Health Wise: Getting Their Names Right

By definition, one’s own name is the most personal of all words. When a teacher mispronounces a student’s name, the experience can be painful and even harmful to the student’s emotional and educational well-being.

Mispronounced names can add to the difficulties that English-language learners experience in classrooms, according to an Education Week article (Mitchell 2016). The article quoted Rita Kohli of the University of California, Riverside:

“If [ELLs] are encountering teachers who are not taking the time to learn their name or don’t validate who they are, it starts to create this wall.” The article went on: “[Name mispronunciation] can also hinder academic progress. Despite a national increase in the overall graduation rate, the dropout rate for foreign-born and immigrant students remains above 30 percent, three times that of U.S.-born white students.”

In addition, white teachers mispronouncing the names of students of color can represent “subtle daily insults that … support a racial and cultural hierarchy of minority inferiority,” according to a study published in Race, Ethnicity and Education (Kohli and Solórzano 2012). Regardless of why a teacher mispronounces a student’s name, such experiences can affect the child’s worldview and self-worth, the study found.

“It can result in children believing that their culture or aspects of their identity are an inconvenience or are inferior. Many participants shared that the issues they experienced with their names in school caused them a great deal of anxiety [and] shame,” Kohli and Solórzano wrote (2012). “The consequences of these subtle racial experiences are real and can have a lasting impact.”

Aggravating a lack of diversity
Part of the issue may be a lack of diversity among teachers. As a group, U.S. teachers are 82% white, according to the Department of Education (2016), but at least 350 languages are spoken in U.S. homes, according to the Census Bureau (2015). Breaking that down, more than 190 languages are spoken in New York City homes alone, the bureau reports, and 54% of Los Angeles residents ages 5 and older speak a language other than English at home.

“More than 4.8 million English learners are enrolled in America’s public schools, where currently they make up approximately 10% of the nation’s total student population,” wrote Yee Wan, an education administrator and former president of the National Association for Bilingual Education (Wan 2017).

To make your classroom welcoming, Wan wrote, “create a community where everyone is learning and saying each other’s names correctly. Simply asking the question, ‘Did I say your name correctly?’ sends the message that names and people matter.”

By mispronouncing a name, “whether you intend to or not, what you’re communicating is this: ‘Your name is different. Foreign. Weird. It’s not worth my time to get it right,’” wrote education blogger and former college instructor Jennifer Gonzalez (2014). “The best way to get students’ names right is to just ask them.”

Michael E. Bratsis is a former senior editor for KidsHealth in the Classroom (kidshealth.org/classroom).

On the web
For students: Social and emotional well-being: www.teenshealth.org/en/teens/your-mind

Pronunciation guides:
Naming conventions in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese: http://bit.ly/2nT4qJK
Pronunciation dictionary: www.forvo.com
Voice of America Pro-Nounce: http://pronounce.voanews.com
Related video: http://bit.ly/PBS-names

References
Gonzalez, J. 2014. How we pronounce student names, and why it matters. Cult of Pedagogy. www.cultofpedagogy.com/gift-of-pronunciation
Kohli, D., and G. Solórzano. 2012. Teachers, please learn our names! Racial microagressions and the K–12 classroom. Race, Ethnicity and Education 15 (4): 441–462. http://bit.ly/2nmj549
Mitchell, C. 2016. Education Week. Mispronouncing Students’ Names: A Slight That Can Cut Deep. May 10. http://bit.ly/24NZIQy
U.S. Census Bureau. 2015. Census Bureau reports at least 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes. http://bit.ly/2nLN6pl
U.S. Department of Education. 2016. The state of racial diversity in the educator workforce. http://bit.ly/1Oh5gWQ
Wan, Y. 2017. Did I say your name correctly? Strategies for creating a culture of respect. Perspectives 40 (1): 6–7. http://bit.ly/2oRmZz8

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of The 
Science Teacher
 journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

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One Comment

  1. Ms. Peters-Vinhage
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this article. Honestly, my first thought was, “Of course getting a student’s name is important, it is part of their identity.” To me, recognizing their name is one of the most important initial interactions between you and each individual student. I myself have asked students if I said their name right because you can usually see it in their face when you mispronounce it the first time, but I am aware and looking out for this. I tend to preface the first attendance call with, “If I say your name wrong, please let me know.” I call their names one at a time and when they say “here,” I look at them and if they correct me I note it in a phonetic way on my roster so I can remember it and make sure to thank them for correcting me.

    I was astonished by several statistics in this article. The first being that according to the Department of Education, 82% of teachers are white as recently as 2016. In my eyes, more and more teachers are of diverse backgrounds but this could be surprising to me for several reasons. One, I wonder if this percentage only represents K-12 public school teachers, because I feel the diversity in collegiate settings is much higher and that might be distorting my view since I was in that level of schooling most recently. The second reason I may not have noticed that most teachers are white is because I am white myself. There have been several studies on how because white people are not underrepresented in many settings (no exception in this case), white people do not notice how overwhelming the numbers are in a given setting. I want to think that I am more aware of this phenomenon, but this is making me question myself. I find myself realizing there are people reading this who are not white and are not surprised by this at all.
    The second statistic I found amazing was that the “dropout rate for the foreign-born and immigrant students remains above 30 percent, three times that of U.S-born white student.” I know there are a lot of contributing factors to this but I am linking the mispronunciation of names to feeling accepted in an environment. Not feeling welcome and/or being a part of the school community is definitely one of those factors attributed to the high drop-out rate. This makes it all the more important for me to reflect on my name learning/pronouncing practices in depth.

    Here are some thoughts on helping this problem. A great way to find out how to say a name is to ask the previous teacher. If that is not possible, another way to help alleviate some of the anxiety for both teacher and student, is to use before-school events such as “meet the teacher” nights to learn a student’s names. Since that is the first time you are meeting them, they (or their parents), will introduce them. Thus, you get a correct pronunciation of their name. Another suggestion is on that first day of school, stand at the door and introduce yourself with a handshake to each student. And lastly, having the students introduce themselves in the classroom will help everyone learn to pronounce their names. There are so many great introduction or break the ice activities that could be used or tailored to help learn to correctly say people’s name. On a quick note, I personally do not allow students to use alternative forms of a student’s name unless that is what they want to be called. I want to make sure that each student feels their name is important, and as this article so astutely pointed out, not in an inconvenience.

    It was really eye-opening to read this article because I have one of the most common names, Ashley, a predominantly white name. I only got annoyed when people didn’t know how to spell it because of the several alternatives spellings. I will now reflect more on how a student’s name is tied to their identity and why both saying it and spelling it correctly are so important. So again, thank you for posting this article.

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