Noticing Names


Boy writing in composition notebookIf children naturally notice the first sound in their first name, why not explicitly teach them to use all the sounds in all their names?

I was recently reading an excerpt from the research article, "Learning to Spell Phonologically: Influences of Children's Own Names," by Lan Zhang and Rebecca Treiman. The researchers looked at children's knowledge of the sound-to-letter connections within their own names to determine whether they "derive conceptual knowledge from the name that transfers to other items." In other words, if my name, Rita, has a letter representing a long-e sound, would I be better able to apply that knowledge to other words?

Some believe that children learn their names in rote form, not phonetically. This seems likely because a child often learns to write and spell his/her name before learning phonics. This was true for each of my children. I taught them each to write their name—Emma, Moira, Vinny—around the ages of three or four. However, I taught each of them how to read when they were between the ages of five and six. Clearly they learned their name spelling before they discovered the code of reading. However, given what I know about sound-to-letter correspondences, once I taught them how to read, I helped them notice both the syllables and the letter-sound match in their names.

What the researchers found when looking at over 500 children, ages 3-6 years, was that the first sound in their first name helped them spell real and nonsense words. But why stop there? If children naturally notice the first sound in their first name, why not explicitly teach them to use all the sounds in all their names? Or better still, all the sounds in all the names within their entire family? This may seem like an obvious teaching opportunity, but we rarely take full advantage of this information.

Moira and I work with a student named David. One day Moira pointed out to David that he always writes the lower-case <d> at the end of his name in the proper direction. If he knows the direction of that d, then he knows the direction of all of them! I had not drawn that parallel before, but once he realized it, he had yet another tool to help him sort his d versus b confusion!

David Signature adj.jpg

I often use the final <a> in a student's name to teach its representation of a schwa sound, as it does in my name Rita, as well as names like Anna, Carla, or my daughters Emma and Moira. I taught my son Vinny that the final y often represents a long-e sound at the end of a name or word. I helped a student named Eddie use his name to help him discriminate the short-e versus the short-i sounds, which is a common processing weakness.

Because names are so influenced by origin rather than phonetics (as is the spelling of all words), names are also a great opportunity to talk about spelling overlap. The oi in Moira is pronounced as an "or" in the Irish pronunciation (as we do), or as an "oy" in the English pronunciation, as she often heard. Or the fact that my son's grandmother always misspells his name as Vinnie rather than Vinny. Both endings represent the long-e sound. 

Your heritage may give interesting information, as well. I noticed that my Italian grandmother pronounced my name with two distinct staccato syllables: ree-tah. However, the average American pronounced it with the heavily accented first syllable: ree'-duh. When teaching, I use my name and the word pizza to help my students identify the Latin influence in English spelling: the letter i representing a long-e sound.

Use names to solidify spelling patterns. Pair your understanding with a bit of word study. Look at common misspellings of a name. Increase the likelihood that your students will "derive conceptual knowledge from [their] name that transfers to other items." Cast a wide net, too. Include their siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, and pets. Expand to street names, your city, state, and country. Names add meaning, and meaning aids memory.

Back to blog

Leave a comment