes. The changes bring logistical and political challenges.
6 min read
A high school football player in a blue helmet with an orange arrow on it tackles a player in a white and green uniform.
A player from the Westlake High School Warriors in Thousand Oaks, Calif., plays football in a helmet with an arrowhead logo. California has banned only certain Native American-themed mascots, but other states have passed broader restrictions.
Alex Gallardo
Equity & Diversity Schools Trying to Prioritize Equity Have Their Work Cut Out for Them, Survey Shows
The pandemic exacerbated pre-existing inequities in education. Practitioners and researchers offer advice on how to move forward.
5 min read
v42 16 sr equity cover intro 112322
Illustration by Chris Whetzel for Education Week