Names connect us. They bring us together and personalise experiences. A student who is addressed by name will sit up and pay attention. The other benefit is that a teacher who remembers a name is showing that they care about the student. But teaching in a foreign country means students will often have names that are uncommon in a teacher’s mother tongue. They might also be required to teach multiple classes at multiple schools, making memorization that much tougher. Learning students’ names is tough, but don’t worry, I’ve got a few ideas that might just help out.

Tag, you’re it!

Name tags are a great tool to help put names to faces. Getting students to make their own colourful name tags is a great ice-breaker/warm-up activity for one of the first few lessons. I would advise against using it as part of the very first “Introduction” lesson as I generally think it’s best to keep those lessons brimming with energy, and craft activities are usually on the lower end of the energy spectrum.

Be aware of students’ ages and skill levels. Most Elementary kids don’t even learn the Roman alphabet until sixth grade and making cutesy name plates may not always appeal to too-cool-for-school High Schoolers (then again, some will love it!).

PRO TIP: Asking students to decorate their tags with specific things, such as “favourite animal” or “favourite food”, can lead directly into other activities that make use of those things. For example, an interview survey to find out the most popular animal or food in the class.

Planned Seating

In Japan, every student is assigned a desk by their home-room teacher. At the front of the class there is often a seating plan which shows where everyone is supposed to sit. This usually contains some extra info such as which club(s) each student is part of. In written Japanese there are three systems: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji is the super complex one that was derived from Chinese. There are many, many, many Kanji symbols, most of which can be read in more that one way. Most Japanese names are written in Kanji, so looking at a seating plan is going to be almost totally pointless for anyone who hasn’t done extensive studying.

The pronunciation of Kanji can also be expressed using the much simpler system of Hiragana. This can be used to break down singular Kanji symbols into multiple Hiragana symbols. Hiragana (and Katakana for that matter) has only forty-six characters, so it’s a lot easier to pick up. One approach that might be considered, if trying to read names in Japanese is a bit too tricky, is to ask the JTE to translate the seating plans into English. The problem with this approach is that JTEs are often very busy and due to the traditional sense of politeness found in many corners of the country they may still take on the task but resent the foreign teacher for it afterwards.

PRO TIP: Can’t read Japanese? Don’t want to trouble the JTE? Why not get the students to translate the seating plan for you? After all, they know their own names! Simply make a blank seating plan and pass it round during a lesson. Again remember the limitations in Elementary School.

Use ’em Or Lose ’em

Of course, the key thing to remembering names is to use them. So once the name tags or seating plans are ready, make use of them. If the name tags have been made as part of a lesson early on in the school year make it lead into some speaking activities that involve using names. Interviews are an obvious example here. Then, get involved and start using their names in context.

I like using seating plans as a way to call on students to answer questions. This is especially useful in shy classes. Give students something to read or write then call out names of students to answer questions or present what they’ve written. Once they’ve answered, or at least tried to answer, say their name again with thanks or congratulations. That way name usage is doubled.

Out and About

As well as frequently using student names in the classroom it reinforces things to use them outside of class too. At lunch-time or during club activity time it’s nice if a foreign teacher wanders the halls to mingle and play with the kids. This is a great time to try and recall those names used in class. And if one can’t remember? Just ask! I think most students understand that teachers meet tons of students every day and remembering every name is tough. The very fact that one cares enough to ask for a name shows a desire to connect.

As well as saying student names on a regular basis it’s also helpful to use written activities. Encourage students to put their names on any homework they do. If their homework tasks also include space to write personal stuff it can help a teacher connect names to personalities. Another good way to build this connection is through letter or journal writing. Give students a theme or some structure to use and then engage with them by replying to what they write.

Learning students’ names is tough. I’m really bad at it. This is mainly because I don’t use their names regularly. I spend too much time addressing the whole class or smaller groups and not enough asking for individual feedback. By learning names it really brings the class closer together and it makes the student/teacher connection that much stronger so I think it’s a worthy goal to strive for.

How are your na-morization skills? (name + memorization, right?) Let us know below.

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2 thoughts on “Learning Students’ Names

  1. Great post! I really need to work on this. I have two months in left in my current contract in Korea and I teach at an English Town, so each student only sees me twice a year! Next year, I will have the same set of students regularly and they will be middle and high school level. I feel awful when I don’t use name now, so I’m really going to work hard at it….
    Natasha recently posted…What to See in Beautiful KyotoMy Profile

    1. Twice a year?!? Wow, not surprised you can’t remember their names! So, are you changing company next year? Or will you be having the same students again, just in an older group?

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