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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