Learning Student’s Names; Top Tips for the TEFL/ESOL classroom  

In terms of classroom control and management, any TEFL/ESOL teacher will find that knowing a student’s name will give a degree of influence over their behaviour in the classroom... Conversely, not knowing the name of the student we want to speak to can leave us feeling powerless and out of control. We all know from experience that saying, ‘Stop that David’, is much more effective than shouting ‘Hey you over there!’

Learning the names of the students in our classes is one of the first challenges we meet as TEFL/ESOL teachers. In our line of teaching, we are frequently required to change classes and get to know new groups of students. Whereas regular English teachers in schools often have the comparative luxury of getting to know students in-depth over the course of a year or more, we often find ourselves teaching shorter courses in which there is a turnover of students every few months, or weeks even. In Summer Schools the turnaround of students can be even more frequent. Some TEFL/ESOL teachers will find learning new names easier than others. I admit my memory for student names is bad and might be getting worse. In my particular job, I often have to get to know several new groups of students every week so I am unashamed to say I will use any tip or trick I come across to make it easier to remember their names. I have highlighted the ones I find most useful in the paragraphs that follow.

1. Name Cards and Badges

Let’s start with one of the most obvious techniques. Ask students to write their names in large letters on both sides of an index card or folded paper and to keep this card on their desks for the first few classes. You could also ask the students to draw cartoon style pictures of themselves or to decorate their name cards in some other way. This makes the opening activity more fun and creative for the students and gives you some more visual clues to aid your memory. For younger students, or in situations where you intend to do activities which involve a lot of moving around the class, you could ask your learners to make badges instead which they can pin or stick to themselves.

2. Passports

Extend the short name card activity described above into a whole lesson activity in which the students must create passports for themselves. This lesson can be adapted according to the topic you are covering and by age or ability levels. Here students have to create their own passport style passes where their name remains the same, but they imagine they are older and have to insert other information besides a photo or picture, such as birthdate, nationality, job and vocabulary to describe distinguishing features. These can then be left on the desk or used in mingling, communication, memory or drama activities.

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3. Student Introductions

As an alternative to the suggestions above, get the students themselves to introduce each other. Give students 2-3 minutes in pairs to interview each other and discover something interesting and unusual about their partner, (they could also make up something, the funnier and more fantastic, the better). Go around the room asking students to introduce each other, allowing about 1 minute per pair. You and the other students can make notes that can be used in other activities (such as memory games) later.

4. Make your own seating plan

Ask students to sit in the same place for a few classes to help you learn their names more quickly. You can then make your own seating plan to keep on your desk. This time you can decorate or annotate the plan in any way that makes it easier for you to remember who is who. In fact, if you have a class list or register before meeting the students, it might be possible to make a seating plan before the students arrive in class, allowing you to decide where the students will sit before the lesson begins.

Annotate your classroom plan or register

When you meet the class for the first time, take some time to identify a few physical features or other noticeable traits of each student. You can use your own shorthand code to make notes on your own plan or in the margin of the register, including the correct way of pronouncing names that are unfamiliar to you.

Name focused icebreaking activities

Start the lesson off with a few short activities in which you have to refer to the students by name. For example, ask each student to think of an adjective beginning with the same letter as their name but different from any adjective that has already been taken. After once or twice around the class, invite students to ask each other questions by their name. You join in to give examples. (How old are you Clever Catherine? What’s your favourite meal Super Samuel?) You can be honest about the fact that you are doing these things to learn their names. After a few rounds of whatever you are doing tell students they can get points if you get their names wrong. Once you are fairly confident that you know their names you might tell students you are going to close your eyes for a moment while they change places. You then have to go around the class guessing everybody’s name correctly. The students generally enjoy the possibility of being able to fool the teacher!

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Learn a few names at a time

Use the time at the start or end of each lesson to get to know a few students per day in more detail. This could be by asking them to speak about themselves for a minute each or give some other form of short presentation. Alternatively, it could be an informal chat or Q&A session. During these short sessions make your own notes (perhaps on index cards) which you can take with you and learn during the break time or at home. Learn these facts in the same way you would advise students to learn new vocabulary.

Mnemonics and memory tricks

Use any mnemonic or memory techniques which have worked for you previously. These might include alliteration (Perfect Peter, Just Jessica) or associations (Agnes, quiet, wears glasses). You can also try visualisation techniques such as ‘Journeying’. Imagine a trip around the room starting from your desk. (The first desk on my left is where Merry Mario and Silly Sara sit, there is a pinboard behind them, if I continue walking straight ahead, I will come to the desk where Brave Benjamin and Pretty Paula sit under the class clock on the desk with the squeaky leg…) Each time you visualise the journey in your mind try to include more information as you learn it… (Brave Benjamin who failed the last English test, Pretty Paula who was absent on Tuesday…).

Mix it up. Make it personal

There are no tricks for remembering students’ names that will work for everybody. TEFOL/ESOL teachers are as individual as our students! Probably it is best to mix and match ideas that suit your own teaching style and the way you learn and remember best. Just like our students, some of us have better visual than auditory memories or vice versa. Hopefully, the ideas above will be helpful to some of the English Language Teachers reading this blog. We would welcome other suggestions. Please feel free to add your own tips and tricks in the comments.

Written by Larry Walder

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