Learning Names

How’s it going with learning all those names?!  If you’re in a single-sex school it’s even harder – 10 Jessicas in one room?!  How on earth do you distinguish between them all?  Here are a few tips to help you:

  • Tent cards  Bit of  an obvious one this one, but here goes anyway: A4 paper folded so it’s long and thin, pupils write their names on them and stand them on their desks.  Resist the temptation to smack the ones who write so small only they can read it.  I’ve never used this, incidentally, as I always suspected they’d swap name cards and I wouldn’t know, and once I make mistakes with names, that’s it for the rest of the year.  It also doesn’t make my memory work very hard.  So, some alternatives:
  • Seating Plan  You must have this anyway.  Keep it somewhere where you can see it when you really need it, and at the end of the school day look over it again and try to visualise the pupils.  If I have two pupils with the same first name, I put one on each side of the classroom, in alphabetical order of surname, so Joe Bloggs is on the left of the classroom, and Joe Smith on the right.
  • Use their names!  The more you use their names, the easier it gets and the more quickly you will establish positive relationships with your pupils.  Use them throughout the lesson, and as they come in through the door and out at the end.  If you see a pupil from one of your classes around the school, use their name then, too – it really tests your memory when you see them outside of your own room.
  • Ball game  This is my all-time favourite way of learning names which I learned from James Burch in 1995.  There were around 50 of us on the PGCE course and we learned everyone’s name in 10 minutes flat.  Here’s how it works:

You need a soft ball/toy/big ball of newspaper to throw around the room.  Bricks, bottles and nunchucks are best avoided.  A hot potato or a lit firework, however, would keep up the pace of the activity, although I have never tried either.  Everyone will have to say their first name, where they are from and something they like.  However, where they are from and the thing they like do not have to be true, but they must start with the same sound as their first name.  For example, I’m James, from Germany and I like jelly.  Actually, I’m not from Germany and it’s a pure coincidence that I’m still rather partial to a plate of jelly (with ice-cream, please, no custard), but the important thing is that they begin with the same sound, not necessarily the same letter as my first name.

For this to work well and not grind to an excruciating halt in this, one of your first lessons with a class as they think slowly and agonizingly of something to say, it is better to explain this first with an example or two and then give everyone 15 seconds to come up with something before you start launching your missile around the room.   Of course, no two people are allowed to like jelly or anything else, and the class is to have the most mixed of origins so if they hear someone else say that they are from where they wanted to be from, they have to come up with something else.  Their name, of course, does not change.  That would really not help.

And so, the bowling begins.  This is also a good opportunity to establish how a ball is to be thrown in class (to me, not at me), as I use a ball all the time.  It’s a very good way to establish who can speak at any one time (rather like the conch in Lord of the Flies, and as we all know, things can get almost as wild in the classroom as they did in the book).  I start it off.  I’m Mr Stubbs from Stevenage and I like stick insects.  The ball is thrown to a pupil on my left and they do the same with their own chosen bits of information.  Do everything you can to keep the pace up.  They throw the ball back to me and I continue round the classroom.  Before too long, I change my aim and go for a pupil on my right, otherwise it’s a long time before the ball gets to them.  Every so often I stop and go through everyone I’ve launched a ball at so far.  If I can’t remember their name, they tell me where they are from and what they like and that usually triggers it for me.  Once everyone has had the ball, we go round the room again very quickly with them telling me what they told me before and then I go around again and tell the whole class what their names are.  Before the end of the lesson I have another go at telling them their names.  When they come in for their next lesson I have another go and again at the end.  Between lessons I have another look at the seating plan, and when I take their books in for their first homework to be marked, again I try to visualise the pupil whose book I’m looking at.  If you take the books in in order, that’s much easier (and quicker to give back as well).  The whole thing from start to finish for a class of 30 need take no longer than 7 minutes, providing you’ve got them all to do the thinking before you start throwing the ball.

This is an amazingly effective memory technique, and I’ve always used it every year with every class.  Pupils are usually quite impressed by it, and I use it as an opportunity to tell them about how we will use different memory techniques as we learn new language which might seem unusual to them at first, but by the end they will see how effective the strategy was.  Therefore they need to trust me and pitch in with the lesson.

Of course, I do this in English before I get as far as the first lesson in the target language.  It’s usually in my second lesson (the first lesson is taken up with expectations and equipment and the first half of the second lesson usually involves finishing all that off, learning names and going through coping strategies.  The first target language lesson is lesson number 3 for me.  I know it feels like a long time to get there, but it’s worth it.  I’ve never regretted it).

Try it! See how you get on!  Even though this is fun, I’m still quite formal in my manner in this activity and I’m strict about how the ball is to be used.  I do this activity for my own benefit really, but pupils also appreciate it as an opportunity to learn their classmates’ names, particularly if they are new to the school.

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